The gap in Apple's MacBook lineup

After Monday's announcements, there are no longer any unibody MacBooks, only MacBook Pro models. It raises questions about the future of the company's laptop lineup.

Apple MacBook
The white laptop on the left is the sole MacBook left in Apple's lineup, now dominated by MacBook Pros. Joshua Goldman/CNET

Despite the litany of Apple announcements at the opening keynote speech of the company's developers' conference, what could turn out to be more interesting than the new products it named is what Apple didn't say Monday.

The bumping up of the 13-inch laptop to MacBook Pro status , and the price cuts along the MacBook Pro line certainly grabbed headlines. They did something else: they left the little $999 white MacBook as the only true MacBook in the bunch. Gone now is the option to buy a silver unibody design version of a MacBook. The rest are all MacBook Pros now, which leaves buyers with little choice if they don't want a high-end notebook from Apple.

So what gives? Apple doesn't talk about products before it's ready to, but with that subtle change it may be signaling some tantalizing possibilities for upcoming products.

CNET News Poll

MacBook's future
What will Apple do with the MacBook model?

Refresh the line with more regular MacBooks with a few changes
Introduce a new lower-cost, education-oriented notebook
Use it to introduce a new form factor, like a tablet
Ditch it entirely, and go all MacBook Pro



View results

The white MacBook, at $999, is the cheapest notebook Apple offers right now. It also looks a bit out of place, compared to the clean, silver, cut-from-a-single-block-of-aluminum design of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models. More importantly, there is a big gap in Apple's product lineup between the $299 iPhone and iPod Touch and the $999 laptop.

Apple could bridge that with the much discussed touch-screen tablet , which, of course, Apple has never actually said is in the works. If it were, the tablet could certainly make sense with the MacBook name attached, especially if its primary purpose was as a portable device for reading e-books, reviewing documents, and viewing videos.

But there is also room for a lower-cost laptop, with fewer bells and whistles aimed specifically at the education market. It would be similar to what the rest of the computer world calls a Netbook, or a mini-notebook. If Apple did make one, it would seem to represent a change in attitude toward "junky" Netbooks. But here's the thing: Apple wouldn't have to make a poor-quality mini-notebook. Historically, in the tug between features and style, and affordability, Apple usually errs on the side of features. But the company can, in fact, aim for a broader Mac market from time to time. It did so with the eMac in 2002, which lasted until 2005. That Mac desktop was aimed at students, and no one would call that a junky version of an iMac. It was however available with fewer features and a corresponding (slightly) lower price.

Netbook sales are also getting harder to ignore: 20 million of them will ship by the end of the year, according to IDC. That's twice the number that shipped last year. Most of the models available from Asus , Acer, HP, and more recently, Dell , were also originally built for students. But the demand was such that those PC makers started selling them at retail.

With a wide price gap to fill, Apple could pursue something similar: sell a lower-priced notebook (at $700 or $800) with fewer features aimed at the education market that would also entice consumers. It's also what ended up happening with the eMac: it started out as a school-centric computer that Apple eventually made available for people to buy for their homes.

It was also hard to ignore a theme of some of the demonstrations during the WWDC keynote speech Monday: several of the companies that trooped up to the stage to show off their new applications had an educational bent to them: ScrollMotion's Josh Koppel talked about a new e-book reader and e-book store, and educational science equipment maker Pasco showed off how its app can be used to teach kids about science. As analyst Michael Gartenberg pointed out, the iPhone or iPod Touch--the only devices that are actually capable of running applications sold in the App Store--may not be the best devices to do so. How many schoolkids have iPhones, anyway?

Plus, now could be a good a time as ever to offer a lower-priced MacBook. After Monday, Apple has shown that it's more hip to the financial pressures on buyers today than we thought.

Of course, it's also entirely possible that Apple just felt like there was too much confusion associated with its laptop naming convention. The unibody MacBook and MacBook Pro had become almost identical--the basic differences could be summed up as a matter of price, a port, and a graphics card. Perhaps Apple was merely looking for a way to clear up the difference of the two models in the minds of less tech-savvy shoppers.

The Mac maker has been doing periodic events when it updates its hardware in a significant way. Last year it was in October, so we might have to wait until fall again to see what it has in store for the future of the MacBook line.

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

 

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