Apple’s next MacBook Air will be the new flagship Mac

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Apple’s refresh of the MacBook Air last fall did much to improve the fortunes of the company’s ultra-slim notebook. With its next iteration, it could be getting ready to step into the spotlight as the quintessential Mac computer. That update is on the way soon, according to a new report, and I’d be surprised if we didn’t see it arrive right alongside the operating system that seems tailor-made for it: OS X Lion.

AppleInsider claims Apple has placed an order for nearly 400,000 new MacBook Airs based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge processor architecture, and that production will begin in June, according to an analyst report. The reports claim that just over half of those will be 11.6-inch models, since those are slightly more popular with consumers than their 13-inch counterparts. Both models have reportedly been successful sellers for Apple, in stark contrast to the original Air, which was seen by most as too expensive and too far ahead of the curve in terms of its hardware features.

If interest in and reviews of the new MacBook Air are any indication, we’ve caught up to the curve. But Apple has also done right by Air in terms of finding an attractive price point: The entry-level 11.6-inch model starts at just $999, on par with Apple’s other cheapest notebook, the MacBook.

The MacBook represents Apple’s past; it’s a well-designed traditional notebook that provides users looking for an alternative to Windows laptops with a solid, high-quality, OS X-based alternative. But the MacBook Air represents Apple’s future. It’s a slim, lightweight device with a futuristic design aesthetic, but more importantly, it’s a perfect partner for OS X Lion and iCloud, and like Apple said at its WWDC keynote (as enStratus CTO George Reese suggested to me it should), iCloud is the new center of the Apple universe.

When the updated MacBook Air arrives, it will most likely bring better Core i-series processors that should help it gain even more ground on more powerful Mac notebook offerings, since the current versions use Intel Core 2 Duo chips, which are two generations behind. It will also almost certainly introduce Thunderbolt ports to the Air. Thunderbolt will be a great addition to the Air, since once third-party storage device makers start putting out more compatible drives, it will help alleviate any concerns users might have about onboard storage limitations. Apple might also boost the base storage capacities this time around, as it has already quietly made improvements to the Air’s SSD drives that boost read/write speeds.

The MacBook Air has more in common with the iPad than any other of Apple’s Mac computers, and that’s why it’s such a perfect partner for the iOS-inspired OS X Lion update. I said yesterday that Lion isn’t going to play nice with older Macs, and won’t really shine to its fullest potential on computers with spinning hard disks. In fact, you could say that Lion is designed for the Air, and I think that’s exactly how Apple sees it, too.

In two years time, if not less, when you think “Mac,” you’ll think about the MacBook Air first and foremost. And that’s by design, as Apple continues to have outsized influence in the changing definition of personal computing.

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