Price points

The MacBook unveiled by Apple Tuesday appears to be loaded. It’s got a speedy Core Duo processor (either 1.83GHz or 2GHz, depending on which configuration you order) that should help it outperform both the 12-inch PowerBook and iBook models that it replaces. (We’ll know for certain once Macworld Lab puts the MacBook to the test.) It comes with a 60GB or 80GB hard drive, a built-in iSight camera, and a glossy widescreen display. In short, it sounds like the perfect complement to the MacBook Pro line.

And yet, I can’t help but feel like something’s missing. Like a low-end laptop priced at less than $1,000.

Complaining about pricing is a dicey business. You may remember that every early iteration of the iPod came with varying degrees of outcry over what Apple had the nerve to charge for a mere handheld music player. Apple responded, of course, by laughing all the way to the bank. The point: Apple’s been in business for 30 years, and, during that time, it’s gotten pretty good at figuring out what price the market is willing to bear.

And, given the specs of the models announced Tuesday, Apple is asking a fair price. Consider the low-end model: for $1,099, you get a 1.83GHz dual-core processor, a 667MHz system bus, a 60GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and the aforementioned iSight camera. All of those features are improvements upon the 1.33GHz iBook G4 that used to occupy the low-end of Apple’s laptop offerings. Other key features remain identical to what you’d find in that particular iBook configuration: the installed RAM (512MB), the optical drive (a slot-loading DVD-ROM/CD-RW Combo Drive), and so on. Given the upgrades, it’s not exactly unreasonable for Apple to charge $100 more than the $999 the iBook G4 sold for.

Except that $1,000 is a pretty significant mental barrier. And with the arrival of the MacBook, Apple finds itself without an offering on the sub-side of that figure.

I recognize that the MacBook boasts some impressive specs— really impressive specs for a compact notebook. But for a healthy chunk of the people in the market for such a laptop, price is just as important a spec. And the same folks who might happily fork over $999 for a 12-inch laptop might balk at paying $1,099 for a 13-inch model. (More than $1,099, really, since you’ll want to make sure that MacBook comes with at least 1GB of RAM—especially since the laptop’s graphics processor shares its memory with the main RAM.) There’s something about a sub-$1,000 laptop that appeals to people, and I think Apple is missing out by not offering such a model with lower-end specs—a slightly slower processor, a 40GB hard drive, whatever. Heck, why not release a low-end model with just a single-core processor? After all, Apple takes a similar approach with its Mac mini line. It seems like that strikes a nice balance between giving shoppers a lower-cost option without compromising on too many features.

I can see why Apple wants to blur some of the distinctions between its consumer and pro laptops. But in doing so, I think it runs the risk of alienating students, teachers, and consumers who’d prefer a lower price in lieu of more expansive features. As far as strategic moves go, this isn’t a colossally misguided one on Apple’s part. But it sure is puzzling.

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