New MacBook Airs and the circle of life

An AppleInsider report by Kasper Jade Friday quotes Concord Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo as claiming that new MacBook Air models are on the horizon.

Kuo says his Asian manufacturing sources suggest that the new MacBook Airs would likely be available in June, and would feature an upgrade from the relatively slow Core 2 Duo processors in the current Airs with Intel’s Sandy Bridge chipset as well as integrated Intel graphics and the Thunderbolt connectivity technology.

As a long-time MacBook Air fan and the current user of an 11-inch model, I’m excited by the report. Any time you can make the MacBook Air faster (in this case by replacing the two-year-old processors currently in there with cutting-edge low-power Core i5 or i7 chips) and boost graphics performance, I’m happy to hear about it. By all accounts, this current generation of MacBook Air has been a big success for Apple, and a new generation of systems should continue the growth of the Air as a major part of the MacBook line.

There is one thing in the report that struck me as odd, though. It says:

Within their first quarter of availability… consumers reportedly chose the new MacBook Airs at a one-to-two ratio to the company’s more established MacBook Pro offerings, making for one of the company’s most successful Mac product launches ever.

However, shipments of the Airs declined 51 percent sequentially during the first calendar quarter of 2011—including a 40 percent month-over-month decline in February—as Apple introduced new MacBook Pros that caught consumers’ eyes.

Every product has a life cycle. There’s enthusiasm and pent-up demand at first, so initial sales are always brisk. Then they tail off as demand is satisfied. In the first quarter the Airs were available, they were a hot new product. The MacBook Air hadn't undergone a major revision since its introduction nearly three years before, and the 11-inch model was an entirely new product. Meanwhile, the MacBook Pros hadn't been refreshed in 10 months and hadn't had a major update for two years. Is it a surprise that the new Air models managed to sell well during their first quarter of existence? And is it surprising that they then didn’t sell as well in early 2011, later in their lifespan?

Then there’s the argument that Air shipments declined because the new MacBook Pros “caught consumers’ eyes.” The New MacBook Pros did really well because they were new and there was lots of enthusiasm and pent-up demand. I don’t think the existence of new MacBook Pros soured laptop buyers on the MacBook Air. I think the MacBook Air aged naturally, and meanwhile the new MacBook Pros enjoyed their first quarter as a shiny new product.

I suppose there may be some users who were on the fence about which Mac laptop to buy, and some people just wander into their local Apple Store and pick a laptop. but I have a hard time believing it was a large enough number to show up in sales figures to this extent. Perhaps someone considering a 13-inch Air might prefer a (heavier, more expensive) Pro, but would they do it to a greater degree than they would have a month before, with the older models? It’s arguable, I suppose, but I just don’t see it.

More likely, this is an example of looking at the natural life cycles of two different tech products and seeing a story that isn't there. The new MacBook Pros didn’t murder the MacBook Air’s sales figures, and if new MacBook Airs arrive in June, they won’t avenge themselves on the decreasing sales of the MacBook Pros.

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