It’s a virtual certainty that the next generation of Apple laptops will be powered by Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge family of CPUs, and adopt a MacBook Air–style form factor across the board. The operative conundrum remaining is, aside from a release date(s), whether there will continue to be two distinct Mac notebook product families, or will Apple merge the Pro and Air laptop lines into a single category called simply: “MacBook?”
Supporting the case for the merger alternative would be a simplification of choice and possibly less confusion for potential customers — an attribute that Apple inclines toward with its products. There would also be obvious cost, logistics, and inventory streamlining advantages associated with having just one notebook product range.
Downsides would be a possible degree of compromise in terms of specification and features. For example, one would hope that a machine marketed as a serious platform for professional or power users would have upgradable RAM, which the MacBook Air currently does not. Also, there would be loss of the “professional grade” combination of cachet and substance that has always been part of the MacBook Pro experience. How important that would be is difficult to analyze. For that matter, there’s a lot of cachet attached to the MacBook Air name as well, while just plain “MacBook” has always connoted an entry–level, “consumer grade,” machine.
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It’s rumored, and I think quite likely, that it’s the end of the road for the 17-inch MacBook Pro regardless. Reportedly the high–and professional MacBook is not selling well anymore, and the world is moving toward a smaller portable computing paradigm, with the MacBook Air revolution at Apple, and Intel’s major Ultrabook push on the PC side. I’ll be sad to see the 17–incher disappear. I spent 4 years on a 17 inch PowerBook G4, and it was a delightful machine, if always feeling a bit decadent. But I have to concede that when I replaced it, I went with a 13-inch aluminum unibody MacBook, and will likely go 13-inch again with my next Mac system upgrade. The choice for me will be between Air and Pro, if that option still applies, and provided I don’t opt for a refurbished final edition of the current 13-inch MacBook Pro model.
Another virtual certainty is that there will be a thin and lightweight form factor 15 inch model. Again, the question is whether it will be a MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air, cover both bases, or just be the “New 15-inch MacBook.”
Since Apple 1st started peddling laptops 21 years ago, there has very rarely been just one product stream. Arguably, the original PowerBook 100, which was designed and built for Apple by Sony, was a distinct entity from its PowerBook 140, 145, 170, and 180 contemporaries, with a unique, more compact form factor.
The PowerBook 100 was superseded by the dockable, subcompact PowerBook Duo in 1992, a concept with a lot of appeal but selling at a premium price that limited adoption. The Duo will was made in several 68030, ’040, and PowerPC variants before finally bowing out in 1996, sold alongside the full–sized PowerBook 100, 500, and 5300 series.
Apple’s first attempt that marketing a “consumer” level laptop came with the seriously oddball and compromised PowerBook 150, sold in 1994 – ’95. In 1997, there were actually 4 different PowerBook lines being sold simultaneously, namely the PowerBooks 1400c, 2400c 3400c, and the original PowerBook G3 (3500c). However, by May, 1998, there had been a radical reversal, beginning a year in which there was only one portable Mac model family sold — the formidable PowerBook G3 Series “WallStreet,” albeit in a fairly wide range of specification variants and price points. That interval ended with the release of the original clamshell iBook G3 in July, 1999, since which Apple has always sold a “consumer” model laptop alongside its powerful PowerBook and MacBook Pro machines.
However, that was then. The portable computing landscape has shifted — radically — and laptops are no longer the brightest stars in Apple’s constellation of hardware products. Not even close. While Apple’s fiscal 2012 second quarter financial results revealed last week showed iPhone sales (35 million units) were up 88 percent and iPad sales up a stunning 151 percent (11.8 million units) over the same quarter in 2011, the company’s laptop sales were actually poorer-than-expected, logging a minuscule 2% increase in the quarter, which is merely on par with the industry’s overall average increase, according to IDC metrics, and obviously a major disappointment. For some recent historical context, in Apple’s Q1 2011 it sold 53% more notebooks than it had the year before. “I think there was some cannibalization from iPad,” Apple CEO Tim Cook is quoted observing during the quarterly earnings conference call with Wall Street. A master of understatement.
Of course Apple’s fiscal first quarter includes the Christmas holiday sales season, and in Q1 ’11 the current MacBook Air was still riding the peak of its model life trajectory wave. Fifteen months later, the Air, introduced in October, 2010, is getting a bit long in the tooth, to say nothing of the MacBook Pro which had its last major redesign way back in October, 2008, although it’s been refreshed internally several times over the years.
Aside from a lack of design freshness, one can assume that a substantial proportion of current Apple laptop users planning system upgrades in the near term are putting any move on hold until Ivy Bridge powered units become available, with the current MacBook Pro range especially expected to soon to be end-of-lifed. It’s certainly sensible and prudent strategy if one’s current laptop is still providing decent service to at least wait and see what’s coming over the next few months before committing. An exception would be for fans of the 17-inch Pro, for whom the current model is likely to be as good as it’s going to get.
As Apple’s the other three notebook screen sizes, while I can appreciate the potential advantages of simplifying the product line, I’m not sure they would justify what would be lost. On the other hand, if, as seems inevitable, a thin-and-light form factor is to be comprehensively adopted, then the point may be moot. The internal optical drive will be a goner in any case. Probably the current Pro models’ FireWire 800 port as well, which I will be sad to see disappear, although with the ascendency of the Thunderbolt I/O interface it makes rational sense to say goodbye. Hopefully, now that it’s supported natively by Ivy Bridge CPUs, Apple will finally bring USB 3.0 to the Mac as a more economical alternative to using pricey T-Bolt peripherals.
RAM upgradability — preferably user-accessible — is a non-negotiable requirement for any laptop with pro-user aspirations. Ethernet, while not a deal-breaker, should continue to be supported as well, although I’m not optimistic. Standard SSD on-board storage across the board? Quite likely I think, although my preference would be for platter hard drives to remain as a build-to-order option for users who need lots of local storage capacity and those of us who resist being hustled into the Cloud.
I’m resigned to the fact that Apple’s laptop order is changing. Like everyone else, I’ll have to wait and see how happy and satisfied I’ll be with how this all plays out.