How Would Apple Position an 11.6-inch MacBook Air?

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We’re going to have to connect some dots on this one, but let’s explore how Apple might go about selling an 11.6-inch version of its ultraportbale MacBook Air notebook.

For starters, an analyst named Keith Bachman reportedly said in a recent research report that Apple will be announcing two new MacBook Air models at its press event next month—Apple generally holds a press event in early September to announce new iPod models and new computers for back-to-school time and as a run up to the holidays.

According to Barron’s, Bachman said, “We are not yet clear on all the specs, but supply chain checks suggest that unit shipments of the new Air products could far exceed the current Air, which we believe could suggest lower starting prices.”

Prior to Bachman’s remarks, a mid-July rumor from DigiTimes tipped a new 11.6-inch version of the MacBook Air that “will feature an even slimmer and lighter design than the previous-generation models.”

Take both rumors with a grain of salt—they could be way off—but let’s play what-if with this information and guess how Apple would handle everything.

As far as pricing this 11.6-inch MacBook Air, here’s where Apple’s current portables stack up. You’ve got the 13.3-inch MacBook at $999, two 13.3-inch MacBook Pros at $1,199 and $1,499, respectively, and two 13.3-inch MacBook Airs at $1,499 and $1,799, respectively. You’ve also got the iPad, priced between $499 and $829, which may or may not throw a wrench into things. We’ll leave the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros off the table since they’re not really in the “ultraportable” or “thin-and-light” realms.

The DigiTimes rumor mentions the use of Intel’s Core i-Series ultra low voltage processors and Bachman thinks the amount of units being readied for shipment suggests a lower starting point than the MacBook Air’s current $1,499 price tag. If you look at the average PC notebook with a Core i3 processor and an 11.6-inch screen, the price generally hovers around $600.

So Apple could probably do one of two things. It could risk cannibalizing sales of high-end iPads by pricing the 11.6-inch MacBook Air at, say, $799 or $849, or it could try to slide the machine in somewhere between the $999 MacBook and the $1,499 MacBook Pro.

The second option would risk cannibalizing sales of the MacBook and the $1,199 MacBook Pro model, and would price the machine way out of competition with comparable PCs. Apple may not care about competing with Core i3-based 11.6-inch PCs but it should care about cannibalizing sales of its own notebooks.

Which brings us back to the first option; a $799-$849 ultraportable notebook and a strong distinction (from a marketing standpoint) that notebooks and iPads are two very different classes of machines. It’d be priced competitively with comparable PCs–albeit with the requisite “Apple tax” that’s capable of fetching an extra couple hundred dollars—and wouldn’t overtly threaten sales of the $499 iPad, which a vast majority of people are likely buying over the $829 3G model anyway. That, or Steve Jobs and company could announce a price cut on iPads like they did shortly after the first iPhone came out.

Either way, the elusive Apple “netbook” priced in the $800 range could become a reality. Apple wouldn’t have to call it a netbook since it’d be running a Core i3 processor and have a decent-resolution screen (Steve Jobs has made his disdain for netbooks quite clear over the years), and it could possibly win some converts from the PC side who are looking for something more powerful and fully-featured than an iPad, yet more portable and affordable than the base-level MacBook.

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