Opinion: What I’d like to see Apple announce at the March 27 ‘education’ event

Apple set expectations for the March 27 event with the invite: ‘creative new ideas for teachers and students’. It’s going to be themed and directed at education markets, no question.

But that doesn’t mean the event will be irrelevant to an average consumer outside of a school. Whilst software announcements will almost certainly focus on things like Apple Classroom, any new hardware revisions affect normal customers just as much as schools. Here’s what I’d like to see happen.

I want Apple to give some attention to the Mac laptop lineup. There are almost too many choices now. It’s hard to say what MacBook is the entry-level model nowadays; the product that you can recommend blindly and a majority of people will be happy.

I feel like Apple wants to say that the 12-inch MacBook is that device. If you look at the Apple Store website, it is the first Mac in the navigation. Compare this to the equivalent page for the iPad, where the iPad Pro is listed first.

It is a sliver of metal with incredible portability, a Retina display and the new keyboard design.  The latest 2017 revision finally gave it enough CPU power to not feel dog slow. The problem is it is priced like a higher-end machine.

It gets squeezed by the MacBook Air on price; as poor as the Air’s screen is, it is 30% cheaper and technically has a larger display. (Refurbished Airs regularly get discounted even more significantly.) Customer psychology is always driven by price. The Air is the only Mac laptop that doesn’t have a four digit price tag.

On the other end, the MacBook bumps up against the 13-inch MacBook Pro with 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports. For the same $1299 price, you can get a much more powerful  machine with modern I/O connectivity, albeit half as much storage.

What I want Apple to introduce is a machine that can be priced cheaply enough to cut out the need for an Air for a regular consumer. Honestly, I think they are already close with their current hardware. If they made a 128 GB SSD configuration of the 12-inch MacBook, they could push it lower without making any revolutionary hardware changes. I don’t think it’s a pie in the sky proposition to envision a 12-inch MacBook for $1099, $999 at a stretch.

The rumor is that Apple will make the MacBook Air more affordable. This is less ideal in my head, because the folly of psychology that people ‘buy what’s cheapest not what’s best for them’ (even if they have the budget) will still apply. If they are going to do it, make it noticeably different — like $799.

I wouldn’t mind if they kept it around but hid it in the Apple Store, targeted just for business and education, similar to how they kept around the MacBook Pro with SuperDrive for years, or how the current 2015 Pros are buried on the Apple Store. Distinguish it enough so that it is clearly an ‘old legacy’ rather than a bad entry-level.

Tieing into another rumor we heard last week, Apple could be prepping a higher-end 13-inch MacBook (maybe with two ports?) that would slot in above the 12-inch but below the Pros. This product probably wouldn’t ship until June, and is unlikely to even be announced until WWDC, but the changes made next week could signal a gap in the lineup ready to be filled. For instance, the Air could shift down to $799, the 12-inch MacBook hits the magic $999 number, and then the 13-inch MacBook fills a $1199 price point in a few months time.

If it was me thinking just about my own needs, I’d love to cut out the Air altogether and simplify the range. However, I don’t think that’s practical for Apple’s margins or customer needs quite yet.

Regarding the iPad, I think a cheaper entry-level iPad is almost certainly going to happen. Going from $329 to $299 is a huge psychological improvement for customers.

Apple was already selling the 2017 iPad to schools with a $30 discount when buying in bulk, and I’d expect them to do the same this year bringing the cost of entry into education for iPads to around $260 (which might explain some recent reports).

In terms of spec changes, I wouldn’t expect a huge leap. Unlike the Air, the 2017 iPad is a pretty respectable product overall. The A9 is still a very capable chip. It’s just cheaper. Given that the invite looks like a pen stroke, I am inclined to think that maybe the new school iPad will support Apple Pencil though.

I’m not familiar with the technical requirements here, but I don’t think the expensive part of making an iPad work with the Pencil is in the iPad; it’s in the accessory that you pay $99 for. So, bringing Pencil support to the cheapest iPad doesn’t seem impossible. It’s also a technology that is now several years old, starting with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in late 2015.

Of course, using Pencil with the 9.7-inch iPad wouldn’t be as nice a canvas as a True Tone ProMotion screen from the iPad Pro, but those are niceties and not requirements for a good baseline experience. After all, Apple happily debuted the 2015 iPad Pro with neither 120 FPS screen refresh nor True Tone.

I think an update to the Apple Pencil itself is possible but could come later in the year, to accompany with new iPad Pro hardware.

The other thing I’d like to see is an Apple designed keyboard accessory for the low-end model. Apple currently recommends this Logitech case for schools to use.  The reality is, though, it’s really ugly. Moreover, it relies on Bluetooth to communicate, so it needs to be charged separately.

An Apple solution would be prettier, have zero-effort pairing, and ideally eliminate the need for a separate battery to charge. This last wish would require a Smart Connector in the iPad itself. Again though, I don’t think that connector represents a price premium for the overall bill of materials.

Even if Apple didn’t want to brand it as their own, a Smart Connector and partnership with Logitech would allow them to make a second-generation case that is significantly improved.

Thinking realistically, for an event that is not going to be livestreamed and not held on Apple campus, I think that’s about as much as you can expect from the hardware story. Small updates to the entry-level iPad and price cuts on the Mac side. Nevertheless, I hopes it shows a path to deprecating a laptop that has stuck around for an embarrassingly long time. Apple, take the Air from the room.

Check out our roundup from earlier this week on all the potential software and hardware rumors that have been circulating … and stay tuned as we bring live coverage of all the announcements on Tuesday!

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