Apple’s Next MacBook: An $800 Mac for the Masses

The MacBook Air (s aapl) is a bold move forward in mobile computing. It has flash storage, and no real need for an optical drive. But Apple’s greatest achievement with the MacBook Air, and the thing that will have the strongest influence on its other notebooks, is the price.

Two Sub-$1000 Notebooks

The entry-level 11.6-inch MacBook Air, without upgrades, costs $999. That’s Apple’s second laptop under $1000, including the $999 MacBook. Offering two models that cost less than a grand provides more options for buyers looking for affordability. You no longer have only one choice from Apple if you’re looking for a sub-$1000 notebook.

The MacBook has a better processor and better battery life than the MacBook Air, but it has the same amount of RAM, same graphics card, and uses a traditional HDD instead of flash memory. Aside from a little more speed, and battery life that may or may not actually be better (Apple has new testing methods, announced last week) there isn’t much to recommend the MacBook over the air.

Apple’s entry-level consumer notebook is due for a refresh. In the past, it’s gotten an update in October alongside the rest of the Mac line, but this time around, Steve Jobs clearly wanted the focus to be firmly on the new Air. This Apple ultraportable will own the holiday shopping season.

But a new Apple MacBook is due soon, by spring 2011 at the absolute latest. And when it does arrive, it’ll be Apple’s ticket to a much broader Mac user base.

Apple Learns to Make More for Less

It may seem like Steve Jobs is being sarcastic whenever he issues one of his “We don’t know how to make a good [product x] for [price y]. When we do, we’ll let you know” decrees, but he’s actually revealing exactly how Apple pursued product development. Apple tries to hit lower price points for its products, it just doesn’t cut corners to get there, as do some of its primary competitors.

Apple has little to gain by pitting its two sub-$1000 laptops against each other. Instead, we can see a new, lower price point for the next iteration of the MacBook. Prices on Macs have been steadily dropping, as we’ve seen with the latest MacBook and MacBook Air. At this point, considering the price of components, how far Apple’s gone in terms of refining its manufacturing processes, and how much better of a negotiating position it holds with suppliers, there are few barriers to a $799 MacBook. And a sub-$800 Apple notebook will a huge hit with consumers (not to mention enterprise users) who’ve been priced out of a purchase till now.

Product Cannibalization?

But wait, what about the iPad? The most expensive iPad is $829. Won’t a cheaper MacBook mean fewer iPad sales? The answer is probably not. The sales data in Apple’s latest financials reveals that consumers look at the tablet as a supplemental device, rather than a notebook replacement. If people aren’t getting the iPad instead of a new Mac notebook, then logically, they wouldn’t buy notebook instead of an iPad, either. Especially if iPad prices fall, as some predict.

I don’t know whether Apple really will put in flash storage and take out optical drives in all of its next MacBooks. Maybe a few years from now, yes, but there are probably still a significant number of users out there who aren’t as willing to leave the past behind as prospective Air buyers are. No, the defining feature of Apple’s next MacBook will be its price tag.

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