Apple drops price of MacBook Air under $1,000

Launches "younger brother" with 11.6-in. screen for US$999, offers FaceTime for Mac

Apple today revamped its lightest laptop, the MacBook Air, slimming it down, ditching the hard drive for solid-state storage and introducing a smaller model that sports an 11.6-in. screen.

The company also highlighted a few features of "Lion," the next version of Mac OS X slated to ship next year, touted a beta of its FaceTime videoconferencing software for the Mac and announced an upgrade to its iLife digital suite.

But the star of the show was clearly the "one more thing" that CEO Steve Jobs is famous for rolling out at the end of company events.

"We wondered what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up," said Jobs as he introduced the redesigned Air from the company's Cupertino, Calif. campus. The launch event was Webcast, only the second time that Apple has streamed one of its invite-only presentations.

The appearance of a MacBook Air with the smaller screen was anticipated, with rumors and leaks aggressively circulating on the Web, especially on Apple enthusiast blogs, in the last two weeks.

"We think that this is the future of notebooks ... all notebooks will be like this some day," Jobs said, pointing to the new Air's light weight -- 2.9 pounds for the 13.3-in. model, 2.3 pounds for the 11.6-in. version -- its flash RAM storage and its extremely thin profile.

The largest MacBook Air, which features a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of memory, 128GB of flash storage and a 13.3-in screen, lists for US$1,299. The same notebook with 256GB of storage space runs $1,599.

What Jobs called the larger Air's "younger brother" sports a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB of memory, 64GB of storage and the smaller 11.6-in. screen. That sibling retails for $999, with a model boasting 128GB of flash storage space listing for $1,199.

The under-$1,000 price for the MacBook Air is "aggressive," said Jobs. The original Air debuted at $1,799 in early 2008.

Both models of the MacBook Air are available immediately on Apple's online store and at its retail outlets. On Wednesday, Apple's e-store showed a one-to-two-day delay for the new Air.

Apple announced an even slimmer version of the MacBook Air.

The screen size of the smaller MacBook Air, close to that of many Windows-based netbooks, gave some pundits room to wonder if Apple, Jobs especially, had reversed their anti-netbook stance of 2008 and 2009.

Nope, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Gartner.

"Netbooks are cheap PCs that revolve around price," he said. "[The 11.6-in. Air] happens to have a smaller screen, but it has a real processor, a real keyboard. I don't think of it as a cheaper computing device."

The sub-$1,000 price point for the entry-level MacBook Air, however, is impressive, Gartenberg said. "I think it will appeal to a lot of folks looking for a cheaper entry in the Air line."

The lowest-cost Air now competes head-to-head on price with Apple's MacBook, a 4.7-pound notebook powered by a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor that features a 13.3-in. screen and a 250GB platter-based hard drive.

"I see the new Airs as transitional devices that have the convenience, or some of the conveniences, of a tablet, but for people who absolutely need a keyboard and more computing power," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

Jobs also introduced Mac OS X "Lion," the next version of the Mac's operating system, and ticked off a few features of the new software, not surprising since the event had been tagged "Back to the Mac."

Jobs said that Lion would ship in "summer 2011," which according to the calendar means Apple's self-imposed deadline would expire Sept. 21, 2011, the first official day of fall.

"Mac OS X meets the iPad," Jobs said as he spelled out how Apple plans to bring some of the functionality of iOS, the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad, back to the Mac. Later, he called it a "virtuous circle" that started out with Mac OS X, which begat iOS, which in turn fed back into the Mac.

For example, the Mac, will get its own App Store, a new app page to show all apps at a glance. "The Mac App Store will be the best place to discover apps," said Jobs. "It won't be the only place, but we think it will be the best."

Details were absent on whether iOS apps would run on Macs, but much of the rest of the App Store experience on Apple's mobile devices will apparently make a move to the Mac, including the 30% piece of the action that Apple takes from developer revenues for hosting the App Store.

Apple isn't even waiting for next year's debut of Lion to launch the Mac App Store, Jobs said later during the presentation. "We're going to put out a Mac App Store within 90 days for Snow Leopard," Jobs said, referring to the current version of the operating system, Mac OS X 10.6.

The other major feature of Lion demonstrated by Craig Federighi, who heads Mac OS X development for Apple, was something dubbed "Mission Control" that will combine several interface elements of Snow Leopard into a single screen.

"We've integrated full-screen apps, windows in Expose, and Spaces into Mission Control," said Federighi, talking about existing Snow Leopard features that let users locate open applications and organize virtual desktops.

Jobs also said that FaceTime, the video chat application that first appeared on the iPhone 4 last June, then on the iPod Touch in September, will migrate to the Mac as well.

Today, Apple launched a beta of FaceTime for the Mac, but did not specify an official final release date. The software can be downloaded from Apple's site . The 13.4MB download requires Mac OS X 10.6.4 or later.

The company also released iLife '11, its consumer digital application suite that sports a number of new features in its high-profile programs like iPhoto and iMovie. iLife is bundled free with every new Mac. Users can upgrade from earlier editions, such as iLife '09, for $49.

"Today was a reminder that with all the attention this year on iOS, that Apple is still very much in the computer business," Gartenberg said. "The Mac is alive and well."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

Read more about macintosh in Computerworld's Macintosh Topic Center.

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Gregg Keizer

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