Would a $799 MacBook Air Threaten Next-Gen Ultrabook Sales?

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Apple may launch a significantly less expensive MacBook Air to undercut sales of next-gen “ultrabook” style laptops due in the second quarter of this year. It’s just another rumor, mind you, but if it happened, the thinking is that it could frustrate Intel’s plans to push budget-priced ultrabooks in the second half of 2012.

According to DigiTimes‘ supply chain sources, the cheaper MacBook Air would launch in the third quarter of 2012 for $799, or $200 less than the current entry-level MacBook Air, an 11.6-inch model that sells for $999 and comes with a dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 2GB memory and 64GB of flash storage. (Note that DT‘s tipsters are sometimes on the money, sometimes wildly off.)

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Ultrabooks — Intel’s specification for thinner, lighter laptops — arrived in late 2011, but sales have been underwhelming, in part because of competition from tablets, in part because ultrabooks haven’t distinguished themselves from non-ultrabook alternatives, price-wise. One of the more notable exceptions is Dell’s XPS 13 ultrabook, which went on sale in February 2012 and has sold at “[a] little bit less than 3X the expected demand,” according to Dell. Of course the XPS 13 is strikingly similar to Apple’s 11.6-inch MacBook Air, wrapped in a roughly analogous aluminum shell with the same blade-like form and a lid that tapers, back to front. (Hold the 11.6-inch Air and XPS 13 beside each other with lids closed, as I did recently, and aside from logos and coloring, you’d be hard pressed to tell the two apart.)

In April, Intel said to expect ultrabook prices to fall to $699 when the back-to-school season gets underway, i.e. sometime in August. But that assumes Intel is able to convince ultrabook resellers to deliver at those price levels. And even if it is, if Apple drops its entry-level MacBook Air to $799, it would all but eliminate an ultrabook price advantage. DT‘s sources say such a move would “further postpone the time [until] ultrabooks become standardized.”

A secondary factor affecting ultrabook sales — noted by DT, but also conventional industry wisdom — will be the ramp-up to Windows 8, which isn’t due until late this year (rumor pegs its launch to sometime in October). Sales comparisons until Windows 8 arrives will thus be problematic as customers hold off buying new Windows-based laptops until after Microsoft’s latest operating system debuts.

Market researcher IDC said in April that it projects up to 40 million ultrabooks will be sold worldwide in 2012, but that report banked on ultrabook pricing and Intel’s $699 claim. If Apple introduces a $799 MacBook Air packing similar Ivy Bridge-based hardware — Intel’s new 3D-transistor chipset designed to offer significantly better performance without compromising battery life — all bets are off.

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