Apple slates notebook event next Tuesday

Analysts expect new or revamped laptops, perhaps at lower prices

Apple issued invitations today for an event next Tuesday on its Cupertino, Calif., campus that will tout laptops.

"The spotlight turns to notebooks," the invitation sent to reporters read. The only other information Apple provided was its 10 a.m. PDT kickoff and driving directions to the building where the company will hold the event. (Computerworld's Seth Weintraub will be live-blogging the event on Oct. 14. Check back then for real-time updates.)

CEO Steve Jobs traditionally hosts such presentations.

Bloggers and others have been talking up an Oct. 14 event for weeks, while analysts have been expecting Apple to refresh its laptop line for much longer. After Apple focused on its iPod business during a Sept. 9 presentation in San Francisco, analysts predicted that the company would use a separate event to launch new notebooks or revamp existing models before the holiday selling season cranks up. Much of the speculation has focused on the prospect of a new design.

Rumors of lower-priced laptops from Apple picked up momentum late yesterday when the new Inquisitr blog quoted an unnamed source who claimed that the company had already sent revised price lists to its retail stores. Those prices, said Inquisitr, start at $800, nearly $300 less than the current least-expensive MacBook notebook, which costs $1,099.

"Apple's never had to go into a lower-priced mode," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. "They've never faced serious price pressure."

The worsening economic conditions, however, may have forced Apple's hand, added Gottheil. "I can see an Apple netbook," he said, referring to the smaller, lighter and lower-priced laptops that have begun to steal some market share from traditional-size portables. "But I'd still expect [Apple's] to have a premium price."

If Inquisitr's $800 price point is on the mark, Gottheil's price premium would indeed be in place; netbooks from other vendors that run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows or one of the open-source Linux distributions cost hundreds of dollars less.

Gottheil also speculated that Apple might extend its multi-touch technology -- which debuted on the MacBook Air last January -- or perhaps add TV tuners to some of its laptops.

Wall Street analysts have been trying to parse Apple's intentions since July, when company executives used the phrase "future product transition" several times to explain why they were forecasting lower profit margins in the near future.

At the time, Gottheil pegged his bet on an overhaul of the laptop line as the only move that could hit Apple's bottom line like that. "For a refresh to affect the entire company's gross margin, the product must contribute a significant percentage of Apple's revenue," he said. "The single model with the greatest revenue is the MacBook, which we estimate generated $1.3 billion in sales in [the second quarter]."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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