MacBook Air more profitable than other Apple laptops, says analyst

Apple uses its huge appetite for flash memory to push profits

Apple's lowest-priced MacBook Air costs the company $718 to manufacture, giving the company a heftier margin for the line than for its other notebooks, an analyst said Friday.

The MacBook Air sports margins between 28 per cent and 37 per cent, said Brian Marshall of Gleacher & Co., who estimated the new notebooks' bill of materials (BOM). That's significantly above the approximately 20 per cent margin for Apple's entire notebook line.

Marshall's estimates account for hardware and manufacturing costs, as well as royalties and licensing fees, but it excludes design and software development costs, advertising and marketing expenditures.

"The updated MacBook Air will be a phenomenal 'mobile content creating' device that won't be cannibalistic with the iPad," Marshall said.

Others agreed that Apple is in a position to do what its rivals cannot: Leverage its huge consumption of non-volatile flash memory to drive up profits.

"If they're not the world's largest consumer of [flash memory], they're one of its largest," said Andrew Rassweiler, the director of El Segundo, Calif.-based iSuppli's hardware teardown group. "At that point, you're almost a producer, so the more memory you put into a device, the more you make."

Marshall's numbers bear that out.

According to his preliminary BOM, the 64GB of flash memory used for the SSD (solid-state drive) inside the $999 11.6-in. MacBook Air costs Apple $80, putting that component in a tie with the Intel Core 2 Duo processor as the laptop's second-most expensive part. The priciest, at $180, is the 11.6-in. LED-backlit screen.

Marshall pegged the 64GB MacBook Air's margin at 28.1 per cent.

But by doubling the storage space to 128GB, Apple boosts the profit margin of the same 11.6-in. MacBook Air to 34 per cent. How? By charging consumers $200 more while incurring only $73.60 in additional costs.

The numbers are almost as impressive for Apple on the 13.3-in. Air. The 128GB model, which features an SSD that costs the company $154, pencils out with a margin of 33 per cent. For $300 more, consumers get the same 13.3-in. notebook with 256GB of storage space. But the doubling of flash capacity costs Apple just $141, said Marshall, which pushes the profit margin to 37 per cent.

This isn't a new strategy for Apple.

"This is where Apple has always skewed their margins positively," Rassweiler said. "They offer an entry price point, but then go after the upgrade, where they bring in incrementally more memory, but at a higher margin on their end."

The iPad is a perfect example, he argued, noting that Apple makes a bigger profit on the high-end model that sports 64GB of flash memory storage space than the lowest-priced configuration that boasts just 16GB.

"That goes straight to Apple's bottom line," said Rassweiler, "because they make a ton of money on flash [memory]."

Michael Yang, the iSuppli analyst who tracks flash memory pricing, said that Apple's consumption -- in everything from the iPhone and iPad to, now, the MacBook Air -- puts it in a position others can't equal. "Not only can others not match Apple, they don't want to match Apple," said Yang.

Apple's appetite for flash lets it move the market price if it wants, and allows it to buy in bulk when prices are low, knowing that the RAM will be used in one device or another, something other hardware makers with smaller needs may be hesitant to do.

"Apple's a great reseller of flash," said Marshall, defending his BOM and margin estimates. "It's true that [an SSD] costs more per megabyte than a hard drive, but there's not a ton of it in the Airs, relative to other Apple notebooks."

The low-end MacBook, for example, features a 250GB platter-based hard drive, four times the capacity of the identically priced 11.6-in. 64GB MacBook Air.

And the move to SSD-only notebooks makes sense, added Rassweiler, because Apple's realized that people don't always need huge hard drives in their laptops. "Do you need a terabyte drive in your laptop? Probably not," he said. "In fact, you may not want a drive that large, because it puts all your eggs in one basket."

Instead, he suggested, Apple's MobileMe sync and storage service becomes the link between multiple machines, letting users share information among a number of devices, and store files in the cloud.

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