I mentioned this crazy scheme in our last podcast, but now that more blurry pics of an anticipated MacBook Pro refresh have resurfaced, it’s a good time to rehash. I’ve been wondering if and how Apple will get into the netbook market. With millions of netbooks selling this year, I don’t think it’s a market they can afford to ignore. Others like HP, Dell and Lenovo agree or they wouldn’t have jumped in with low-priced, small notebook computers. But Apple has a far more limited product line than the PC manufacturers, so how can they fit another device in the mix? They can’t, but they still will. Here’s why I think so and how I expect they’ll do it.
1. There are plenty of various Photoshopped images of new MacBook Pros floating around out there. We can debate whether or not these are real or simply renderings of what folks would like to see, but one thing we can’t deny is that the current MacBook Pro is due for a refresh. Newer and more efficient CPU technologies are available for starters, plus it’s simply time. Apple keeps to a nearly predictable upgrade schedule and they’re overdue by historical standards. Nobody’s going out on a limb here by saying that the MacBook Pro line will be revamped soon…. and that’s key to the netbook strategy, so hold that thought.2. “Apple already has the MacBook Air and small, 13.3-inch MacBooks, so how can they add a netbook?” Glad you asked because I suspect the current MacBooks get absorbed into the Pro line. There are several differences between the current MacBooks and MacBook Pros, but one of the main differentiators is in the graphics department. The Pros have dedicated graphics, while the MacBooks (and the Air, for that matter) use integrated graphics. If HP can fit the NVIDIA GeForce 9300M GS with 512 MB in their new 13.3-inch Pavilion, then you can bet that a new MacBook can handle it too. That’s why I think the MacBooks get added to the Pro line. Still with me?3. So if I’m correct up to now, there IS no more MacBook, right? That leaves the MacBook name wide open for a 10-inch MacBook, i.e.; the Apple netbook. Having used OS X on a seven-inch display and now a ten-inch one, I can’t see Apple going with anything smaller for the time being. To be honest, the experience can be a little challenging on the 1024×600 display of my MSI Wind. I have to auto-hide the dock for starters, something I never do on my 15-inch MacBook Pro. HP was able to cram a 1280×768 resolution in the 8.9-inch display of the Mini-note and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple go with the higher res in a 10-inch MacBook. Right off the bat, it would add another difference between an Apple netbook and the vast majority of the currently available competitors.Where does that leave the MacBook Air? Good question, but I think the Air was more of an attempt to test and learn about the market. I don’t see it going away just yet, but I’d be surprised to see if it gets more than one refresh. Folks that want to be mobile but don’t want to sacrifice too much from current Apple notebooks will continue to be happy with the Air and the manilla envelope it fits in.From a cost standpoint, my thought holds true to the $800 starting price point I mentioned in the past. Maybe that’s a pie-in the-sky idea and we see the new, smaller MacBook start at $1,000. The 13.3-inch unit will surely move up in price under this scenario, closer to a $1,500 price tag. One might ask why Apple would even consider selling a notebook at $800 to $1,000 when it might cut into sales of their higher priced notebooks that can run well north of $2,000. I’d argue that you’re making my point. Low-priced netbooks sales as a whole are growing far faster than Apple’s notebook line. We’re talking about a market that has barely existed for a year but will enjoy over 10 million sales. For basic mobile computing, netbooks offer 80% of the functionality of a full-featured notebook, but at $400 or so can be had for 20% of a high-end MacBook Pro.Let’s see what happens to the 13.3-inch MacBook. If it stays put in the current line, then I’m all wet behind the ears. But if it moves up to join the big boys in the Pro line, I think my days of struggling with WiFi support on OS X and my MSI Wind netbook are over.