The New MacBook Air Will Be The Death Of Either The MacBook Or 13-inch MacBook Pro

Apple’s consumer strategy has always been centered around clear, concise choices. The new, less expensive MacBook Air seems to change that. The line between consumer and pro, between entry level and top-tier is gone and it means that something is going to change in the Apple line-up sooner than later.

Let’s look at the pricing. The new MacBook Air starts out at just $999. That’s the same entry level price as the white MacBook, ostensibly Apple’s “cheap” computer. Sure, the specs are slightly different with the MacBook blowing away nearly all of the base-level MacBook Air’s specs. But it’s a mere $300 jump up to the least expensive 13-inch MacBook Air and things level out a bit more. The MacBook still beats it in raw processing power and storage space, but Apple has never been about hardware specs anyway. It’s about the entire experience and the MacBook Air will quickly overtake the MacBook in this department.

For the longest time Apple had two computer lines: consumer and pro. Students would buy MacBooks and iMacs while professionals and wannabes would drain their funds for MacBook Pros and Mac Pros. This is the way it’s been for years. There were just a few products with a distinct line separating their target demographic.

That line is nearly gone at least regarding Apple’s three notebook groupings. Now, there’s a 13-inch notebook option at $999, $1,199, and $1,299. That move takes a page out of HP’s playbook, a company notorious for flooding the the market with lots of options with similar prices. There’s the $999 MacBook with a 10-hour battery life, Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of RAM and 250GB hard drive followed up by the nearly identical Macbook Pro with 4GB of RAM and unibody construction MacBook Pro. Lastly, there’s the mid-level MacBook Air with a 7-hour battery, slightly slower Core 2 Duo CPU and 128GB flash storage.

That’s a lot of options at nearly the same price point. And something’s gotta give. I think someone is getting cut from the team.

The MacBook is classic Apple. It’s everything Apple was about, but nearly overnight, Apple went from the hipster computer company to mainstream. Apple doesn’t seem to want to go back to the old days, either. Even the once-quirky iMac is now a straight-laced business type. Maybe Apple wants to totally shed its old image and cutting the MacBook would quickly do that.

But then there’s the somewhat new 13-inch MacBook Pro. It’s almost the same thing as the $999 MacBook, but costs $200 more for the aluminum body and 4GB of RAM. They both have the same 10-hour battery rating, Core 2 Duo CPU, and screen. It’s existence has somewhat always been a puzzle. A few years back, Apple was selling a 12-inch iBook G4 and 12-inch PowerBook G4. This thing, called the TiBook, was canned when the equally powerful MacBook was introduced. Even the updated, unibody 13-inch MacBook could hit the chopping block again if Apple wants to strengthen the line between product classes.

Clearly the MacBook Air isn’t going to get canceled. However, its future might be the most unpredictable. Steve Jobs made a rather big deal about it yesterday at Apple’s Back To The Mac Event and even pulled out his iconic “one more thing” line for its announcement. He went on for a few minutes about how Apple feels that the Air is what would happen if the iPad was made into notebook form. That alone says a lot about the MacBook Air in that it’s truly part of Apple’s strategy moving forward. In fact, it’s more Apple per se than even the classic-white MacBook.

The iPhone 4 is tiny. The iMac is surprisingly slender. Even the Mac Mini hit the gym. Apple is about sleek product and sharp lines, not white plastic anymore. But that’s not what defines Apple anymore. Nope, Apple’s manufacturing process is its secret sauce and the MacBook Air is just the latest in a long line of products that share hard parts and manufacturing techniques to squeak extra revenue.

Look at the new MacBook Air: there’s nothing to it hardware-wise. The components are generations old. The original Core 2 Duo processors were introduced way back in 2006.  Even the 128GB and the 256GB SSD options aren’t exactly top-of-the-line options in late 2010. Apple simply improved on the motherboard design that was introduced with the original Air.

This is what Apple does best though. They build ecosystems — and user experiences — around products that generate revenue. Chances are when iSuppli breaks down the new MacBook Air, it will report some crazy-low number that, while it probably doesn’t take into account the R&D cost of the thin unibody construction, will show that the MacBook Air could be Apple’s entry level machine replacing the MacBook altogether and still make Apple some money.

Even still, it’s hard to say that the classic MacBook’s days are numbered. It’s still a great entry-level Mac, offering modest computing performance in a compact package and it shares a lot of the same internal components as its 13-inch MBP counterpart, making it attractive to the bean counters. However, the MacBook Air’s value will only improve as SSD’s drop in cost and CPU chips increase in efficiency. Perhaps Apple is leaving it up to the market.  If the Air eats up MacBook sales — or the 13-inch MacBook Pro comes in third — it only makes sense to cut the underperforming option and replace it with the fan favorite. Besides, more sales means margins that can support a lower price.

Apple’s notebook line will be trimmed. There’s no question about that. Apple’s not about to change course after years of profitable tactics. However, it might take some time to see how the market reacts to the Air and the cost of supplies drop. But don’t put it above Apple to replace a more-power machine such as the MacBook with the MacBook Air. It’s a no-brainer if the overall experience is superior.