Like the '08 Air, new MacBook reveals Apple's intentions

Apple's new thinner, lighter and nearly port-less MacBook is a peek at where the Cupertino, Calif. company will take its laptops, an analyst said today.

"The MacBook is an engineering showcase regarding Apple's overall push toward miniaturization over the next three to five years," said Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies. "It's an important statement about the way Apple believes the market should move."

Last week, Apple introduced the MacBook, a 12-in., 2-lb. laptop that starts at $1,299.

Bajarin pointed to several elements of the MacBook that tipped Apple's longer-term plans for its notebooks, including miniaturized logic boards -- which allowed a case even thinner than the slim line MacBook Air -- the multi-use USB-C port, and the revamped trackpad that features vibrational feedback.

"It's also driving toward wireless," said Bajarin, of the hint at a more distant future provided by the MacBook's port subtraction. "Notebooks won't have any ports, even charging will be wireless."

What Apple now has in the MacBook will migrate to other lines, just as happened with the original MacBook Air, which debuted in 2008. That laptop -- an expensive proposition at launch, with a starting price of $1,799 -- foreshadowed the slimming of other models (the business-grade MacBook Pro and the consumer-oriented iMac), the wider use of solid-state drives (SSDs), and the disappearance of an integrated optical drive, not only in Apple's products but in those that rivals designed to run Windows.

Bajarin was convinced that the same would repeat with the MacBook as guide. "It's much the same as the [original] Air was, a marvel. There was nothing like it," said Bajarin, implying that the MacBook fit that description, too.

And as with the Air, competing OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will undoubtedly copy the MacBook to craft Windows-powered alternatives aimed at the same upper-range market. But not immediately. "If only from a motherboard engineering standpoint, Apple has at least a year's lead on rivals," said Bajarin.

Others saw different similarities between the position of the MacBook Air in 2008 and the MacBook of seven years later.

"[The MacBook] is clearly a niche product, not a volume SKU, not at $1,300," said Stephen Baker, analyst with the NPD Group.

That too was said of the MacBook Air when former CEO Steve Jobs pulled it out of a manila envelope at Macworld (Jobs' unveiling starts at the 52:15 mark). Dismissed as underpowered and overpriced, the Air remained a minor player in Apple's laptop lineup for several years, arguably until at least 2010 when the company went exclusively to SSDs, shaved down the form factor and introduced an under-$1,000 11-in. model.

Further price cuts in 2014 that reduced the 11-in. notebook to under $900 accelerated the Air's prominence.

The experts also bet that the new MacBook would follow the same sales path blazed by the Air, which was initially seen as a prestige product. "They're after the heart of the executive high-end status PC," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research.

To further that, Apple for the first time will offer color choices: The traditional silver, a dark "space gray" and gold. Not coincidentally, those are the same hues used by the iPhone and iPad. "Gold is going to be a big hit in China," Bajarin predicted.

But while the analysts were generally impressed with the MacBook, some were puzzled by its positioning in Apple's portfolio. "I find the nomenclature and SKUing kind of confusing," said Baker. "I'm struggling to understand why the MacBook Air is no longer the lightest [model], and why they felt they needed another line."

Baker had a point: Until last week, the "Air" label had been used for Apple's lightest and thinnest notebooks (and iPad). The "MacBook" nameplate, meanwhile, had been unused since 2011, when it was assigned to the most basic Apple laptop, a plastic-case notebook that sold for a then-rock bottom $999.

"The 'Air' name worked well for Apple. I would have liked to see them extending the name" rather than fall back to the MacBook, said Baker.

Gottheil disagreed, saying that the lineup made sense, including the retention of the "Air' label. "They still want something at the price point of the Air," said Gottheil. "But they don't want to have a cheap 'MacBook.' Because it's one step up from the least expensive, they're segmenting their market and at the same time saying that thin and light rules."

Apple will begin selling the MacBook on April 10. It has not said whether it would take pre-orders before then.


Gregg Keizer

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