• Apple’s Note-books: Is this the End?

    May 17th, 2006

    Call me an optimist, but I think Apple has done an excellent job transitioning its note-book computers to Intel processors. Yes, I know some of you readers remain upset that the earliest production runs of the MacBook Pro weren’t quite as reliable as you hoped. But all in all, Apple has done what some might regard as a near-impossible feat, which is to move most Macs to a totally new processor architecture within months, way ahead of what many expected when the maneuver was first announced nearly a year ago.

    People who somehow expected that Apple would shave prices in the process or totally redesign their computers will be sadly disappointed. Most models look very much like the ones they replaced, although the MacBook seems to have gotten more attention from the design point. I just wonder how many will want to pay a $200 premium to get black, even though it only offers a drive with an extra 20GB storage space.

    It’s also hard to complain about the higher purchase price, because there’s more standard equipment, such as the iSight camera, remote control and gigabit Ethernet. Surely you won’t dispute the fact that it cost more to provide a 13.3-inch display than the original 12-inch. Add to that the price of a duo core processor. At the same time, when folks go into a store to buy a new note-book and barely got $1,000 together for the purpose, will they be willing to shell out $100 more despite the obvious value for the extra money? What about cash-starved school systems, which have been major markets for the iBook?

    Well, the Apple student discount shaves $50 from the cheapest model and $100 from the rest of the MacBook line. You can save $200 on a MacBook Pro and it certainly makes the purchase more compelling, but what about educators? Is Apple going to walk into a school system and provide killer discounts to get their business? That’s a good question, and one that only Apple sales picture over the next few months will answer.

    This is not to say I have any serious problems with Apple abandoning the magic $999 level, but it can create a psychological barrier. After all, how many folks with a fixed amount of cash available are going to be willing to compare the extra features that justify Apple’s price increase? Would it have made sense to maybe provide a stripped down model, with a Core Solo processor, and perhaps a smaller hard drive, to justify a $999 price tag. Maybe ditch the camera and the remote, and make it $899, and I can see lots of buyers lining up to get one. I mean, how many of you really must have a Web cam and Front Row? I’m curious.

    But that isn’t Apple’s way. It usually won’t drop features to keep the prices low, although it’s true FireWire is now history on the iPod, where the products now are truly price competitive.

    I suppose if we give Apple the benefit of the doubt, you could properly claim that the new Intel parts are more expensive and prices will begin to come down. After all, take a look at the quiet update to the original MacBook Pro, where processor speed has gone up a notch on both models without changing the price of admission. As those chips continue to get cheaper, you can see where models will offer more value, even if they aren’t any cheaper.

    There is, of course, one more feature that some of you still require on a note-book, particularly if you live in an area where broadband isn’t available, or if it is, remains unaffordable. That’s the modem, which is now a $50 appendage. It appears Apple has decreed that dial-up is dead, even though millions of you will say otherwise. In fact, I have a relative who lives in an apartment complex close to the center of Phoenix who is stuck with a paucity of choices. Cox cable isn’t available, and the local phone company, Quest, doesn’t offer DSL in that neighborhood. I suppose he might consider satellite-based broadband, but it is overpriced for what it offers. Besides, the family member doesn’t want to waste money buying into a technology that he won’t need in a few months, when he moves his family to a new home where such luxuries will be available. So for now, he uses dial-up to get online.

    The cost of putting a modem on a circuit board inside any of these MacIntels is no more than a few dollars, and wouldn’t upset Apple’s profit margins all that much. Do they realize that, in the real world, lots of people don’t have convenient ways to acquire affordable broadband service? What if you travel to a hotel that only affords a data port on the room’s telephone for a modem, and have yet to offer DSL or wireless Internet?

    I realize that, when it comes to a small issue of this sort, I’m probably talking to myself. Apple can no doubt trot out user surveys showing only a small percentage of you have any use for a modem, and that number will decrease sharply over the next few years. Why have you pay for features you don’t need? And, no, I don’t think of it as a secret plot to separate you from another $50 of your hard-earned money.

    In any case, the talk about the new MacBook is mostly positive. Next up is the Power Mac replacement, coming a few months from now. Will it also offer a Web cam and a remote control, as that seems out of character for a professional desktop computer. What about a pair of Core Duos? Or one of the faster, meatier successors to that chip that’s expected later this year? The other question is whether there will be enough Universal applications to justify being an Intel-based desktop Mac? That’s an open question, still, but I think, aside from Adobe’s product line, most of the answers will be yes.

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