Apple makes MacBook Air less appealing

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The significance of today's MacBook Air refresh: What is and what isn't. I focus specifically on the smaller model. What is: Slight processor refresh, but lower entry price -- $899 for the masses and $849 for education, both 100 bucks less than yesterday. What isn't: Retina Display screen resolution.

From the perspective of physical size, screen dimension (11.6-inches), resolution (1366 x 768), Intel processor, and core benefits, the lower pricing brings MacBook Air closer to Chromebook, particularly for school purchasers. Both computers compete for educational buyers, and Dell, HPLenovo, and Samsung all target the market with compelling Chromebooks. As differences diminish and price gaps lessen, the Apple becomes less appealing by comparison. Stated another way: New pricing shines fresh spotlight on MBA, which similarities to lower-cost Chromebooks are greater for school year 2014-15.

Relative Comparisons

In his groundbreaking book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely explains how human beings tend to compare things that are closely alike and exclude others. He gives example you can verify by personal experimentation. Take someone who is physically similar to yourself, but has some defect or less appealing visual feature, to a party. Other men and women daters will tend to focus on just the two and exclude everyone else in the room. You become more desirable.

Marketers often take similar approach by using "decoys" that compel comparisons. Among Ariely's many examples: bread-baking machines. "When Williams-Sonoma first introduced a home 'bread bakery' machine (for $275), most consumers were not interested", he writes. Sales were poor in part because buyers couldn't decide what the device might be good for. The manufacturer "brought in a market research firm, which suggested a fix: introduce an additional model of the bread maker, one that was not only larger but priced about 50 percent higher than the initial machine. Now sales began to rise (along with many loaves of bread), though it was not the larger bread maker that was being sold".

Our brains are wired to make relative comparisons. The more relative two things are, the more likely we are to compare them. Chromebooks are alike and easily compared, but in some ways they are too similar. MacBook Air stands apart, particularly because of price. However, the more Chromebook-like that MBA appears, the less appealing choice it becomes -- that matters this back-to-school buying season more than last. I contend that lower pricing makes comparison easier and MBA's dismissal as option more likely.

More Alike

The comparative similarities are much greater in 2014 than last year. Most Chromebooks are no longer under-performers. They're fast thanks to Intel Haswell processors, which also give long battery life. In my testing, new Acer, Dell, and HP Chromebooks easily match or exceed the 9 hours Apple promises for MBA. All the Haswell-based laptops, including Apple's, feel fast and are comparable size and screen resolution.

Consider new Dell and HP models with same name: Chromebook 11. Designs are attractive, construction sturdy, keyboards fantastic, and educational benefits as good or better than MacBook Air. Apple can't compete for administration and management, when, for example, setting up a new Chromebook is simple as logging into the student's account. Cloud sync, Google services, and Chrome web apps provide most of the tools any student would need to be productive and creative. What's the most important student research tool? Google Search. That synergy alone is a compelling benefit for learning initiatives.

Then there is pricing. Dell's Chromebook 11 starts at $279 -- and doubles RAM to 4GB for 20 bucks more. HP's model is same price for the 2GB configuration. The more alike are Chromebook and MacBook Air benefits and the closer the price, the more relatively comparable the computers become and the more easily the Apple is dismissed.

So while today's price drop looks like a good move, from another perspective it isn't. I refer specifically to educational buyers. For other consumers, particularly those owning iOS devices and seeking to extend the Apple lifestyle, price to entry is now lower. I focus on education for three reasons:

  • Chromebook's recent school sales successes
  • The number of new entrants focused on education
  • Timing -- MacBook Air refresh during educational buying season

School budgets are tight, but Apple in education is iconoclastic, which is one reason for iPad sales successes. I contend that today's refresh, which changes little else but price, merely empowers school IT administrators seeking to make a case for Chromebook. When comparing benefits of A to B and highlighting lower but still higher pricing, Apple becomes the less-compelling choice.

Photo Credit: Joe Wilcox

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