MacBook Air is a niche product

I could spend hours trying to read all the news articles and blog posts about Apple’s big announcement today of the new MacBook Air.

People are blindly rewriting Apple’s talking points praising it as “ultra-thin,” which I guess is true though it’s less than 25% thinner than Apple laptops from 3 years ago. They’re also talking about how the removal of just about every physical port from the device “isn’t a big deal” because everything’s wireless now.

I don’t know about that.

It’s a bold idea: there are only four connections remaining on the new laptop: headphone, USB, Micro-DVI (external monitor) and a power connector. Both the power connector and monitor connector are redesigns. The power connector is a new, thinner MagSafe connector, while Micro-DVI is Yet Another Redesigned Video Connector, replacing the Mini-DVI connector on the MacBook, which replaced the Mini-VGA connector on the iBook, which replaced the regular VGA connector on earlier notebooks.

Macbook Air

What’s missing? A lot:

  • Firewire ports
  • Spare USB ports
  • A microphone jack (which was removed from the iBook and brought back with the MacBook)
  • An ethernet port
  • A replaceable battery

But the most stunning omission is the optical drive. Those of you old enough might remember the iMac, when Apple decided to release the first computer without a floppy disk drive. (It was available as an optional external USB device.) That too was considered bold, but they were replacing it with an optical drive, Firewire, USB and networking. People got used to it because the cheap-but-really-low-capacity disks were already on the way out.

This isn’t the case with CDs and DVDs. We’re still arguing on a format for high-definition DVDs, and nothing is seriously on the horizon to replace optical disks as a data medium for music and movies.

The other thing that bothers me is that Apple proclaims that wireless is replacing all the communications methods. I can respect that. It’s just so much more convenient to use wireless Bluetooth and Wi-Fi communications now. But the optional external ethernet port and optical drive don’t have wireless: They communicate by USB. And with just that one USB port, it means you can’t connect to a wired link and read a CD/DVD at the same time. Or connect to the Internet and a digital camera at the same time to upload your pictures to Flickr. Or connect to your digital camera and burn a CD at the same time.

It’s a recipe for annoyance, just to get a quarter inch off the thickness of the machine (and sell it at twice the price).

But MacBook Air will have its niche. Some people don’t have peripherals (or they have a wireless base station they all connect to). Some people have no desire to watch DVDs while they’re sitting on the train to Toronto. Some people don’t need a second battery for their laptops. And some people just buy Apple products because they exist, whether or not they provide the features they look for.

It’s a niche market that sadly excludes me. I prefer to have a laptop whose “features” I don’t have to find creative ways to work around.

3 thoughts on “MacBook Air is a niche product

  1. Denis Canuel

    I agree, they could’ve (at least) added a tiny slot for DVD or BlueRay. Knowing how Apple is often aggressive, I would’ve understood if they would’ve gone BlueRay only (no DVD capability). But going naked is strange. Perhaps they want to promote their Apple TV product. Steve’s strange sometimes… or maybe he knows something we don’t.

  2. blork

    There’s no doubt it’s a niche product. Also, it’s a pretty big leap forward design-wise, in terms of it being a full size computer with a full size screen and keyboard that is also exceptionally small and light.

    I think they’re trying to make a point. I think they’re trying to really push the wireless thing, and this product is sort of a “proof of concept” for not having all the usual ports.

    Basically, it will appeal to people who have a lot of extra money ($3000 for the flash drive version!!!) and who want to have the slickest laptop around. I think they will actually find that market.

    I have a theory about the lack of upgradeability, or at least the lack of access to the battery and RAM ports. I think it’s due to structural limitations of the casing.

    The top priority of this design seems to have been to make it thin. So instead of it having a frame inside with a skin around it, I suspect it’s got some kind of “unibody” design. To cut holes in that body to make doorways to the battery and RAM ports (etc.), would probably weaken the structure.

  3. Frank

    While i’m a fervent Mac user and admirer of Apple the MB Air, a wonderful piece of engineering and industrial design, will not suit the road warriors imo. Perhaps your readers can chime in but I think the lack of a built-in e-net jack will dissuade some as wifi may not be present in all hotel/motel rooms and lugging another piece of equipment (the 29$ enet-USB connector) is just another thing waiting to be lost.


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