We've been hearing for some time that Apple has no interest in entering the inexpensive netbook market. Apple CFO Tim Cook has remarked that the netbook is “not a segment we would choose to play in.” Steve Jobs has said something to the same effect. Now we're seeing the upshot of that decision: Gartner and IDC are reporting that Apple is falling behind its chief competitors Dell, HP, and Toshiba. In fact, IDC is predicting that Apple will come in fifth place in second-quarter US market unit shipments, with 1.21 million units sold, placing the company behind Acer, as well.

Yes, Mac shipments remain strong despite the still-lagging economy. The company sold 2.2 million of its unique stylized systems in the first quarter, even as its competitors sold netbooks like crazy. And Cook recognizes his company's success: It's “a solid performance, particularly in this environment.”

But is Apple making a mistake?

I'm thinking Apple might want to think twice about keeping away from the netbook market. This is a market that has ballooned in a sour economy, as consumers gravitate toward cheap systems. "People are focused on $600, $700 notebooks," IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell told The Associated Press. "Guess what Apple doesn't have: any notebook below $999."

Can you imagine the consumer response if Apple were to release a sub-$600 netbook? It would be overwhelming. If Apple needs anything right now, in the wake of Microsoft's surprisingly effective "Laptop Hunters" ad campaign, it's lower pricing. More and more people are balking at Apple's premium price tags, so Apple is primed to make a huge market splash by debuting a cheap alternative.

Think of it: a small, 10", lightweight device somewhere between an iPhone and a Macbook, combining the best of both products. It's got that famous multi-touch look-and-feel, and it's got that unique Mac keyboard. It's got that impressive Apple innovation, at a fraction of the cost. It can easily dock, interact, and sync with your iPhone or your iPod Touch. It would run Mac OS X, as opposed to the Linux implementations on most netbooks. It would be a consumer boon.

It sure would be fun to watch such a system's impact on the market. So come on in, Apple. The water is warm