Ready to rumble: Apple's MacBook Air upgrade looms

By Jonny Evans

In relationships they say you can divide people into one of three roles: leader, follower and co-pilot. When it comes to the ultra-notebook market, there’s only one clear Master in the global supply chain, Apple [AAPL], and it's preparing to boldly go further with its next-generation MacBook Air.

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Get over it

Sure, CES this year was populated with devices powered by Intel’s own processor platforms which aim to take a bite at the lightweight portable market Apple invented.

Intel says we can expect 75 ultra-notebooks will be released in 2012. Some of these machines even look pretty, particularly the ones featuring designs imitatively based on the work of Sir Jony Ive. And while some CES attendees are still flying back home while kind of wishing the event featured a few more rubber-clad dancers, you must accept the dust on the event has already settled, with smartphones, television and ultra-notebooks the main three themes of the show.


Samsung
has even held the banner of “world’s thinnest ultra-notebook” for a week or so. It will lose that advantage pretty soon, with Apple expected to introduce new configurations of the MacBook Air when Intel introduces new Ivy Bridge versions of the processors used inside. This means all those D.O.A. competing machines are already heading for the obsolete, bargain basement and discount stores.

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[ABOVE: Apple's desktop and notebook sales charted across a decade. They're all up.]

No, really...

Apple is the leader, the industry follows. Fleet of foot, the company stays ahead of the pack, and with other manufacturers led by followers (ironically), that’s why MacBook Air imitators offer devices that are old before they are born.

You need features Apple’s products don’t have, an OS that’s attractive and secure, and unique selling points (iTunes, iLife, iCloud, anyone?) that promise to exceed the MacBook offering. You also need to actually deliver on those promises -- no one minds a glitch, but people fear disaster. And anyway, failure makes for terrible PR, (unless you have a sense of humor).

Delivering a perfect conjunction of temptations is why Apple’s PC market share in the US grew 21 percent in the last year, and why it now has OVER 10 percent of the US market, according to Gartner and IDC.

It won’t be too long until Apple kicks back with new model MacBook Airs, likely including a 15-inch model and all assembled within a thinner and lighter shell. Indeed, one report claims Samsung to have sold out of the flash SSD storage modules Apple uses in its current ‘books, suggesting strong seasonal sales (for which we await the company’s financial report at the end of the month) and potential product upgrades.

Closing the circle

Along with the new processors and thinner chassis, look to the recent Anobit purchase. With the MacBook Air equipped with a flash storage drives, use of the Israeli firm’s tech should boost both capacity and performance from these already zippy drives.

Then take price.

The myth that Apple’s products are more expensive is like the common cold, an irritant that just won’t go away. Sure, you can get cheaper, less well-equipped, less durable and frankly so-shoot-me deeply, deeply dull machines which may be suitable for some folks, but feature-for-feature options which match what you get in the box with the MacBook Air are at best only slightly cheaper, and usually more expensive.

Apple is a big corporation now (one which recently took a leadership position all others should imitate with its move to support human rights in its manufacturing chains), and doesn’t have to be the most expensive.

Why is Intel throwing money away?

These days it offers premium products at prices competitors (who don’t have its advantages of growing sales) just cannot match.

Intel knows this and will be subsidizing those ultrabooks with a $300 million pot -- effectively giving money away. When did Apple ever have to do this? Never. Even when the company almost collapsed, it didn’t throw cash at the problem, it threw talent: intelligence and design -- creating the industry-defining iMac. Will the others never learn? Who would you hire to co-pilot your plane?

Intel does have one idea which seems pretty interesting: hybrid ultra-notebooks equipped with touch screens. Where did we see that idea before? What does that MultiTouch trackpad on the MacBook range remind you of? And with the iOS and OS X becoming the Kray Twins of the operating system world (ie: no one messes with them), where do you think things are going?

Do you ride the wave, follow it, or be where it's going?

Consumers already sense the direction. This will be why Apple reportedly sold as many as 1.2 million MacBook Air units in its just-gone quarter. Meanwhile others saw notebook sales decline. GigaOm informs us the MacBook Air will be "the iMac of notebooks", adding:

"With both the iMac and the MacBook Air, Apple managed to successfully skate to where the puck’s going to be, and in doing so it has put itself at the fore of growth areas in overall markets (desktop and notebook PCs) that are otherwise sluggish."

So, when’s Apple preparing to lay the smack down on the ultra-notebook market?

Most recent reports have consolidated around a March release -- around the time of the introduction of the iPad 3 (or whatsoever Cupertino may choose to call its uber-fast new tablet). Component suppliers are already sending slim, trim boxes of advanced components for the new models, which will likely include the 15-inch MacBook Unicorn described above. News that Apple had developed a new and thinner design broke in July last year.

Thin, fast -- now with stamina

How thin? Really, really thin, if reports claiming to cite Intel’s CES presentation can be believed. Cult of Mac tells us Intel VP Mooly Eden revealed new battery tech which could reduce these Macs to just 6.5mm in thickness -- nearly two-thirds slimmer than the current crop. The other option would be to cram more battery into the existing unit.

In other words, the next-gen machines will either be thinner than any other similar product, will offer unbeatable battery life, or will be a compromise between those two goals. Though that’s assuming CoM is correct.

The new Macs may be equipped with Intel's quad-core Ivy Bridge i7 processor, which delivers 20 percent better CPU performance and a 60 percent improvement in graphics power.
Thinner, faster, better and in demand. With the iPad, new education plans and the iMac all seemingly in the frame, the next few weeks will be interesting for Apple-watchers.

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