Apple's MacBook Air: evolution, not revolution

As I write this it's a little after noon Eastern Time on Jan. 15. I'm sitting in front of my computer (a Mac of course) watching two different live blogs coming from people watching the Steve Jobs keynote at Macworld 2008. I'm watching to see what, if any, "big" announcements Steve will make.

There was a, for Apple, reasonable level of hype leading up to this talk. Not like last year when everyone knew that the iPhone was coming (even if they did not know what an iPhone was). Most of the buzz this time was about a possible "ultra portable."

A third of the way through the 90 minutes that was projected for the event and there was not anything all that major announced: wireless backup for Macs at under US$500 for a TB, some new features for the iPhone and iTouch, and movie rentals through iTunes. Now he is talking about an updated Apple TV that supports HD and does not need a computer.

An hour into the talk Steve introduced the MacBook Air - the "world's thinnest notebook." It's not my dream machine but it's very nice - more of an incremental improvement than something that creates a whole new mold-breaking concept.

Small, light and very thin, focused on wireless (e.g., no built-in Ethernet but a USB-to-Ethernet adapter), solid state or rotating disk, optional external optical drive, multi-touch trackpad, good battery life - all good things. But the MacBook Air section of the Apple Web site seems to indicate that the memory cannot be expanded and maybe that the battery cannot be changed. (There is no ordering option for additional memory and there's no listing for an extra battery.) All in all, a very good laptop that will likely boost the rate of increase in Apple's laptop market share (which was already projected to be almost 30% this quarter, even before the announcement).

But I am a bit disappointed. The MacBook Air is no iPhone. This is not a product that will change the definition of a class of products like the iPhone did to smart phones. That does not mean that I think that Apple's role as the primary innovation engine is over, far from it. In this case Apple has taken a concept that others have explored (a thin, small-ish laptop without an optical drive) and applied real design skills. Putting a MacBook Air alongside a Dell Latitude D430 is to embarrass the Dell. But Apple has not created a new concept for portable computing with the MacBook Air. Maybe next time.

I guess I've gotten jaded. In the last few years there have been just too many 'change-the-world' innovations from Apple. From OSX (real Unix for the rest of us) to the iPod (redefine portable music players) to iTunes (redefine the business practices of the music industry) to the iPhone (redefine smart phones) Apple has been on quite a streak.

The MacBook Air is not in that class but it looks rather good. I've already sent my query about availability to the university store. And, come to think of it, it may redefine my mode of operation from 'carry a laptop when you need it' to carry the laptop all the time' - for me, a mini revolution.

Disclaimer: Harvard has watched many revolutions, both mini and major, but has expressed no opinion on the MacBook Air or on Apple's impact, so the above is my ramble.

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Scott Bradner

Network World
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