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When US students return to their classrooms this fall, few of them will be lugging along new Apple notebooks.

That's the conclusion reached by a small survey conducted recently by consumer-electronics ecommerce website Retrevo.

Of the 300-plus students surved by Retrevo, 34 percent of laptop buyers will purchase netbooks, and 49 per cent will buy full-sized Windows-based machines.

"The majority of student laptop shoppers will not consider buying a Mac," says Renevo's press release.

The reason for the defection from Apple is a simple one, Retrevo's chief executive Vipin Jain said: "Fifty-eight per cent of [students] plan on spending less than $750.00. Only 18 per cent have a budget over $1,000.00. Netbooks are affordable - some costing only $170.00. In contrast, Apple laptops start at $949.00. At a time when many people are experiencing economic hardship, having a new Apple laptop isn’t a necessity."

The tiny size of the survey and that fact that Retrevo links to far more netbook-selling sites than it does Apple resellers colors the legitimacy of its figures, but the move to low-price netbooks is inarguable.

In May this year, IDC reported that worldwide netbook sales would top 22 million in 2009. In July it upped that estimate to 26 million. DisplaySearch in July was even more bullish for the netbook market, putting the number of 2009 sales at a cool 33 million, with US year-on-year growth of 137 per cent.

The low-price, good-enough laptop boat has sailed, and Apple's not on it.

Apple spokesfolks have repeatedly dissed the netbook market. In October last year, Steve Jobs said: "There are some customers which we chose not to serve. 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."

Job's did, however, leave the netbook door open a crack by adding: "It’s a nascent category and we’ll watch while it evolves, and we’ve got some pretty good ideas if it does evolve."

In April, Jobsian stand-in Tim Cook toed the company line. "When I look at what is being sold in the netbook space today, I see cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens... not something that we would put the Mac brand on, quite frankly. It's not a space as it exists today that we're interested in."

But Cook also hinted that Apple might someday play in the netbook space by adding: "If we find a way where we can deliver an innovative product that really makes a contribution, then we'll do that. We have some interesting ideas in the [netbook] space."

This July, however, Cook reiterated his distate for netbooks. "I think some of netbooks that are being delivered, or many of those, are very slow, they have software technology that is old, they don't have a robust computing experience, they lack horsepower, they have small displays and cramped keyboards," he said.

"And so that kind of thing I think many people will not be happy with. We're only going to play in things where we can deliver something that is very innovative and that we're very proud of."

All well and good, but it appears that Apple has little regard for the old adage that "The customer is always right."

And these days, customers - especially the proverbial starving students - are seeking low-cost computing devices that will allow them to take notes in class, check their email, write papers, and surf the web, all without straining their backpack bedecked backs as they tote them around campus.

Namely, netbooks.

It was just over a year ago when Apple edged out Dell as the laptop-of-choice among college students. The rise of the netbook may have made that victory a short-lived one.

And although rumors abound about Apple's impending netbook-substitute, the tablet/netbook/media-pad/ebook/whatever, said rumors describe a device designed more for content consumption than for writing a term paper on corporate hubris. ®

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