Apple's new Retina MacBook Pro is a harbinger of future changes to the company's laptop line, analysts said today.
And those changes could come as soon as October.
"It's pretty clear that as some of the technology in the MacBook Pro with Retina becomes more available and at a lower cost, they will drive those technologies down through the rest of the line," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research.
Apple launched the new MacBook Pro Monday at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), and touted the notebook as thinner and lighter than the standard MacBook Pro, boasted of its high-resolution display -- dubbed "Retina" to match the marketing label used for the pixel-packed screens on the newest iPhone and iPad -- and highlighted the move to SSD (solid-state drive) storage.
Like the MacBook Air before it, the Retina MacBook Pro also lacks an optical drive. That omission, along with the shift to a SSD rather than a traditional platter-based hard disk drive, let Apple shrink the thickness of the laptop.
Most early reviews of the Retina MacBook Pro have been glowing, and have universally singled out the display, which sports a total of 5.1 million pixels
While the MacBook Air has long been the benchmark thin-and-light laptop -- to the point where Windows PC makers have taken to trying to replicate it with "ultrabooks" -- the MacBook Pro line has been a very traditional kind of notebook.
That will change.
"Every once in a while, Apple completely rethinks things," said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research. "This [MacBook Pro] is the first of an entire overhaul."
Both Gottheil and Gillett pointed to how Apple handled the MacBook Air, which debuted in January 2008 for between $1,799 and $3,098, as the template.
It wasn't until October 2010 that Apple fleshed out the Air line-up with both 11- and 13-in. screens, and dropped prices. The least-expensive 11-in. MacBook Air was priced at $999, the first Mac notebook under the $1,000 barrier, while the priciest 13-in. was reduced to $1,599.
Analysts see the new MacBook Pro as like the original $1,799 MacBook Air: Expensive, packed with the newest technology and using Apple's most-forward-looking design.
Its DNA -- the omission of hard disk and optical drives, the thinner form factor, the high-resolution screen -- will be used to clone a revamped MacBook Pro line. At some point.
"They don't have enough supply of the Retina screens to use it across the entire line," Gillett said, explaining why Apple limited the redesign to just one model.
For proof, one has only to look at the shipping delays for the Retina MacBook Pro.
Currently, new orders won't ship for thee or four weeks, Apple's online store stated Thursday. That delay first appeared Tuesday, after Apple apparently exhausted its supply.
But others predict that Apple will start the shift to Retina sooner, perhaps as early as October.
Yesterday, Richard Shim and Jeff Lin, analysts at DisplaySearch, said that their supply chain sources reported that production of 2560-by-1600-pixel resolution 13.3-in. displays would start in the third quarter.
"Our sources indicate that Apple will use this panel in a MacBook Pro unit to be launched in the fourth quarter [of 2012]," Shim and Lin said in a blog post. "Production volume is expected to be roughly twice that of the 15.4-in. MacBook Pro."
They estimated that the year's production of the larger display -- the one used in this week's Retina MacBook Pro -- would be less than two million units, putting a sales cap on the new laptop.
It's also possible, however, that the higher-resolution 13.3-in. displays could end up in the higher-end MacBook Air, which uses a screen that size, too.
While the $2,199 starting price of the Retina MacBook Pro is high -- "It feels pricy for a 15-in. laptop," said Gillett -- that should come down as Apple's suppliers ramp up the production of the high-resolution screen, and as the new model's characteristics migrate to other Pro configurations.
"They took all the expertise they had from the Air and applied it to the Pro," said Gillett. "It may be more expensive now, but they'll be making a lot of these, and for a long time."
Apple does not often reduce prices, but rather keeps the dollar figures stable while boosting performance and storage space. It made an exception this week when it cut prices of most MacBook Air models by $100.
The discounting could have been a pre-emptive strike by Apple against Windows laptop rivals, who are expected to launch a bevy of devices, including touch-enabled notebooks and hybrids that combine tablet and laptop elements, before those competitors start selling Windows 8 systems later this year.
"Just as the ultrabook ramp is expected to reach an inflection point in [the third quarter], Apple unveiled a refreshed MacBook Air line and lowered the price range by $100," said Brian White of Topeka Capital Markets, in a note to clients on Tuesday. "We believe the ultrabook price points remain too high, thus we believe consumers will continue to opt for the MacBook Air."
If a 13-in. Retina MacBook Pro does launch in the fourth quarter, the two Pros with high-resolution displays -- along with the reduced-priced MacBook Airs -- could put even more pressure on Windows PC OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to up their game, cut prices or both.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].
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