With the recent release of the Macbook Air, many people are already wondering what sort of market segment this laptop fits into. Is there a significant mainstream market for a laptop like this? Sony and others have been producing ultraportables for quite some time, though usually they are significantly limited in usability and power, typical concessions to the size problem include microscopic keyboards, ultra low power processors, slow storage and tiny screens. Typically ultraportables tend to be quite a bit more expensive than standard laptops as well, with some models demanding up to a $4,000 premium.
The Macbook Air seems to sit right in the middle of the ultraportable price point, but it is also significantly wider in part due to the large screen. So is Apple really aiming for the ultraportable market itself, or are they marketing this laptop as something in between ultraportable and mainstream laptops? It is quite clear that both Apple and Intel went out of their way to ensure this device had a real Core 2 Duo processor, even if it is reduced in size, instead of the ultra low voltage variants of the older Core Duo, or the Pentium M. Apple also has made the decision to use Intel integrated graphics in lieu of more powerful discrete chips by Nvidia or ATI, making it less appealing for certain applications that are graphics intensive.
So what class of user will be considering this device for their next laptop purchase? It is highly unlikely that users will be doing video editing or using other processor intensive applications on a device of this sort. With some rare exceptions users are far more likely to want a large screen such as found on the Macbook Pro for video editing in the field. It is also unlikely that users will want to play games on such a laptop even if it had Nvidia or ATI graphics, again the screen is only 13.3″ and gamers are more likely to want to play games on a desktop with a more usable control setup such as a desktop mouse. Lack of an internal DVD drive also makes its use as a portable movie station difficult.
But a few significant markets remain. First you have the mobile worker, someone who needs a fair bit of processing power, a good sized screen, a keyboard one can use without developing joint problems, battery life that frees users from the worry of finding an outlet long enough to get work done, while still being light enough to carry around in a typical briefcase. These are significant gains for this sort of user, ones that will be well worth the price premium over a standard Macbook. Very few competing models achieve this sort of balance, many are significantly slower or significantly more difficult to use.
Another class of user who may appreciate this sort of device with its optional solid state drive are users who work in an environment that would make mechanical hard drives fail quickly. Doctors now frequently carry laptops around into patient exam rooms or around hospitals, both of which offer plenty of potential for repeated drops or other damage. A solid state drive protects sensitive data from the sort of silent data corruption or sudden failure that a mechanical hard drive would otherwise be subject to. The same will be true of users who spend significant amounts of time on the move, in and out of cars, or carrying the laptop around to meetings. The solid state drive removes a significant point of failure from the equation for many users, making it well worth the price.
Of course only time will tell what uses people find for this sort of device, but it is crystal clear that Apple sees a significant market for a device like this, and it will certainly do well.