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Apple's future in mobile computing

Apple has unified the MacBook and MacBook Pro product lines. Is it making room for a new family of lower-priced consumer systems?

Apple's announcements this week expanded the range of the MacBook Pro product line, which now covers starting prices from $1,199 to $2,499.

In effect, the Pro line has absorbed the aluminum-cased models from the MacBook line, which is now reduced to a single model with a white plastic case, a look that debuted over three years ago.

Apple's 13" MacBook Pro
Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro. Apple

Some "Pro" models now have features that used to be hallmarks of the basic MacBook notebooks: integrated graphics and no ExpressCard slot. I think of these as consumer-oriented choices, and I'll throw in the standard glossy screen finish on the 13-inch and 15-inch models. A glossy screen looks better for movies, but it's unacceptable for some professional users.

Consumers should be happy to migrate to the MacBook Pro line, since they can now get features and options never before offered on MacBooks: FireWire 800, for example, and support for up to 8GB of DRAM.

Professional users, on the other hand, are now reduced to just one good choice: the 17-inch MacBook Pro, which includes an ExpressCard slot and can be ordered with an antiglare screen.

So in a way, Apple's newly expanded notebook line is narrower than it used to be -- there's room both above and below, especially if the plastic MacBook is allowed to fade gracefully into history.

At this point it's worth observing that Apple didn't announce a new tablet computer or netbook at WWDC, in spite of widespread rumors that such devices are under development. Is the merger of the MacBook and MacBook Pro product lines Apple's way of preparing the way for a new line of low-cost machines?

In fact, there could be room for two new lines: systems based on Intel processors and Nvidia chipsets like Apple's notebooks, and less capable but less expensive systems based on the ARM platform used in the iPhone and iPod touch. But I think there will only be one, for two reasons: performance and price.

Apple's new iPhone 3G S
Apple's new iPhone 3G S. Apple

Apple says the iPhone 3G S is "up to 2X faster" than the regular 3G iPhone, though the company hasn't said whether the improvement comes from hardware, software, or both. Regardless, the performance of the iPhone platform is shading up into the low end of PC territory, certainly not far from the levels we associate with the cheapest netbooks.

The iPhone is also priced higher than cheap notebooks: $699 for the 32GB version of the 3G S when purchased without a service contract (what AT&T calls the "retail price"). Even the 32GB iPod touch costs $399, much of the difference due to the absence of the iPhone's 3G, GPS, and digital-compass circuitry.

These prices aren't so high because the iPhone and iPod touch are intrinsically expensive; it's because Apple uses premium parts, spends a lot of money on advertising, and expects to make a good profit on its sales. None of these concerns apply to low-end PCs, which have been heavily commoditized.

If Apple offered a tablet designed like a large iPod touch, it would have to be priced above the iPod touch. With all the iPhone's extra features, the retail price would have to be $799 or more. That wouldn't leave much room for yet another layer of Intel-based systems under the existing MacBook Pro line.

What might appear at the $999 price point after Apple retires the old plastic MacBook, I can't guess. That would be a high price for an ARM-based system, but cheap for a machine sharing the unibody aluminum construction of the MacBook Pro family. I suppose I'll just have to wait and be surprised.