A pair of new reports about Apple (AAPL) product launches have arrived in recent days from pretty reliable sources. Assuming the reports are accurate, they suggest that Apple wants to double down on one market in which its sales have been booming, and to protect its flank in another, where sales have recently come under pressure.
Bloomberg reports Apple plans to launch a pair of high-end, over-the-ear, headphones with AirPods-like wireless pairing functionality under its own brand, rather than that of its Beats brand. It adds a launch could happen as soon as year's end, but cautions that "development challenges" might push back the release date.
Meanwhile, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reports Apple plans to launch a 13-inch MacBook Air "with a lower price tag" in Q2 (the Air currently starts at $999), and predicts the move will help total MacBook shipments rise by 10% to 15% this year. Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, typically held in June, would be the logical time for a Q2 MacBook launch.
The Bloomberg report comes less than a month after Apple's $349 HomePod speaker began shipping -- reviewers love the sound quality, but aren't as enthusiastic about its Siri-powered smart speaker features. And it arrives 16 months after Apple began shipping its $159 AirPods, which -- with the help of innovative wireless pairing and background noise-cancellation features that go beyond what typical Bluetooth headphones do -- have turned into a runaway hit.
In December, Kuo forecast shipments of AirPods, which were supply-constrained during much of 2017, would double in 2018 to a range of 26 million to 28 million. Together with strong Apple Watch sales, AirPods are a big reason Apple's "Other Products" revenue (it also covers Apple TV set-tops, Beats, iPods and accessories) grew 36% annually last quarter to $5.49 billion.
Tim Cook added Apple's "wearables" revenue, which covers Apple Watch and headphones, was up almost 70% to an unspecified amount. Bloomberg reported in February an AirPods refresh that features a new W-series wireless chip and the ability to activate Siri with one's voice (users currently have to double-tap the headphones) is reportedly being prepped for a potential 2018 launch. A follow-up model that adds water-resistance could arrive next year.
Though not abandoning Beats, which maintains a pretty healthy following, Apple now seems intent on becoming a premium audio hardware brand in its own right. Considering how well AirPods as sold, as well as how Apple's hardware and chip engineering are allowing it to roll out devices with superb sound quality, very good battery life (when applicable) and a bevy of unique features, it's hard to blame the company. Especially given the strong growth that both the wireless headphone and smart speaker markets are currently seeing.
It's worth adding here that all of the audio products Apple is launching under its own brand have the benefit of further hooking users on its ecosystem. While AirPods -- and presumably, Apple's upcoming over-the-ear headphones -- support standard Bluetooth streaming via non-Apple devices, features such as the ability to automatically pair with a device upon removal from a charging case and the automatic pausing of music when an AirPod is taken out of an ear require pairing with Apple hardware. Likewise, the HomePod is the only smart speaker supporting Apple Music voice commands, and while music from other services can be streamed to the device, Apple's proprietary AirPlay protocol has to be used.
While Apple's headphone sales continued surging last quarter, its MacBook sales hit a speed bump. A quarter after having respectively grown 10% and 25% annually, Apple's Mac unit sales and revenue (driven in large part by notebooks) both fell 5% and fell short of analyst estimates. The Oct. 2016 launch of new MacBook Pros sporting OLED Touch Bars did make for tough comps, and Apple did note that Mac unit sales were up 2% on a per-week basis. But after seeing strong growth for much of 2017, the Mac's December quarter performance was a letdown.
Particularly since iPad sales growth declined slightly, in spite of Apple's efforts to pitch iPad Pros running iOS 11 (launched in September, contains a slew of iPad multitasking features) as a notebook alternative. iPad sales rose 1% on a quarterly basis, and 8% on a per-week basis. And with the iPad still only sporting a $445 average selling price, a large portion of its sales appeared to involve the standard iPad (starts at $329) rather than the 10.5-inch iPad Pro (starts at $649) or its 12.9-inch sibling (starts at $799).
As much as Apple has tried to argue that iPad Pros are powerful enough to act as notebook substitutes for mainstream users (and more portable and versatile to boot), most consumers and business users don't seem in any rush to abandon keyboard/mouse-based portable computing systems for productivity tasks. Both because consumers tend to stick with what they're familiar with unless an alternative delivers massive improvements, and because a keyboard/mouse UI maintains productivity advantages for certain applications.
Meanwhile, the quality of sub-$1,000, Windows-based, thin-and-light and 2-in-1 systems from the likes of HP, Lenovo and Dell keeps steadily improving. And Microsoft (MSFT) , Qualcomm (QCOM) and PC OEMs are a few months removed from unveiling inexpensive "Always Connected" Windows notebooks that promise 20-plus hours of battery life and the ability to instantly turn on in a manner similar to phones and tablets.
All of this gives Apple reasons to rethink its stance towards the MacBook Air, which last got a major refresh in March 2015 (a minor update arrived last June) and has appeared to be on its way to being discontinued. Whether or not Apple launches a fully-refreshed Air at $999 or a somewhat lower price point, the product should be well-received by cost-sensitive MacBook buyers. Apple's next-cheapest notebook, a 12-inch MacBook, costs $1,299. And its reliance on just a single port for both power and data makes it a polarizing product.
By itself, a new Air probably won't be enough to drive double-digit 2018 MacBook growth, as Kuo predicts. But if paired with 2018 MacBook and MacBook Pro refreshes, it could very well get the job done.