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Is the MacBook Air Getting Replaced by the iPad Pro?

Say hi to the new MacBook Air. Photo: Sebastien Cote/Getty Images

The future of Apple laptops is, well, grim. The MacBook Pro’s initial launch late last year was overpriced and underpowered. If you (or your company) have a problem with having too much money, you can wait a few more months — there are rumors that an update will be coming that will see a model with 32 GB of RAM and a Kaby Lake processor added to the MacBook Pro (just barely making it equivalent to PC laptops that will likely cost thousands of dollars less). But for those at the lower end of the spectrum who don’t want to pay at least $1,300 for the widely panned 2015 MacBook? You’re kinda outta luck.

It’s never been cheap being an Apple fan, but right now laptop owners — especially anybody working on an aging machine — are in a tough place. Apple’s new offerings, to me, are frankly overpriced for the amount of value you get. And to my mind, the MacBook Air line of computers was perhaps the best set of laptops Apple ever put out. After a shaky first generation, the Air became the smart, sleek, and cheapish laptop of choice for me and millions of others.

But the Air line seems to be dead, as Apple attempts to shepherd former Air owners back into the main MacBook family. So what, if anything, will replace the Air for Apple fans who still want and need something light, capable, and affordable?

It may be the iPad, Apple’s once-white-hot tablet that many had written off after years of declining sales. Neil Cybart over at Above Avalon does some great detective work, looking at both the sales numbers for the iPad and how the company is, uncharacteristically, suddenly pricing certain models to sell.

The first thing to note is how aggressively Apple is pricing everything except the iPad Pro, Apple’s keyboard and stylus flagship tablet. As Cybart puts it:

Apple slashed the entry-level price for the 9.7-inch iPad to $329 from $399. Special $299 pricing for education institutions is also available. This is an aggressive pricing strategy considering Apple was selling the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 for $499 as recently as 12 months ago.

But Cybart also breaks down those declining numbers of iPad sales, and finds something surprising: It’s not that sales of iPads as a whole are declining, just iPads with smaller screens. In fact, iPads with larger screens are actually seeing small sales increases.

This presents Apple with an opportunity. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro starts at just $600, and comes to $850 total if you buy a keyboard and stylus. The 12.9 iPad Pro starts at $800, and is $1,070 with a keyboard and stylus. These numbers make it competitive with similar tear-away laptops, like the Microsoft Surface (though there’s still a bit of a Apple premium to be paid).

Now, the iPad OS as currently envisioned doesn’t behave like a typical laptop, and some might find using an iPad with a keyboard, mouse, and stylus untenable for their daily workflow. But Apple, as seen in a recent series of ads, clearly believes iPad Pros can compete with traditional laptops, especially Windows-based PCs.

But more than that, it would solve two problems for Apple. One: what to offer to people who want something like a laptop — laptop sales have been solid and unchanging for long enough that it seems people will continue to use something like them for the foreseeable future — but don’t want to pay $1,300.

Two: Apple has, in some ways, been getting straight-up knocked down in the laptop game. The Microsoft Surfacebook, the Lenovo Yoga, or the premium Dell XPS 13 all offer a form factor that, once you use it, is hard to give up — the ability to switch on the fly between using a tablet and a traditional clamshell laptop. In addition, spend any time around a kid younger than 10, and you’ll see they get visibly confused when screens aren’t touch-sensitive; they expect that if they touch the screen of whatever device they’re using, it’s gonna know what’s going on. Those kids stabbing at the TV and wondering why nothing happens may not have much disposable income now — but that’ll change soon, and it’s been strange that Apple’s laptops have so completely ignored a domain it arguably created: the touch screen. It may be that Apple simply was relying on the iPad Pro line to pick up that slack.

Apple is a manufacturer caught in a strange bind. They have to maintain a strong laptop and desktop line, or risk losing those core evangelical fans that spread the gospel of Apple to any comment thread that’ll have ’em. But they’re also a company whose fortunes are largely bound to small, touch-screen computers that people carry in their pocket. How do they square that circle?

Maybe they just make those small, touch-screen computers a bit larger, throw in a physical keyboard for old people like me who still can’t screen type that fast, and put just enough juice into the rest of their laptops and desktops to keep the fans happy — while selling iPad Pro laptops to every college kid in sight.

Is the MacBook Air Getting Replaced by the iPad Pro?