Should Apple release a budget-priced MacBook Air? We debate, you decide

macbook air 2013 review lid open angle 2 1500x991

Apple specializes in making premium products with equally premium price tags, but this is news to no one. I’ve honestly thought for years that the only thing preventing Apple from assuming a dominant position in the computing market is its apparent unwillingness to make a notebook or a desktop that is priced in the $500 – $700 range.

This came up during a conversation with my colleague, DT contributor Matt Safford, and he has an opposing viewpoint. What initially started out as a discussion about how PC makers are making snazzy (but unnecessary) hybrid laptops turned into a back and forth on why Apple should, shouldn’t and/or won’t make a budget-priced MacBook Air.

From there, lightning flashed outside, neighborhood dogs started howling at the moon, and all the birds outside started to flee to safety as our nerd brains began to clash. It was so on.

Question: Should Apple release a budget-priced MacBook Air?

konrad-krawczykKonrad Krawczyk, Computing Editor at DT

If Computex 2014 told us anything, it’s that PC OEMs still don’t quite get it. They invest too much time and money into building hybrids and other convertible laptops. For instance, at this year’s show, Toshiba revealed a refresh of the Toshiba Kirabook, which costs $2,600.

Devices like this make us wonder who would want such things. Sure, some get sold, but this is part of the problem that the PC market has suffered through for years: forcing supposed “innovations” on a public that doesn’t need them, while avoiding more sensible paths, like making laptops and desktops that are simply cheap, well built, and just plain work.

toshiba kirabook l93

Toshiba Kirabook L93

After all, a recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that Apple has roughly $160 billion in cash and assets in its pockets. So, if you don’t take a risk when you have that much money in the bank, when do you take a risk, if ever?

The time is now for Apple to make a budget-priced MacBook Air in the $600 to $700 range. With all the money that Apple is sitting on, they totally could take a great swing at this. I’m pretty sure that whoever is buying a $500 Lenovo Yoga 2 would consider getting a $500 – $700 Air. That’s coming from a life-long Windows guy.

matt-saffordMatt Safford, Contributor at DT

You’re right, the PC industry has been making missteps with convertibles and hybrids. They’re lucky too, because the only reason Apple isn’t making a budget-priced MacBook Air is because they don’t have to. They make more money selling $1,000 Airs than they would selling $600 ones. Since they’re selling them, there’s no reason to step down. Make a $600 Air, and a lot fewer people are gonna buy a $1,000 Air. Besides, they probably make more from one $1,000 Air than they would selling three $600 Airs.

Apple has zero experience in how to design and sell a budget product.

Apple is making enough money being a prestige brand that they probably don’t want to risk tarnishing that to branch into new markets with lower margins. They don’t want to associate their brand with cheap, as that wouldn’t be as easy to repair. The Apple loyalists would absolutely balk at the very idea of that.

The other argument is that basically, Apple has zero experience in how to design and sell a budget product. Yet, they’re the best at selling overpriced prestige products. So that’s what they do. It’s a market they own and one with much higher margins. If they want to jump into budget devices, they should just buy a company like Acer, gut it, and infuse their own designs into low-priced products.

Final remarks: Konrad

I’m just surprised that Apple hasn’t displayed the guts to make a premium Air, and sell it for relatively cheap. I mean, who isn’t going to consider buying a $600 Air, and that’s coming from a Windows guy. Apple can try doing this the right way, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. They have the resources to at least take a risk. That’s what you do when you’re leading 10 – 2, if I may be permitted a sports analogy.

Besides, I think they would make it up by being more accessible to lower budgets. As for not wanting to tarnish their image as a prestige brand, they already did that with the 5C! That thing looked like it was wearing Crocs. I mean, a budget product is going to be a compromise of course, but you have to know where to make those compromises.

Apple iPhone 5C

Apple iPhone 5C

As for collaborating with Acer, that’s actually who I thought of. Not buying them, but maybe working with them somehow. This reminds me of that kinda-sorta almost partnership between Sony and Apple way back.

I’m with you on Apple loyalists sneering at a budget-priced MacBook Air, but that’s kinda my point. A significant portion of their fanbase is so loyal that a budget Air experiment just might work; if it’s not half-baked, that is. Macolytes might balk, but what are they gonna do, use Windows? If anything, they’ll just wait it out until the next release. They won’t move to another platform.

Final remarks: Matt

Yeah, the iPhone 5C might have been Apple’s foray into the budget space, but it wasn’t THAT much cheaper than the regular iPhone. And the fact that it doesn’t seem to have sold well tells them that their buyers would rather pay more for the best than less for almost as good. And that is telling them that a $600 Air is a similarly bad idea.

If Apple started going low-end, they would lose a lot of their rabid fans. Would they sell more netbook-like products? Sure, but they’d lose the people who upgrade to every new MacBook, have two Cinema Displays, and bought the Mac Pro.

Apple has made hundreds of billions by being THE prestige brand in consumer tech. They aren’t going to risk messing that up by going low-end, so long as they’re still raking in billions. And they are. I would argue that’s probably why they aren’t actually launching much new at all lately. They’re afraid what they have isn’t good enough, and it will hurt them. So they’re coasting.

Keep in mind that this is the natural progression of all corporations. Skyrocket to success by being innovative and nimble. Then once you’re a multi-billion-dollar company with shareholders to please first and foremost, you become slow and conservative and bleh. Look at Microsoft, Sony, and Google. That last example is to a lesser extent, but still. You shouldn’t expect anything too bold out of Apple anytime soon, including a budget-priced MacBook Air.