Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The gap in Apple's MacBook lineup

Apple MacBook

The white laptop on the left is the sole MacBook left in Apple's lineup, now dominated by MacBook Pros.

(Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)

Despite the litany of Apple announcements at the opening keynote speech of the company's developers' conference, what could turn out to be more interesting than the new products it named is what Apple didn't say Monday.

The bumping up of the 13-inch laptop to MacBook Pro status, and the price cuts along the MacBook Pro line certainly grabbed headlines. They did something else: they left the little $999 white MacBook as the only true MacBook in the bunch. Gone now is the option to buy a silver unibody design version of a MacBook. The rest are all MacBook Pros now, which leaves buyers with little choice if they don't want a high-end notebook from Apple.

So what gives? Apple doesn't talk about products before it's ready to, but with that subtle change it may be signaling some tantalizing possibilities for upcoming products.

CNET News Poll

MacBook's future
What will Apple do with the MacBook model?

Refresh the line with more regular MacBooks with a few changes
Introduce a new lower-cost, education-oriented notebook
Use it to introduce a new form factor, like a tablet
Ditch it entirely, and go all MacBook Pro

View results

The white MacBook, at $999, is the cheapest notebook Apple offers right now. It also looks a bit out of place, compared to the clean, silver, cut-from-a-single-block-of-aluminum design of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models. More importantly, there is a big gap in Apple's product lineup between the $299 iPhone and iPod Touch and the $999 laptop.

Apple could bridge that with the much discussed touch-screen tablet, which, of course, Apple has never actually said is in the works. If it were, the tablet could certainly make sense with the MacBook name attached, especially if its primary purpose was as a portable device for reading e-books, reviewing documents, and viewing videos.

But there is also room for a lower-cost laptop, with fewer bells and whistles aimed specifically at the education market. It would be similar to what the rest of the computer world calls a Netbook, or a mini-notebook. If Apple did make one, it would seem to represent a change in attitude toward "junky" Netbooks. But here's the thing: Apple wouldn't have to make a poor-quality mini-notebook. Historically, in the tug between features and style, and affordability, Apple usually errs on the side of features. But the company can, in fact, aim for a broader Mac market from time to time. It did so with the eMac in 2002, which lasted until 2005. That Mac desktop was aimed at students, and no one would call that a junky version of an iMac. It was however available with fewer features and a corresponding (slightly) lower price.




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