A New 3G MacBook Air On the Horizon?

Siliconrumors has posted a news item claiming that its “sources” have indicated Apple (s aapl) is preparing some new additions to its MacBook Air family of laptops.

In short, the rumors talk of an integrated 3G radio assembly, allowing connectivity to high-speed cell networks. Also touted is a solid-state drive (SSD) as standard (currently the SSD is an expensive additional option when buying a MacBook Air). Finally, they suggest a price point of between $1,300 and $1,500.

I wouldn’t ordinarily have given this much credence except for the recent apparent consensus in tech journalism reporting (Gene Munster has a LOT to answer for!) that agrees Apple’s much-discussed tablet device won’t see the light of day until 2010.

If Munster’s prediction is correct, it means that Apple must fare another year in an uncertain economic climate. Even with the anticipated next-generation iPhone due to be released this summer, a little more product diversification couldn’t hurt their bottom line. Particularly if Apple tips its hat a little more warmly in the direction of the growing netbook market.

Not Playing

Apple doesn’t make netbooks; yes, yes, we know. Tim Cook made Apple’s position very clear in April when he said:

When I look at netbooks, I see cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens. It’s just not a good consumer experience and not something we would put the Mac brand on. It’s a segment we would not choose to play in.

But sales figures don’t lie, and in fact present a very compelling picture. Earlier this year, ABIresearch released a report (summarized on Macblogz.com) forecasting netbook sales in 2009 would rise to 35 million units (compared to last year’s 10 million). Tellingly, they expect netbook sales to increase to a whopping 140 million by 2013.

ABI Research expects netbook sales to reach an astonishing 140 million units by 2013
ABI Research expects netbook sales to reach an astonishing 140 million units by 2013

So Apple doesn’t want to make netbooks. It’s happy working away on its not-so-secret tablet alternative to the netbook. But in the meantime, there’s a fast-growing demand for lightweight, ultra-portable laptops. Whether you choose to call it a netbook or not, the MacBook Air is the closest thing Apple currently offers to that category of personal computer.

A 3G-enabled, SSD’d MacBook Air wouldn’t set the world on fire, but it would offer an Apple-flavored netbook-esque experience for customers with deeper-than-average wallets. And don’t forget, they’ll offer Apple a lot of valuable lessons about netbook-friendly hardware/software ahead of the launch of their market-changing tablet next year.