Wednesday, January 16, 2008

macbook air: built to exist, not to sell UPDATED

When I see the MacBook Air I'm immediately struck by the elegance and simplicity of its design. Who doesn't want a super-light notebook with a beautiful screen and all-"green" innards?

But when I look closer, I notice it has no ethernet port. Then I notice you can't change its battery. And then I see it has no optical disc drive.

OK, maybe it was made for the home user with a serious addiction to Apple products. This is an individual who has access to an optical disc on an iMac, is probably interested in a laptop that can access the internet wirelessly, and is not likely to be far from a power source for an extended period of time. Maybe Apple was figuring this person would be a great candidate for the MacBook Air...

. . . Were it not for the fact that for $700 less, the MacBook is a better overall value with a 13 inch screen, a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 1GB memory (expandable to 4GB), a 80GB hard drive, a Combo optical drive and built-in AirPort Extreme (802.11n) and Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR.

By comparison, the MacBook Air has a 13 inch screen, a 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB memory (maximum), a 80GB 4200-rpm PATA hard drive, built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.


OK, let's look at it another way. Let's say Apple is targeting the business user with this product. If you're a business user, even one in an industry that uses Apple products, you are likely to encounter all of the following on a regular basis:

1. The need to connect to the web in places that don't have wireless
2. The need to access an optical drive on a moment's notice
3. The need to change a battery when you don't have access to a power supply

In light of the availability of the MacBook Pro that has none of these shortcomings, is the average corporate buyer going to authorize the purchase of a MacBook Air that has all of these shortcomings?


In short, the MacBook Air is beautiful, but impractical - and I think that's OK.

Because the purpose of the MacBook Air is to exist, not to sell.

By demonstrating the ability to get component vendors to miniaturize components, the ability to make bold decisions on peripherals and connectivity, and by declaring that batteries are integral to laptops, Apple is showing us where they plan to go. They are demonstrating the will to execute on a product roadmap, even if the first expression of that roadmap falls short.

Ross Rubin, an analyst at NPD, "doesn't think Apple is using the MacBook Air as a sideways entry into the corporate market; he notes there have been no such channel or distribution announcements to support that sort of move." (source)

Ross is right. Apple is using the MacBook Air to demonstrate leadership. The MacBook Air is not a Power Mac G4 Cube. It is the first entrant in what I think will be a new category of full-function computing device - wireless, integrated and super-portable.

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.
- Flannery O'Connor (1925 - 1964)

Update 1 - There is a terrific post over at Gizmodo referencing some comments by Sony regarding the MacBook Air (MBA). In the post the author references a comment by Steve Jobs, who replied to a question relating to the MBA's storage with "Maybe this isn't the computer for you."

That is a very telling comment by the Apple CEO. If you take issue with the small storage, fixed 2GB memory, lack of optical drive, ethernet connection or removable drive, the MBA is not the computer for you. It will be interesting to see just how large of a population has those issues.


Bruce McCarthy said...

I agree the value prop doesn't seem to be there vs. the MacBook and your comments about it being the beginning of a line of wireless-only notebooks make sense. They did essentially the same thing with the iPhone. It's not what we all want it to be yet, but it's pretty cool and you know they will keep working on it.

The iPod Touch has a similar value prop compared to the iPod Classic. you pay more but get less memory and so on. The difference is in the less tangible features like the touch screen, overall thinness, etc. The Air has these kinds of intangibles as well and is therefore priced at a premium. There is a market of people who will buy it just because of those really slick features.

Of course, I also think there is a market among people who don't really need the things they left out. I don't travel that much for work but I do take my ThinkPad back and forth on the train daily and having something lighter and slicker would suit me just fine. I never use the CD drive and I have only ever swapped the battery once.

bob said...

Bruce, until you've experienced the unique thrill of someone handing you a presentation on a CD a few minutes before you have to give it. . . you haven't appreciated having an optical media drive on your laptop.

And I find myself swapping batteries a lot - I keep an extra one to support cross-country jaunts, which while less frequent these days are nonetheless part of the diet of the product manager.

I'm actually a huge fan of the iPod Touch - even though Apple did a crappy job of positioning it in the pantheon of the iPod product line, it's still a cool gadget that Just Keeps Getting Better.

Bruce McCarthy said...

Oh, I'm not saying I wouldn't buy the MacBook based on the increased features for the price. I would. I have a spare battery too and planes are where it gets used. I hear you on the CD too. I'm just saying that there is a market for folks who don't deal with those things often and want the latest and coolest.

bob said...

There is definitely a market. Just not a big market. Actually, I take that back - there is a big enough market for Apple to get people to pay for the privilege of field-testing the whiz-bang technologies that will be part of the products designed (and priced) to serve the really big market they plan to serve down the road.

Bruce McCarthy said...

Check out this post:

The writer takes minor exception to your position on the MacBook Air.

bob said...

Wow. Now there's an article.

I don't think it takes issue with my message, as I'm not "hating" on the MacBook Air - exactly the opposite. It's an impressive piece of technology that will evolve over the next few releases into something with a lot of mass-market appeal.

Anonymous said...

Would it be that hard to make a crank charger for it? That's what I'm waiting for.

I'm a big fan of upgrading instead of replacing, but gateway made a tiny PIII laptop not too long ago that still rocks my socks, and it's running Ubuntu with BERYL. Yeah, Beryl! In full 3d mode. With an intel GMA845. The MBA: Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor with 144MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory. It's not dx10 like the MBP. Not good enough for portable gaming. Well, not good enough for my taste.

The MBP is for more people, well, for more people that have $2k to blow on a laptop. For portability, the EEE is fine, and cheaper, and somewhat more upgradeable (whatever, you know I'm right).

I agree with both of you. For the Mac crowd, this is the new coach bag. Nobody cares about lowered functionality, they'll make due, or pay for the gajillion accessories they'll need to make it do the sames things that a MBP would.

Anonymous said...

Oh gosh, it won't let me edit that.

Anyways, what I was saying about the X3100 is that it's good enough for random OS stuff, maybe digital video editing. A considerable upgrade from the old GMA950 in the original intel Macbook, which does pretty much everything that people will expect the MBA to do.

I would have been really impressed if they were able to fit the 8600M in the MBA (like the new MBPSs). I use an 8600GT on my desktop, and it kicks ass.

kev said...

I'm writing y'all on an 18 month old MacbookPro. It is the Ferrari of notebooks. I've had a dozen different Windows machines as a sales traveler boy, and they are all a bunch of Chevys and Buicks. The Toshibas are decent Mazdas. I've exhausted the metaphor.

I admire the Air, but kind of agree with Bob it's more of a carnival trick than a paradigm changer. I don't agree they released it as a statement. I don't think they roll like that. I'm kind of thinking it is more of a Cube.

I'm all wireless, don't need an Ethernet port, don't ever change batteries. Sometimes I let the kids watch DVDs on it when they come to the office with me or on vacation. That happens rarely enough that I could deal with an external, dongle-y Superdrive delio.

Honestly, the reason it's not a fit for me is the value proposition compared to what I already have in the MBP. Why would I downgrade utility for more money? Also, I have 4 kids who could and likely would snap that baby in half. I don't want a 2K broken dish. I would most certainly weep at the loss of such a beautiful thing.

I'll stick with my MBP. If this one dies on me, I'd likely buy another, rather than the Air.