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Summary:

What Apple fan of small-and-light computing doesn’t remember that Macworld Expo Keynote? The one where, uncovering Apple’s then-latest laptop and holding it aloft, Steve Jobs declared it “the smallest full-featured notebook in the world.” By the self-satisfied smile on his face, you knew Apple was back […]

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What Apple fan of small-and-light computing doesn’t remember that Macworld Expo Keynote? The one where, uncovering Apple’s then-latest laptop and holding it aloft, Steve Jobs declared it “the smallest full-featured notebook in the world.” By the self-satisfied smile on his face, you knew Apple was back in the ultra-portable market for good.

Two years and change later, it was canceled.

That would be the 12” PowerBook G4 of 2003 that met its demise in 2005, but what happened then seems eerily familiar in 2009. Since the manila-envelope unveiling at Macworld Expo 2008, the MacBook Air has gotten less Apple Event love than the time it takes Yael Naïm to sing “New Soul.” Phil Schiller spent about 30 seconds detailing a spec bump and a price drop at WWDC 2009, the same event at which the MacBook Pros saw major redesign. It was that seeming indifference to the Air that led me to ponder the history of the smallest PowerBook in relation to the fate of the thinnest MacBook.

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Comparative Updates: 12" PowerBook G4 vs. MacBook Air

Spooky, huh? The overlap is like looking at some old soul reincarnated and doomed to relive the same life of regret. Note that after the first revision that included new video options, both models subsequently received “drop-in upgrades,” incremental increases in CPU and storage capacity. Also, the 12” PowerBook G4 ended its model life at $1,499, which is the same price as the MacBook Air now.

Of course, comparing the timeline of the PowerBook G4 with the MacBook Air hardly predicts the future of the latter — though a mirrored RAM boost for the MacBook Air would be nice. If there is any foretelling of the Air’s future to be had, it’s more likely to be found in the demise of the PowerBook. That demise, in my opinion, would be the iBook.

When the 12” PowerBook G4 was introduced, it had several big advantages over the 12” iBook.

  • G4 CPU vs. G3 CPU
  • CD-RW/DVD vs. CD/DVD player
  • GeForce4 420 Go and display spanning vs. ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 and display mirroring
  • Infinitely Awesome Keyboard vs. Chicklet Keys

By the time the last iBook model was introduced, the only advantage left to the higher-priced PowerBook was the keyboard and the ability to run dual displays. When Apple switched to Intel, the MacBook did spanning, and the superior keyboard was no more. The black MacBook effectively replaced the 12” PowerBook G4 in the laptop lineup. The question now becomes whether the 13″ MacBook Pro is replacing the MacBook Air.

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Feature Creep: MacBook Air to MacBook Pro

At Macworld Expo 2008, Steve Jobs might as well have likened the manufacturing of the MacBook Air from a sheet of solid aluminum to Michelangelo discovering David within a block of stone, so lavish was his praise of the technology. If you aren’t familiar with the process, there’s a video on Apple’s web site, on a MacBook Pro page. Symbolism noted.

The timeline shows the migration of technologies from the MacBook Air to the 13″ MacBook Pro. Though it’s a given that Apple always intended to diffuse the tech throughout its portables, the 13″ MacBook Pro puts these features in a design similar to the MacBook Air. Further, several MacBook Pro features are arguably missing from the MacBook Air, including: better battery life, more RAM, buttonless trackpad and SD Card slot.

Originally promising five hours of “wireless productivity,” battery life declined with the second revision of the MacBook Air due to its faster CPU. The third revision brought battery life back to five hours with a change from a 37 to 40 W/Hr battery. However, the new built-in battery in the 13″ MacBook Pro has increased battery life to six hours. While it is possible the MacBook Air has reached the limit of battery life, the memory situation is not up for debate.

In January of 2008, 2GB of RAM in a MacBook Air was a good deal; not so much in 2009. Even Apple’s white MacBook comes with 2GB standard. Worse, the high-end 13” MacBook Pro comes with 4GB standard. In stark and embarrassing contrast, the the high-end MacBook Air still has the same 2GB of RAM soldered to the motherboard. It’s a change that should have happened, but hasn’t, like the single-button trackpad.

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Button, button, whose got the button, and why?

The MacBook Air was the first Mac portable to have multitouch input, with that functionality later duplicated across the Pro lineup. The question concerning the MacBook Air trackpad is why is there still a button? Clearly, Apple has moved away from that design with the high-end portables, a lineup that includes the MacBook Air at $1,499. A button-less trackpad may be more a matter of form than function, but what about the SD Card slot?

While one could argue that the SD Card slot might not fit into the MacBook Air, certainly no Mac laptop would benefit from such a feature more than one without an optical drive. Instead of purchasing a SuperDrive, you could boot OS X off an SD card for troubleshooting, or even installation. Imagine where that could lead.

When asked about bringing Blu-ray to the Mac at an Apple Event in 2008, Steve Jobs replied that “Blu-ray is just a bag of hurt.” By this, Jobs meant Apple didn’t want to burden Mac users with the “cost of the licensing and the cost of the drives.” While that sounds altruistic, it’s a little difficult to understand, as companies like Dell have sold sub-$1,000 laptops with Blu-ray drives for over a year.

More understandable would be history repeating itself with Apple and removable media. In 1998, Apple introduced the original iMac without an integrated floppy drive. The future is clearly digital downloading, the way video is rented and sold at the iTunes Store. Unlike the floppy, Apple has a vested interest in speeding the demise of the optical drive. Should Apple remove the optical drive on Pro lineup, the impact would be immediate for the MacBook Air.

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The handwriting for the optical disc is not on the wall, but the back of the MacBook Pro case.

Removing the optical drive and supporting structure from the 13” MacBook Pro could reduce the weight by as much as half a pound. How much could Apple engineering then do to reduce the size of the motherboard? Adding a longer, thinner battery could allow for a wedge-shaped case, making the 13″ MacBook Pro look and feel a lot like the MacBook Air. Would a prospective MacBook Air buyer then pay an extra $300 for one less pound in weight? It’s the story of the 12″ PowerBook G4 all over again, though the story won’t end this year.

Fall is for iPods, perhaps desktops, but not laptops, and not during an Apple-less Macworld Expo in January 2010. Between February and April would be a good guess for the next round of laptop updates. Ironically, a last MacBook Air update in the spring would nearly complete the comparison to the 12″ PowerBook G4. Sometime later that year, the first MacBook Pros without optical drives could be introduced, leaving Apple’s latest foray into ultra-lights to vanish into the thinest air.

  1. I don’t see want ythe problemo is. I have a MacBook air, and I’m happy with everything besides the battery

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    1. Then you *do* see what the problem is. Fool.

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  2. Sorry but I think you’re just trying to stir things up. The MacBook Air was a test and one that has proved very very lucrative for Apple. The MBA has been a very healthy seller and has for many months sat in the top 10 Apple Store sales.

    Sure there are thousands of $999 1st-gen models in the refurb Apple store but there are also still last-gen (oct-08) 2.6Ghz pre-unibody MBPs selling as well.

    All I’m saying is, the MBA is a great machine, it fits a need and people that have one REALLY LOVE THEM and since the NVIDIA chipset was added, speed has really improved.

    I think Apple isn’t making radical changes for a few reasons.

    1. Unibody – MBA had it first but how do they improve it?
    2. Built in battery – how do you improve that besides increase the battery life
    3. Intel Core2Duo – the current chipset and intel chip can’t go any faster currently so Apple can only upgrade the MBA when Intel gives them a faster chip that fits in the .78″ thin MBA. (remember the diagram showing the motherboard next to a pencil?)
    4. Size. .16″ thin at the smallest part do you want thinner?

    In my opinion, the MacBook Air was ahead of its time and still ahead of its time but I’d like to see Apple not upgrade the speed of it and give us an MBA for $999 new out of the box w/ a 64GB SSD. I’ll buy one when that happens. I don’t think it’s being killed off.

    I owned a 12″ PowerBook G4 and that thing sucked!

    1. Crap battery life
    2. you could LITERALLY cook eggs on the bottom of it
    3. Very slow

    Honestly, I don’t think it even deserved the PRO name back in the day but that’s my opinion.

    The MBA is a separate class of notebook and will be around for a very long time.

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    1. agree on 1, 2

      For 3,
      That depends on how much RAM did run your PowerBook G4 on.

      That being said, apps like Safari 3+ can really be PowerBook killers – just look at the real/virtual memory usage in ‘Activity Monitor’ after an hour of browsing/streaming.

      Gets even worse when it comes to ‘office’ apps like NeoOffice which can literally take longer to launch than it takes for computers to BOOT UP! :)

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  3. It is a truism that Apple is ruthless regarding technologies and products, and I honestly believe the story of the 12″ PowerBook G4 is instructive regarding the MBA. If enough overlap occurs between the MBA and the MBP, it will be the death of the former. Additionally, sales matter, too.

    Regarding MacBook Air sales, Apple doesn’t provide data. We do know that the most popular laptop used to be the entry-level MacBook. It will be interesting to see if the 13″ MacBook Pro outsells the white MacBook. That is a data point that may come out a conference call. If so, that would not augur well for the MacBook Air, either, in my opinion.

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    1. I can’t imagine the 13″ MBP not outselling the MacBook Air, and by a healthy margin at that. It’s not so much the MBA got worse, but the 13″ MBP was a huge step up for Apple’s line.

      But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion at all that the MBA will be discontinued. I think they discontinued the 12″ PB because there was nowhere for them to take it (hence the lowly updates). But it remains to be seen if the MBA has anything waiting in the wings for it. The price cut certainly helped a lot to bring it in line with the updated MacBooks.

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  4. Why would you buy anything from a company that sells stuff with lies, e.g. Apple or Google?

    Apple lies about security and stability, both about its own products and about Microsoft’s. (Note that when Apple compares the current OSX to Windows 98, they *are* right about Windows 98, but not Vista or Windows 7 – pretty sneaky, yet a blatant lie.)

    Google just lies about security of the future Chrome OS; every OS has security issues, and perfect security is simply impossible.

    Microsoft does not do more than exaggerate about the merits of its own products, like all for-profits do. It does not lie. If you think I’m wrong, please demonstrate.

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    1. Why would you buy anything from a company that sells stuff with lies, e.g. Apple or Google?

      I work in advertising so I just find this charmingly naive.

      And oh yea, the company that gave the world Fear Uncertainty and Doubt as a marketing strategy never, ever lies. Riiiiiight.

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  5. andelsboligtilsalg Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    @Astrochimp

    How about you back your claims up with some proof?, instead of throwing stuff in the air, and then say that WE have to prove you wrong?.

    Move on troll

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  6. Howie Isaacks Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    I think you’re over analyzing things a bit. Maybe the button is still there because Apple felt that it was still needed for some reason. Maybe they haven’t decided yet to change the trackpad. The 12 inch PowerBook was discontinued for many reasons. First, Apple wanted to move its entire laptop lineup to wide screen displays. Second, there was the Intel switch. Third, the MacBook did away with the need for an additional small laptop. Lastly, Apple was very likely in the early development phase of designing the MacBook Air. The 12 inch PowerBook was awesome. I loved mine, but I sold it just over a year after buying it, and replaced it with a black MacBook.

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  7. Central Squared Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    I hope this isn’t the case with the MBA. I have a rev 1, and while it definitely has its share of issues (primarily the utter crap video performance, mostly solved by undervolting with coolbook), I love the machine. It’s light, easy to carry around, and is a constant companion on my travels. I think the price and current specs are more in line with its capabilities now than when it first appeared, but that’s what I get for being an early adopter. I knew that going in. I’ve had a few people ask me about buying a used rev 1 and I always advise them not to do it, but rather spend a little more a get a new one. But I do hope the model lives on, if only to carry the torch for the 12″ PB.

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    1. theyPod, uPod, iPod, yPod? Wednesday, July 15, 2009

      I love my first generation MacBook Air too. It is my first laptop that I have EVER felt like carrying around with me because it is so thin AND light (the light part being most important).

      I have owned many other laptops before the MacBook Air including the following in order of oldest to most recent: PowerBook 530c, PowerBook G3 (the Lombard one with the Bronze keyboard), iBook G3 (white one), PowerBook G4, MacBook Pro (first generation). All of these laptops I have dreaded carrying around with me because they’re so heavy. I currently use a MacBook Pro (first gen) and MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro sits at home like a desktop computer and the MacBook Air goes around with me (including bathroom trips…hahahah, to work, to cafe, etc.)

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  8. Wow, newsflash everybody: Technology changes!!!

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  9. A waste of cybermolecules.

    The post, not the MBA.

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  10. I enjoyed this post and the window you’ve given on the development of the Air and the PowerBook G4, but I’m not quite sure I understand the doom-laden attitude of this post. Technologies change. We would not be well served if Apple were still serving us with a IIC.

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