Thursday, January 31, 2008

MacBook Air: iMac or Cube?

The introduction of the new Mac laptop is a bold move by Apple, as the subnotebook radically eliminates some components that may be considered essential.

Every single Mac that Apple has released since 1998 has had Ethernet connectivity, as well as an optical drive. Since 2001, every Macintosh has also shipped with a FireWire port.

The MacBook Air does away with all three.

Sure, there are workarounds, but all are cumbersome. Ethernet is available as a $29 dongle that Apple sells separately, though it would occupy the single USB port of the Air. External optical drives also exist (Apple sells one exclusively for the MacBook Air), but carrying such additional devices around somewhat defeats the purpose of having a super thin, super light notebook. The external drive would also need to fight over the single USB port with competing devices, unless you buy yet another companion product, a USB hub.

You can also hack into the optical drives of neighboring Macs or even PCs with a piece of software that is reputed to "just work," as one expects from Apple. However, it's kind of creepy to be constantly asking favors from fellow computer users, even installing software on their machines, whenever you want to use an optical drive. And those computers had better be equipped with WiFi, too.

And as for FireWire, you're pretty much out of luck there.

So, what the hell were they thinking? How could such a device ever sell?

Well, Apple did make a similarly radical move back in 1998, when it introduced the original iMac. Steve Jobs was back with a vengeance, and he chose a pretty dramatic way to show everyone he means business: he released a sexy-looking, simple entry-level Mac that lacked a floppy drive, and eschewed traditional ports such as SCSI or ADB in favor of USB. So what happened? The iMac sold as hot cakes, and peripheral makers started to build USB keyboards, mice, scanners, etc. The floppy disk was already on its way out, but the iMac's snub might have been the last nail in its coffin. So, the iMac pretty much changed the world around it.

Will the MacBook Air do the same? Will USB flash drives kill optical disks? Will WiFi drive Ethernet into extinction? Is Apple knifing its own FireWire baby?

It certainly looks like Apple would very much like all of this to happen. Just as modems started to disappear from Macs, Ethernet may be next, surviving only in professional machines. Optical drives may still stick around for a while, though, but Apple doesn't think they will be missed from the MacBook Air. While you'll still need to leech the drive of a neighboring computer for software installs, the Mac maker would prefer if you turned to its products and services instead of using an optical drive: get music and video off iTunes, use iPods instead of burning CDs, and buy Time Capsule for backups. Clever.

There certainly is method in this madness. Anyone in the market for a $1,800 notebook must have some cash to burn on these products and services, so each Air sold (especially in countries where the iTunes Store is available in its full glory) should generate some guaranteed extra revenue for Apple. Besides, these relatively wealthy people probably already have a Mac at home anyway, helping them overcome most of their objections to the Air.

If sales of the Air reach a critical mass, the new Mac could help reform the computing landscape, just like the iMac did a decade ago. If sales end up failing to go off the charts, but remain respectable, then, well, Apple can still boast a successful niche product, and I'm sure that a hundred bucks or two may go off the price eventually, if needed.

But what if Apple has made a major miscalculation, like the one in the case of the Power Mac Cube? Wasn't it also a relatively underpowered pro-level Mac that the market deemed too expensive? Pundits crucified the Cube for putting style over substance, and weak sales of the radical-looking new Mac spelled serious trouble for the still-vulnerable Apple.

I don't think there's any reason to anticipate a similar fate for the MacBook Air. There may be some superficial similarities to the Cube, but the differences are more significant:

  • As far as tech specs go, the Cube was clearly a weaker product than the Power Mac, yet it cost more. The MacBook Air is also a weaker product than the MacBook Pro, but it costs less as well. (However, it may also be compared to the MacBook, and it wouldn't fare so well in that comparison: the Air is the less capable and more expensive of the two notebooks.)
  • Miniaturization is not such a strong selling point for a desktop Mac as it is for a notebook. The beauty of the Cube was mostly skin deep, whereas the thinness of the Air is also very practical.
  • Apple's revenues in fiscal 2001 were $5.65 billion, whereas in 2007, they were $24 billion. Apple can better afford to risk less-than-optimal initial sales of a new experimental niche product now than it could at the time of the Cube.
I definitely don't think one should worry too much about the fate of the Air. It may not necessarily become a second iMac, but it really shouldn't be a second Cube either.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Yet more whining on Apple secrecy

I'm sure Jens Alfke is a great guy and a great engineer, and I understand if he leaves Apple due to creative differences. Yet some of his comments seem to warrant a big "Duh!"

I think Apple’s policy on blogging is one of the least enlightened of major tech companies; Microsoft in particular is surprisingly open.
Well, Apple has been all about secrecy for the past decade or so, while Microsoft, perhaps the world's greatest vendor of vaporware, has always embraced blabbering as one of its main communication tools. Isn't it as simple as this?