Why a 15-inch MacBook Air is only a matter of time

Not one but two reports (from MacRumors and TUAW) arrived on Tuesday claiming that Apple is now working on an ultrathin 15-inch Mac notebook, with one report saying that a 17-incher is also on the way. These should be a bit more dependable than your average run-of-the-mill rumor, mainly because Apple’s whole device design trajectory says they should exist.

Apple tested the waters for an ultraslim notebook with the original MacBook Air, and at the time, it came with a lot of trade-offs. Back in early 2008, not including an optical disc drive seemed like a very bizarre move. And while the laptop’s price ($1,799) meant that it was out of range for most consumers, it still didn’t offer the muscle necessary to appeal to professionals.

But it did accomplish three important things: It put the idea of an Apple ultraportable into the minds of the notebook-buying public; it got Apple engineers to build upon the best elements from that first design, translating it into something everyone would want and many more could buy; and it kick-started Apple’s ability to negotiate for better prices on the specialized components required to make an ultrathin MacBook.

If Apple’s ultimate goal wasn’t to emulate the Air form factor across its notebook line (even if the “Pro” designation remains for 15- and 17-inch models, as TUAW says will happen), that would be a shock. Since the Air’s original introduction, optical media has become much less necessary to consumer and professional computing. And Apple’s recent decision to go with a digital-only distribution model for OS X Lion, the major update it released last week, suggests that it wants to wean users off CDs and DVDs sooner rather than later. In fact, the Mac App Store in general strongly suggests this, as did the iTunes Store before it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple had road-mapped the death of the optical drive since it figured out with the iPod that physical media is antithetical to true portability.

Apple has also shown with the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch that it knows thinner and lighter are of key importance to consumers when it comes to portable devices. That approach has served it well on the mobile side, so why not apply it to notebooks as well?

Based on conversations I’ve had with Mac users, the limitations that many professionals cite when explaining why they didn’t buy an Air are few: Small screen size, lack of ports, limited storage and discrete graphics are among them. If Apple can deliver those (and space freed up from removing the optical drive should help), then an ultrathin MacBook Pro is sure to be a hit. At this stage, the only barriers to 15- and 17-inch ultraportable Mac powerhouses are technical, and those are not barriers that prevent Apple from doing anything for very long.

Consider that the 128 GB SSD option, when it was first introduced in 2008, was a $700 upgrade, along with a faster processor on the second-gen MacBook Air. The 256 GB upgrade, along with a faster processor, now costs only an extra $450 for the new 11.6-inch MacBook Air; that’s double the storage for nearly half the price of just three years ago. Apple seems much better able to manage the cost of solid-state storage, due either to smart sourcing or falling flash prices in general, and that should translate to higher-capacity options in ultraportable Pros. Plus, if Apple decides to not go quite as slim as the Air, fitting a 2.5-inch drive shouldn’t be too difficult alongside SSD customization options. Such a compromise would likely allow Apple to stay within the current price range of the larger-screened MacBook Pros, if SSD prices make that otherwise difficult.

TUAW says we’ll see these new machines possibly before Christmas. Apple doesn’t usually release new Mac hardware past October in terms of its yearly cycle, but October actually could be the perfect time for an update to the Pro line. The Pro went longer than usual without an update last time around, but in 2008 it got an update in February and then again in October. This year we saw an update in February that introduced Thunderbolt and new processors, so an October update wouldn’t be unprecedented.

I think Apple is probably quite far along in the development of these machines, and it may only be that the company is waiting and watching to see how the updated MacBook Air fares to decide whether or not the market is ready for it to embrace a similar form factor across its entire lineup. If that’s the case, then I think chances are good that we’ll see a larger, Pro-level ultraportable before 2012.