The Polycarbonate-Aluminium Boundary

There's something funny in Apple's product line: The Polycarbonate-Aluminium Boundary.

In the old days it was very clear how to buy a portable Mac: if you wanted a cheap option, you took the plastic MacBook for £699. If you wanted a fast portable with a large screen and robust construction, you got the 15" MacBook Pro at around £1199 and upwards. If you prized lightness above all other considerations (including, sometimes, such things as having both cores working) you got the MacBook Air.

Then the ghost of 1994's product line started to rattle its chains. Apple lost, for just a few months, that laser-like focus on always having an unequivocal answer to the question "which Mac should I get?".

Apple made the MacBook aluminium, eviscerated the FireWire port, the world went a bit mental. Oh, and the price went up a bit. The price ended up nestling just exactly where you would expect a 13" MacBook Pro to sit in the line. Confusion reigned.

Today, despite the return of a unibody-in-plastic MacBook last October, the line between MacBook and MacBook Pro is possibly more confused than ever.

Today, in the Apple Store, you can get:

  • MacBook 2.26GHz, 2GB RAM, 250GB hard disk for £816
  • MacBook Pro 13", 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB HD for £918

That's a difference of just £102 to move up to a "pro" machine with a much more attractive metal body and FireWire. Yes, the drive space is smaller but I'm not sure that many people care at this level in the market.

It's no longer at all clear that the MacBook is the "affordable" portable and the MacBook Pro is the "professional" portable.

When and why does a customer buy a MacBook as opposed to a 13" MacBook Pro?

Apple has never carried an entire product line just to make another one look good. Certainly, there have been particular configurations of a model that look like they're intended to make the next-step upsell look great (any Mac with 2GB of RAM, for example) but never a whole product line.

The result of the plastic-to-metal-and-back-to-new-plastic transition has been that the entry-level price for Apple portables is higher in the UK than it has been in several years.

All of this leads me to suspect two things:

The plastic MacBook is on its way out. It's a better plastic MacBook, but it's not very nice in comparison with the 13" MacBook Pro. Doubly so, now that there isn't a £400+ price gap with the "pro" machines as in the days when MacBook Pros were 15" and up.

Today's new device will represent a simpler, cheaper computing device for those people that previously would have bought the entry level MacBook. Hard as I find it to believe, there does seem to be a significant constituency of people for whom almost the only thing they want a computer for is "going on the internet".

Even the MacBook was overkill for those people and even £699 was often a bit of a stretch for just doing that task. £819 seems like crazy money to them. NetBooks are pretty terrible in almost every way but, as their name suggests, they do run a web browser perfectly well and they do it for £200-300, not £700.

[Update]

The unibody polycarbonate MacBook only came out in October 2009, so why do that if it's only for three months? I have three possible explanations:

  1. Least likely, it was a very elaborate rehearsal for the manufacturing techniques that will be used for the tablet.
  2. The tablet won't be out until June, which would give the u-poly MacBook a nine month lifespan.
  3. The u-poly MacBook will live on as an education-only product for a year or so until the tablet's software ecosystem catches up.