Read My Lips: Apple Is a Netbook Maker - Bits Blog - NYTimes.com - Sent Using Google Toolbar

Read My Lips: Apple Is a Netbook Maker - Bits Blog - NYTimes.com

Read My Lips: Apple Is a Netbook Maker

By John Markoff

(UPDATED 10/22 1:20 p.m. to clarify a source)

Steven P. Jobs appeared as a surprise "special guest" on Apple's earnings call Tuesday afternoon.

Mr. Jobs, Apple's chief executive, has not taken part in one of the company's conference calls with analysts since 2000, according to the company. His appearance served to underscore a number of points.

First, he sounded healthy, intense and on top of his game. Second, his statements about Apple and the economy suggest that the company may do much better at surviving a deep downturn than the rest of the consumer electronics industry. (No transcript is available yet but Silicon Alley Insider live-blogged the call.)

Mr. Jobs noted in particular the loyalty of Apple customers and suggested that while they might delay purchases, it was unlikely they would leave the computer maker for competitors.

Mr. Jobs also said that Apple has $25 billion in the bank and no debt, and the company plans to use its capital in creative ways to innovate and steal market share. He appeared to dismiss the idea that Apple might use the cash to buy back its stock and give a windfall to shareholders that way.

When a financial analyst said that Apple currently had enough money in the bank to hire all of the engineers in Silicon Valley for a lifetime, Mr. Jobs responded that the suggestion was a good idea.

But the most fun on the conference call came when he parried analysts' questions about new product areas that Apple might or might not enter. A recurring question among Apple watchers for decades has been, "When is Apple going to introduce a low-cost computer?

Mr. Jobs answered that decades-old complaint by stating, "We don't know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk." He argued instead that the company's mission was to add more value for customers at current price points.

However, he gave a more nuanced answer to the question of whether Apple plans to jump into the "nascent" market for netbooks, essentially restating his comments on the question from last week at the Macbook introduction in Cupertino by saying the company was taking a wait-and-see attitude.

At the same time, he noted that the company already had a powerful entry in the category: the iPhone. (By that standard, Apple is already the dominant netbook manufacturer by orders of magnitude.)

Mr. Jobs also said the company "had some pretty interesting" ideas if the category continues to evolve.

UPDATED: That would seem to confirm findings that a search engine company shared with me on condition that I not reveal its name: The company spotted Web visits from an unannounced Apple product with a display somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook. Is it the iPhone 3.0 or the NetMac 1.0?