Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Just Because the MacBook Air "Isn't for me" Doesn't Mean Isn't A Niche Product

That's a long title, but it's an important point. The MacBook Air, a marvel of engineering, is actually lighter than Apple claims simply because of all the hot air their marketing and PR folks have injected into it.

It's not that its poorly designed or ugly; it isn't. It is by all accounts a lovely companion piece to most any Mac. But within that sentence lies the problem: the MacBook Air is very dependent on having a second computer to help it with many otherwise basic computer tasks. It needs either a pre-configured wireless router or a USB LAN adapter, because nearly all 802.11 routers must be configured via ethernet to turn on wireless networking.

In addition, any software installed must be hosted elsewhere, unless you spring for the external SuperDrive. Although more and more software is available via the web, I doubt MacOS 10.6 will be downloadable from Apple.com. To say nothing of the troubleshooting headaches that can occur should life take an unexpected turn and leave your MacBook Air in a non-operative state.

The Air lacks Firewire; an Apple standard for nearly a decade. It lacks multiple USB ports, meaning more wires and clutter should you need to use multiple devices. It lacks expandable RAM, so it has even less of an upgrade path than nearly any Apple laptop in history. Let’s not even bring up the lack of a user-servicable battery.

Steve likes to compare Apple to BMW. They may not have the biggest market share, but they’re still a leader. That’s all well and good, Steve, but
would you buy a luxury car with only a driver’s-side door? What if it only had an AM radio, or a four-cylinder engine?

When I saw Steve introduce the MacBook Air, a strange thought crossed my mind: this is Steve's response to everyone who's asked for a 12" MacBook Pro. And his response was: "You don't want one, let me show you why." The reason people wanted a twelve-inch laptop is certainly size, but the twelve-inch fans largely fall into two groups: those who like ever-shrinking tech-toys, and those who like that they can use it in coach seats during airplane flights.

While one group has been served, the other hasn’t.

Owners of the MacBook Air are certainly allowed to enjoy it, but they need to stop acting like the Air was this world-changing necessity. It’s a luxury item in very sense of the word. I challenge someone to point out a reasonable situation that the MacBook Air suits better than the standard MacBook. You can’t. Once opened, the Air is no smaller than a regular MacBook, so the only real advantage the Air has is weight. And I’m sorry, Air fans, but a four pound difference, while high in terms of percentage, is pretty much nil in the real world.

So, the only places the Air exceeds the standard MacBook are volume and the multi-touch trackpad. And who’s to say we won’t see multi-touch on the rest of the MacBook lineup soon? I am completely willing to give Apple credit for pushing the design envelope. The MacBook Air is very definition of ultra-portable. It's just not ultra-versatile — or ultra competitive in the real world.