Apple execs: Yes on value, no on netbooks, maybe on tablets

During this afternoon’s conference call discussing Apple’s third quarter earnings (when the company’s iPhone and Mac sales turned out better than expected), analysts continued to press executives about whether Apple plans to enter the cheap laptop market with either netbook or tablet computers. Chief Operating OfficerTim Cook continued to be emphatic that Apple doesn’t want to sell a traditional netbook, but he danced around questions about a rumored tablet computer.

Apple provided a good segue to a discussion about cheap computers during its report on iPhone sales. Lowering the price of the iPhone 3G from $199 to $99 has paid off, the company says — Apple wouldn’t provide any specifics about how the cheaper phone sold compared to the new (and more expensive) iPhone 3GS,but it said the lower price contributed to “a significant acceleration in total unit sales.”

So if making cheaper iPhones worked out, how about some cheaper computers too? Like, say, netbooks? That’s what some analysts wondered, but Cook echoed the anti-netbook statements he made during the last earnings call.

“Our goal is not to build the most computers, it’s to build the best,” he said. “Whatever price point that we can build the best at, we will play there. At this point, we don’t see a way to build a great product for this $399, $499, this kind of price point unit.”

Another analyst took another stab at the issue, asking if Apple was looking at building “a truly mobile device” with a larger screen — while she never mentioned the word “tablet,” her meaning was clear. On this front, Cook was a lot less firm, saying that he didn’t want to rule anything out or make any product announcements. He certainly did nothing to dampen those tablet rumors — then he quickly changed the subject.

“I think most customers that are buying a portable want a full-featured notebook,” he said. “We deliver those, and deliver some incredible values.”