Is it time for Apple to ditch the MacBook Air? [Friday Night Fights]

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Isn't the MacBook Air too good to go?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple could be about to kill its most popular notebook. According to reliable KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the company is planning to ditch the MacBook Air and add a 13-inch MacBook to its lineup as a replacement.

FNF-bugThe original ultraportable is starting to look a little long in the tooth. Having gone without an update for over a year, it is Apple’s only laptop without a Retina display, a Force Touch trackpad, and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity.

But is it really time to let it go, or does it just need a refresh? Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we battle it out over whether the MacBook Air has a place in Apple’s future.

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl: Let me start by saying that I love my MacBook Air. I’ve owned two since Apple introduced the product line in 2008, and while it’s not my everyday computer, they’re gorgeous machines which continue to impress. So why am I glad they’re going?

There are a few reasons. The first one is that Apple, in my view, needs to get back to basics when it comes to its product lines. Yes, I like having three different sizes of iPhone, and I can appreciate people liking three different sizes of iPad or two sizes of Apple Watch, but I think Steve Jobs was fundamentally right when, upon his return to Apple, he sliced Apple’s notebooks into the “consumer” and “pro” categories. It made things simple and cleared away a lot of the confusion that was Apple’s Macintosh lineup during the 1990s — for anyone old enough to remember them.

Simply put, the MacBook is the new MacBook Air. It’s super-slim (in fact, it’s more “airy” than the Air, which makes the MacBook Air’s name a bit nonsensical) and accomplishes a lot of what the Air set out to do — but with newer, cutting-edge tech, a far nicer display, and more. Sure, it still has its own compromises, as the MacBook Air has always done, but they’re different compromises and it’s clear that this is the consumer-end MacBook Apple’s focused on.

This leaves the MacBook Air basically having its price point as its only advantage. Now it’s certainly nice to have a computer students can afford to buy, but Apple’s always been popular with students, and I’m sure that eliminating its cheapest notebook won’t put an end to students buying Macs. Nor is Apple (or should it be) a company involved with a race to the bottom in terms of price.

PC sales are falling, and the machines that are defying the trend are the ones that are doing interesting things in the notebook space, not offering up comparatively crippled hardware at a lower price. Besides, do we really want schools or students to have their main Apple experience be an outdated, non-Retina one?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a MacBook Air fan. I’ll be sad to see Apple get rid of the name. But I don’t for a moment think that it’s wrong to do so.

Is this the last MacBook Air?
Is this the last MacBook Air?
Photo: Apple

Killian-FNFKillian Bell: I certainly understand your point about simplified product lines. But the problem Apple currently has is that if it ditches the MacBook Air, its only “consumer” notebook becomes just as expensive than the “pro” model. And yes, it might make the MacBook cheaper next year, but it’s certainly not going to start at $899 like the MacBook Air anytime soon.

Students aren’t the only ones who buy cheaper Macs, either. Will the average Joe, who just wants a laptop that runs OS X, and doesn’t necessarily care about Retina displays and fan-less architectures, want to spent an extra $400 on a MacBook? What about enterprise customers who have to buy dozens of notebooks at a time?

And it’s not just the upfront cost; almost everyone who buys a MacBook also needs various USB-C adapters to go with it, and those aren’t cheap — especially if you buy Apple’s.

As you rightly point out, PC sales are falling, which is even more of a reason to keep the more affordable MacBook Air around. Apple’s not going to boost sales by ditching the cheapest and most popular notebook in its lineup.

I will admit that the MacBook Air is starting to look a little outdated now. But let’s not forget that just because it’s the cheapest Apple laptop, it’s still not a “budget” machine. That means Apple can still afford to give it a Retina display, a Force Touch trackpad, and newer internals and still maintain excellent profit margins.

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: Without (trying) to be patronizing, I’m a few years older than you and remember Macs from the early 1990s, which were often exorbitantly high-priced. The Twentieth Anniversary Mac, for instance, cost a wallet-draining $7,499 on release, which is the equivalent of over $10,000 today. Going back further than that, the Lisa cost around $10,000 in 1983! True, these are desktops and not laptops, but my point is that Apple’s actually not quite as pricy today as it was in the past. Sure, it’s not cheap — and you can pick up a much lower-cost notebook elsewhere if you’re willing to compromise on quality — but it’s reasonably priced for what you get, in my mind.

As to your points, I’m not really sure I understand them: you admit that the MacBook Air is “starting to look a little outdated,” admit that Apple will probably lower the price of the MacBook if it does ditch the Air (which is a shrewd business move), and basically suggest the only reason to keep the Air is because some customers don’t care about the latest tech and just want to get a cheap computer?

If this was the iPhone, I’m still unsure I’d agree Apple should keep comparatively crippled hardware around just to boost market share and appeal to customers who may then be drawn into the Apple ecosystem. But I think you have even less of a point when it comes to Macs: this is a relatively small part of Apple’s business, and it’s not going to have a significant positive advantage to keep flogging old computers just because it’s easier than abandoning them.

Apple’s always been willing to cannibalize older products as they become irrelevant (“we were always happy to eat our babies,” is how one former Apple employee once memorably explained it to me), and this is just another example of that philosophy. With all due respect, I can’t help but think that this is another case of our clash as Apple fan (me) versus Android fan (you).

You’ve got to admit that what you’re suggesting comes straight out of the low-end Android OEM playbook, right?

The 12-inch MacBook is stunning, but very pricey.Yu
The 12-inch MacBook is stunning, but very pricey.Yu
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Killian-FNFKillian: The thing you’re forgetting, granddad, is that everyone wanted a PC back then. It was new and exciting technology. Now people aren’t buying them unless they really, really need them — they’re using smartphones and tablets instead. And making Macs even more expensive is only going to put even more people off.

What I’m saying is, why can’t Apple keep the MacBook Air and just update it? You seem to be suggesting its only options are to keep the “crippled hardware” (which still isn’t that bad), or drop it entirely. It’s in need of a refresh, so refresh it. Even if a Retina display and new components are added, Apple will still be making plenty of profit on it, so keep it around and make it a great entry-level notebook for students, enterprise customers, and those who don’t want fancier designs and USB-C adapters.

I’m glad you mention the iPhone, because that’s a perfect example of why it’s a good idea to keep old technology around. Apple didn’t drop the iPhone 5s until March when it introduced the iPhone SE, at which point the iPhone 5s was over two years old. It didn’t drop the iPhone 4s until it was three years old. It clearly recognizes why it’s good to have more affordable options in its lineup — even if those options aren’t as spectacular as the others.

This tells me Apple isn’t willing to cannibalize all products as they get old. If they continue to sell well — like the MacBook Air is — it will hold onto them until it’s no longer worth it. The MacBook Air has plenty of life left in it yet. Yes, it needs refreshing, but with updated specifications, it will continue to be a great seller.

I don’t know what Android has to do with any of this, so I won’t waste my energy replying to that.

Let’s hand this one over to the readers now, because you’re clearly out of ideas. Do you think Apple should ditch the MacBook Air? Or should it just update it?

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?