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Why the MacBook Air will be the iMac of notebooks

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Apple’s iMac (s aapl) occupies a prized place in a fast-growing segment of the overall desktop PC market, the all-in-ones, that few others can approach. That’s how Apple can continue to show growth in an area where sales are slowing for other competitors, and it managed that advantage by being there early. Like the iMac before it, the MacBook Air is Apple’s next perfectly placed and timed attack on the competition.

Doing it before it was cool

The iMac was an all-in-one long before the form factor was popular, although it arrived much later than its own predecessor, the original Macintosh computer. Still, at the time the iMac arrived, the competition was all about separate towers and monitors. All-in-ones had trade-offs that seemed considerable at the time, including fewer customization options and no opportunity to really get into the high-performance range of personal computing.

Fast-forward to today, 14 years after the introduction of the first iMac, and it is the computer with the lion’s share of the hottest growth area in desktop computing. According to DisplaySearch, as reported by Bloomberg on Wednesday, the iMac accounts for 32.9 percent of the all-in-one desktop market, which itself grew 39 percent over the course of 2011 to 14.5 million shipments worldwide. DisplaySearch believes that the market will reach 23.3 million units by 2014, and Apple looks likely to lead the pack, since its next-closest competitor is Lenovo, with 22.7 percent of all-in-one sales.

Early investment pays later dividends

Apple doesn’t always strike a vein when it comes to early, unusual designs for its computers. The G4 Cube is a prime example. But that doesn’t mean they don’t bear fruit. The Cube formed the groundwork for the Mac mini, which succeeds as an HTPC and an inexpensive Mac desktop option. Likewise, the early MacBook Air, which was expensive, somewhat underpowered and mostly admired from afar, paved the way for the current generation of sleek, fast, awesome general-use machines.

Apple worked out its ultraportable teething issues early, while competitors either looked on in disbelief that anyone would want such a device (its downsides vs. traditional notebooks were similar to the iMac’s flaws regarding user customization and repairs) or offered even more half-baked attempts at competing, like Dell’s Adamo.(s dell) The first iteration of the MacBook Air meant Apple was ready to come back cheaper, faster and stronger.

Playing catch-up

Now Intel (s intc) is prompting other notebook manufacturers to jump in late and try to capitalize on the demand for ultraportables. CES pitches are littered with the term, and it seems like every PC maker is planning an Air-like notebook for release in the near term. But the iMac’s doppelgängers haven’t managed to dethrone it, and I highly doubt we will see the notebook market behave very differently.

With both the iMac and the MacBook Air, Apple managed to successfully skate to where the puck’s going to be, and in doing so it has put itself at the fore of growth areas in overall markets (desktop and notebook PCs) that are otherwise sluggish. For users, that means both the iMac and the Air will be among Apple’s most exciting products to watch in 2012 and beyond.

9 Responses to “Why the MacBook Air will be the iMac of notebooks”

  1. mikeguest1

    The Airs are great machines because of the hardware and software. This article gets that and I’m glad it’s not another article raving about the upcoming notebooks by other companies. These companies are still going to put Windows on their machines and for that alone they are wasting their time. Apple makes a great operating system that is easy to use and understand. It’s also very secure, which I can’t say for Windows which requires constant babysitting for antimalware, antivirus, and firewall software. Windows machines, regardless of how light they are, just aren’t good enough.

  2. Digital Dazzle

    The Air is a great consumer notebook, but not a good professional notebook – the graphics are simply not good enough for professionals. As much as I hope for a 15″ MBA with great graphics and 8MB of RAM, until it arrives I hope Apple won’t discontinue the 15″ MBP, since that is today’s portable powerhouse…

  3. Well said, I waited for the current 13″ MacBook Air, and I’m extremely pleased with my purchase. The $INTC i5, backlit keyboard & the move to 4GB memory won me over.

  4. Rob Metras

    I like my MBP but use it more of a desktop. Look forward to my next being an Air as my portable office. I have had,HP,Acer,Dell laptops but find the world on the Mac side just so much easier. My first computer was an Apple II with a 5.25 floppy drive and Visicalc. I enjoyed your puck analogy Darrell as it clearly defined your citizenship and mine also.

  5. JaviPas

    The PC market is in decline, whilst Mac computers have done really well for the past few years, but I wouldn’t put the iMac as an iconic or revolutionary product. It has its advantages, but all-in-one computers from traditional PC vendors haven’t attracted the user in all these years, and I don’t think the reason was poor quality. It’s just that this machines have little perceived benefits besides the fact that you save space.

    The MacBook Air, on the other side, is a product that was wrong when it launched originally (as the Sony VAIO Z, who was little known) because of its high price. The compromise was too high. The prices of components and the efficiency and features of new processors (mostly because their integrated GPUs) have allowed to what we have today, and as many other times before, Apple has seen the answer before his rivals.

    But ultrabooks are promising. And people use Windows. That’s not changing so easily, despite the good efforts at Apple.

    Anyway, the conclusion is the same: the headline should have used other Apple product (such as the iPhone or the iPod), but not the iMac, whose concept hasn’t been really that successful or followed by Apple’s rivals.

    • Nicholas

      It’s innovation is recognizing that the market can be primarily consumer oriented without being cheap. iOS devices represent this better, and I expect the lines to blur with cloud services representing the glue.

      This has left Dell, HP, et al without a consumer response in a market where even business people prefer the consumer oriented products.

  6. nicholas

    I find a pro laptop to be a poor purchase. Since the PowerBook 2400, I have been trying to go as light and as powerful as possible. The current Air is damn fast, albeit limited in memory. Offloading my extensive music connection to the cloud through iTunes has helped alleviate the problem however.

    My heart loves the 11″, although my aging eyes love the 13″. I expect that a 15″ is in my future! Still light and thin however…

  7. This article reads a bit like an advert, in particular:

    “paved the way for the current generation of sleek, fast, awesome general use machines.”

    Why is the Apple section of GigaOM of a less high quality than the rest of it?

    • ViewRoyal

      Why does reality bother you so much?

      It is a fact that the MacBook Air “paved the way for the current generation” of what are being called “ultrabooks”.

      Since those ultrabooks are heavily influenced (i.e. copied) from the the design and specs of the MacBook Air… but coming out 4 years after the first MacBook Air went on sale in January, 2008. ;-)