Have we entered the era of the netbook? For those not paying attention a netbook is an ultraportable notebook. It's also an ultra-affordable notebook most often priced below £300. In recent months the form factor has become so popular sales figures are rivalling Apple's iPhone, according to sales data.

According to the latest smartphone sales numbers from Gartner and DisplaySearch's netbook sales numbers, 4.7 million iPhones were shipped in Q3 2008 while a whopping 5.6 million netbooks were sold in the same period.

Popular netbooks include the Acer Aspire One, Asus Eee PC and models from Samsung, HP and Toshiba.

Acer Aspire One netbook

Actually, debates sparkled a couple of months ago about Apple releasing a small notebook computer, in the form of a netbook. But Apple CEO Steve Jobs seemed to think that iPhones can do the same things as netbooks, and derided their sales figures - apparently prematurely.

"We choose to be in certain segments of the market, and we choose not to be in certain segments of the market," Jobs said an October conference call with Wall Street analysts that highlighted its fiscal fourth-quarter earnings. Jobs was responding to a question about whether and when Apple would enter the netbook market.

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that," Jobs said. "But we can continue to deliver greater and greater value to those customers that we choose to serve, and there's a lot of them. And we've seen great success by focusing on certain segments of the market and not trying to be everything to everybody."

At the same time, it was clear that Jobs considers Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch as courting netbook dollars. "One of our entrants into that category, if you will, is the iPhone for browsing the Internet and doing email and all the other things that a netbook lets you do," he said. "Being connected via the cellular net wherever you are, an iPhone is a pretty good solution for that, and it fits in your pocket."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs

Repeating his categorization of the category last week as "nascent," Jobs downplayed the current market for the ultrasmall laptops. "There's, as best as we can tell, not a lot of them getting sold," he said.

In comparison, netbooks don't totally intersect with iPhone's market. Many people who don't need a fully fledged laptop are going for netbooks to serve their websurfing needs. On the other hand, many buy iPhones for the multimedia capabilities combined with a phone and for mobile email and browsing the web - things that netbooks do quite well also.

However, with netbooks selling well (Q4 figures are expected to be strong also), we might just see an Apple netbook sometime next year. Apple doesn't usually rush products to the market, and if we will see Apple's netbook, it definitely won't be cheap.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., agreed with Jobs. "For Apple, the iPhone and iPod Touch are a way to provide Web-access devices to the rest of the world," he said, referring to the popularity of netbooks outside the US. "And it prevents them from cannibalizing their MacBook lines."

Jobs, however, left the door open to a change in strategy if Apple does decide it needs to join the game. "We'll wait and see how that nascent category evolves," he said. "And we've got some pretty interesting ideas if it does evolve."

PC World