MacBook Air will redefine personal computing

Numbers define us. Last night's U.S. election redefined government by numbers: 51 -- the number of Democratic seats remaining, and they are enough to retain control of the Senate; 239 -- the projected number of Republican House of Representatives seats, which is more than enough for the party to seize control. Birthday, social security, age, bank account and many other numbers define who we are and how we interact with things and people. This week and probably through much of November, I am defined by three numbers: 32, 64, 128 -- and they will likely impact you over the next couple years.

Thirty-two is the GB storage capacity of my iPhone 4; 64GB is storage capacity of my iPad; and 128GB is my new 11.6-inch MacBook Air's storage capacity. I received the Air on Monday and started using it yesterday. These three devices share something more than an Apple logo in common. They represent for Apple, and eventually other computer makers, a shift towards consumer electronics-style design, manufacturing and marketing. The iPad and MacBook Air are industry defining and leading products, by the numbers.

A 'Transition Machine'

"I think this may be the transition machine from 'computer' to 'device,'" Betanews reader Jim Cooper says about MacBook Air. "Having replaced numerous hard drives, processors, memory, etc. on lots of computers, there is something elegant about not doing that. A 'self contained' device that functions as a computer, not a 'sum of its parts' -- I think this is part of the draw of the iPad. Techies want to tweak; consumers just want it to work."

Cooper, who is a CIO, should know, and I agree with his assessment. Many Mac pundits have pined about newer MacBook Air models being revolutionary because Apple adopted solid-state storage. There's nothing trend-setting about that. The first netbooks sported SSDs, and Apple uses flash memory in other products. Air is noteworthy for the sum of its parts -- what they do or don't add up to.

Configuration and customization have long defined the personal computer. I bought my first PC, running Windows 3.1, in January 1994. A friend built the machine from parts; 486, 120 and 4 defined it -- Intel processor, megabytes of hard drive and megabytes of memory, respectively. Two months later, I doubled the RAM to 8MB and upgraded the graphics card to 1MB. I didn't have much upgrade options when choosing MacBook Air, which as Cooper observes "does not look upgradeable without serious modification." That's an understatement, based on iFixit's 11.6-inch MacBook Air teardown. MacBook Air's design is compact and tidy, packing some proprietary components in a package not meant to be touched after manufacturing.

In configuring my MacBook Air, I had to make certain feature decisions -- and Apple doesn't give many options to choose from -- at time of purchase. Rather than one of the two preconfigured models, I went for the max, which seemingly isn't much compared to other computers. Three numbers define my custom-configured Air: 1.6 (the gigahertz of the Core 2 Duo processor), 4 (the gigabytes of memory) and 128 (the gigabytes of flash storage). I'll live with these numbers for the life of the computer and the consequences should one of the major parts fail. MacBook Air shares much more with consumer electronics devices than PCs. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was right when during last month's "Back to the Mac" media event he said: "We asked ourselves, what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up? Well, this is the result. We think it's the future of notebooks."

Consumer Electronics Shift

The iPad is even more consumer electronics-like than MacBook Air; there are no optional configuration options. Like with most CE devices, buyers make their final features decisions at point of purchase. While applications can extend functionality, the core hardware is locked in place. Gartner and IDC are both on record as asserting that iPad is pulling sales away from netbooks, yesterday, Changewave pined in. "The decline of Netbooks is attributable to a combination of factors including the end of the recession and the mounting penetration of tablet computers -- notably the Apple iPad," writes Paul Carlton, ChangeWave's vice president of research. "Moreover, in a close-up look at tablet demand trends for the holidays our ChangeWave survey finds continuing momentum for the iPad." Oh yeah? Why in a weekend visit to my local Fry's Electronics store did I find 17 netbooks on display?

I'm not a big fan of the netbook category, which analysts define by various criteria and not all of them simultaneously -- atom processor, size and weight, display and low cost; all measured by numbers. I use different criteria: Netbooks are so-called industry-standard PC makers' first real forays into consumer electronics-style manufacturing. Netbooks are more CE-like than are larger notebooks, based on size, cost, portability and more limited -- but not prohibitive like MacBook Air -- upgradeability.

Convergence is pushing the other way, too, as traditional CE manufacturers adopt PC or PC-like operating systems, such as Google's Android for TVs and set-top boxes or Microsoft's MediaRoom for IPTV services and supporting set-top boxes. By whichever measure -- more PC-like CE devices or personal computers as more CE-like -- the future is clear: The days of tech tweaking are fast-fading. Netbooks, tablets and smartphones are consumer electronic devices and personal computers. The trend isn't new. But how Apple embraces the model -- increased emphasis on end-to-end design, manufacturing, distribution and user experience -- defies nearly 30 years of Wintel convention.

End-to-End's Defining Future

Some long-time computer users won't easily make the transition. In October 26th post "Who is buying MacBook Air?" some Betanews readers answered why or why not. The majority of respondents said they won't buy the Apple portable, with many citing price and system configuration as reason. I must say that the 1.6GHz processor challenged me, too. How could I step down from a laptop running a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo processor? But after trying out 11.6-inch Air at Apple Store, I put aside these numbers. The laptop was responsive and speedy -- as is the one I started using yesterday. Apple had done something with all that integration to produce a zippy "little engine that could."

With MacBook Air, Apple shifts priority to other numbers, like dimensions (for smaller Air, 0.3-1.7 cm high, 29.95 cm wide, 19.2 cm deep and 1.06 kg weight), battery life (5 to 7 hours, depending on model) and startup time (basically instant on when lifting up the cover). Then there are other numbers Air owners may not see, such as the speed of the drive controller or read-write time of the flash memory. The approach shows the benefits of offering a complete software and hardware package -- and it's likely to become more Apple proprietary over time. Surely, for example, the next MacBook Air rev, or perhaps the one after, will replace the Intel processor for Apple's A4 chip. It's no coincidence that Research in Motion and HP are producing, respectively, BlackBerry and WebOS tablets using the end-to-end model.

Quick clarification: Intel and Microsoft may have defined the system building associated with personal computing for nearly three decades, but end-to-end is a longstanding model. IBM built its mainframe monopoly of the last major computer era by offering hardware, software and support services. Same end-to-end approach can be said of Cisco routers or Unix servers from HP and Sun (now absorbed by Oracle).

In a way, Microsoft is adopting a similar model for its business. Rather than sell separate bits, Microsoft wants corporations -- and even consumers -- to bite into the concept of software as a cloud service. Make no mistake, for all Microsoft's current dependence on its partners to sell and service software, the company is charting a future of direct sales. It's the core strategy behind Azure and online services like Office 365. Businesses buy hosted services from Microsoft, which provides real-time, always-on access and manages the updates. Instead of corporations rolling out the newest business critical software over several years, they get the newest stuff from the hosted Microsoft service without all the management headaches or expense. I'll write more about this topic in the future. Suffice for today, I'll say that end-to-end software services is the sense behind Microsoft extending its Office-Windows-Windows Server apps stack to the cloud datacenter.

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