How a 16-inch MacBook Pro sets the table for ARM MacBooks

A $3000 Apple laptop isn’t surprising, given how Apple prices its Pro products.

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A 16-inch MacBook Pro with reduced bezels and possibly a new keyboard design is coming in October, according to a report in the Economic Daily News relayed by 9to5Mac. Most notable in this latest suggestion of Apple’s next-generation laptop is the price—EDN suggests a starting price around an eye-watering $3,000.

Should we be surprised? Apple has never been focused on being the low-price leader, and at the top end of its product range, it has been unafraid to charge a whole lot of money... especially for products bearing the name “pro.”

From power users to pros

Long after the arrival of the iMac as a low-cost consumer computer, most Mac power users still bought Power Macs. But during the Intel switch, Apple turned the Power Mac into the Mac Pro—and that was more than just a marketing change. If the Power Mac was used by power users (and yes, its name also signified that it had a PowerPC processor inside), the Mac Pro was meant to be used by pros and is priced accordingly.

Look at the Mac desktop landscape today: The iMac is so powerful (and the iMac Pro and Mac Pro so expensive) that it has absorbed most of the users who once would’ve turned their noses up at it. Apple has redefined its desktop line so that its most powerful devices are also so expensive that they don’t make sense for most users.

apple mac pro display Apple
Apple Pro Display XDR

Consider what we all learned when Apple introduced the Pro Display XDR, namely that professional markets bear no resemblance to the world inhabited by consumers (or professionals in other areas). What looks like a ridiculously expensive display to us looks like a great value to buyers in specific professional markets.

The message is that at the high end, Apple is the maker of products built for the needs of professionals—and priced accordingly. In the old days, a power user could pretend they were a “pro,” but these days if you fancy yourself a pro you will pay dearly for it.

The same story seems to be repeating itself in Apple’s laptop line now. A $3,000 laptop? Many of us will look at that price and flee to the $1,099 embrace of the MacBook Air, a really solid laptop that—let’s be honest with ourselves—offers enough power for maybe 95 percent of Mac buyers.

And many of the people in that other five percent will wince at the price, but immediately place an order for one.

It all rolls down

Now the good news: The shock and outrage (you know there will be outrage) when Apple dares to introduce a $3,000 laptop will die down and Apple will do what it always does. It will roll the improvements introduced in the 16-inch MacBook Pro down to the rest of its product line, slowly making them available at lower prices.

Consider the original Retina MacBook Pro, which was priced at $2,199, quite a lot more than the non-Retina models that were available at the same time. People paid a premium for that first model, but seven years later all of Apple’s laptops are Retina and you can buy one for as low as $1,099.

It’s also not quite as big a jump as you might think. The top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro model currently sells for $2,799. A base model 16-inch model at $2,999 would be a modest price increase for the first model in a brand-new Apple hardware generation.

It also suggests that perhaps Apple’s overall plan is to eventually roll out replacements for the 13-inch MacBook Pro (a 14-inch reduced-bezel model, maybe?)—but keeping prices $200 or so above the price of current models. I don’t love Apple’s continual ratcheting up of prices, but it’s been a trend the last few years and I expect it will continue.

Even if this is the case, it’s not hard to imagine that in 2020 we’d see a 14-inch MacBook Pro model starting at $1,699, and in 2021 perhaps the current two-port MacBook Pro will be replaced with a $1,499 model.

ARM for the rest of us?

The problem with this scenario is not that Apple apparently wants to make higher-end laptops and charge higher prices for them. It’s more that Apple’s consumer-friendly laptop line currently lacks variety, and that’s putting it mildly.

apple macbook air keyboard Apple

2019 MacBook Air

As much as I love the current-model MacBook Air, it is literally the only consumer-grade laptop Apple sells today. Apple seems to have spend the last couple of years cleaning up the mess it made in miscalculating the appeal of the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is admirable—but right now, if you don’t want to pay for a MacBook Pro, all you’re left with is the Air.

If Apple’s really going to ratchet up the price and specs of the MacBook Pro, it’s incumbent on the company to provide non-pro users with more options. All the rumors of Apple soon making a transition to Apple-designed ARM processors on the Mac actually follow from this—after all, laptops would benefit the most from the improved power efficiency of ARM processors.

Maybe the future of Mac laptops really is two-fold: A set of pricey MacBook Pros powered by Intel processors, and (ideally) more than one ARM-based laptop that will fit the budget and needs of the general buying public.

It might work, but Apple is going to need to provide more variety on the consumer side of the product line before MacBook Pro users feel comfortable in migrating en masse to the MacBook Air. As with so much of Apple’s laptop line in the last few years, this still feels like a work in progress.

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