Although Apple will sell an increasing number of MacBook Airs over the next two years, its share of the light-and-thin notebook market will fall as computer makers crank out Windows-powered competitors, an analyst said last week.
In a Dec. 13 note to clients, Brian Marshall of International Strategy & Investment Group (ISI) estimated that Apple will sell 6.3 million MacBook Air notebooks in 2011, 8.4 million in 2012 and 10.4 million of the laptops in 2013.
Apple first introduced the MacBook Air in 2008, but sales only took off after the company revamped the line and dropped prices in October 2010. The line is notable for its lightweight, thin profile, SSD (solid-state device) storage in lieu of a traditional platter hard disk drive and long-life battery.
In July 2011, Apple again refreshed the MacBook Air, adding more memory to most models and boosting performance with processors from Intel's "Sandy Bridge" line-up.
MacBook Air sales accounted for 49% of all Apple's notebook sales in the quarter that ended Sept. 30, 2011, Marshall estimated.
But even as Apple sells more MacBook Airs, its share of the total "ultrabook" market will decline.
Marshall pegged Apple's 2102 ultrabook share -- he used the term for notebooks that weigh less than three pounds, use SSD storage, have a full-sized keyboard and at least an 11-in. screen -- at approximately 46%, down from 2011's 89%. In 2013, Apple's share will fall even more, sliding to 32%.
The reason for Apple's plummeting share? Windows PC manufacturers will jump on the ultrabook bandwagon in a big way next year.
Marshall projected non-Apple OEMs' sales of ultrabooks at nearly 10 million next year, giving them an estimated 54% of the market. In 2013, the gap will widen between Apple and others, as the latter combine to sell 21.6 million machines for a 68% share.
No one Windows PC maker will beat Apple, although Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo will come closest, with estimated sales of 2.2 million and 2 million ultrabooks in 2012, and 5.4 million and 4.3 million in 2013, respectively.
Microsoft's release of Windows 8 next year will help boost non-Apple ultrabooks sales, said Marshall, although pricing will be more important than the new operating system.
"Success hinges on reaching mainstream notebook PC prices close to $700, or 30% below the base 11.6-in. MacBook Air model at $999," Marshall said in his research note.
If PC makers can bring down prices to that level, they will threaten Apple's current near-monopoly on the category.
"Whereas Apple dominates the tablet market with iPad, we think the Windows ecosystem in ultrabooks could pose a more difficult challenge for Apple than the Android ecosystem did in tablets," said Marshall.
A key clue of ultrabook trends in 2012 will appear shortly, Marshall added, pointing to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which runs Jan. 10-13, 2012, in Las Vegas. He anticipates between 30 and 50 ultrabook announcements at the trade show.
Apple's MacBook Air currently comes in two sizes -- with either 11- or 13-in. screens -- and sells for between $999 and $1,599. Reports have surfaced, however, that Apple will expand the line to include a 15-in. Air in the first quarter of 2012.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.