The MacBook Air Is Doomed

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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.

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