The Fabulous Transformation of Apple’s MacBook Air

| Analysis

There was a time when the MacBook Air (MBA) was considered a high-end, overly expensive, limited capability toy for wealthy business people to show off in First Class. Nowadays, it’s simply Apple’s entry level notebook.

How did that happen?

First, Apple set a design standard and let the CPU and storage technology grow into maturity, in sync with the size and weight of the MBA. But that’s not all Apple did.

MBA Family

MacBook Air Family (Credit: Apple)

When the first MBA came out, Apple made a commitment to the idea that hard disks will fade away in portable devices. Apple had the experience with the iPhone and iPods to be confident they could do that, and technically aggressive customers supported Apple’s technology movement forward by purchasing MBAs with solid state storage, even if the early ones were 64 GB and gawd-awful expensive.

Now, we’re all benefitting from that early, aggressive move by Apple and its early adopters. So while some declared that the first MBA was suitable only for travelers and light weight duty, the vision of the MBA turned out to be fulfilled by Moore’s Law and falling component prices. Essentially, Apple asked, “Where do we want to be?” and not “What can we build today and make a buck?”

Say Goodnight Gracie, er, DVD

The decision to deprecate the SuperDrive, that is, optical storage, fit in well with that plan. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t burned a DVD in years, and I seldom use the optical drive in my MacBook Pro. The optical drive was great for its time, but its time has passed. As some people like to say, we all know what Steve Jobs knows, he just knows it sooner than we do.

Deprecating and eventually eliminating the optical drive and DVDs goes a long way towards explaining why Apple resisted the call to migrate to Blu-ray in its computers in 2008 through 2010. When Mr. Jobs said in October of 2008 that “Blu-ray is a bag of hurt,” it now seems like a mild deception.  It would have been impolitic to declare the death of the optical drive back then.

Evolution (Or Intelligent Design?)

Manufacturing processes also change the game. For a long time, it was cheap and easy to supply low cost, legacy designs like the MacBook to the education community, especially K-12. Low costs are key in that market when it comes to winning bids and fighting off Dell and HP. But now, the 11.6-inch MBA without a lot of metal and sans moving parts can be made much more cheaply than before. There comes a time when an old design, like the white plastic MacBook just has to die. Eventually, it makes a company that loves to move briskly into the future look bad.

Evolving software technologies also change the game. We can now reinstall Lion from Apple’s servers (on the newest Macs) or from that hidden partition. Rebooting from a DVD just isn’t necessary anymore. Once Apple decided to deprecate the optical drive, they asked themselves what technologies they had that could replace it, and guess what? They were ready and waiting: Boot Camp’s partitioning on the fly and Remote Boot which has been around for years, occasionally used in the enterprise, but never pressed into routine use for consumers. Thunderbolt supersedes FireWire, eliminates several ports at once and keeps the design light and simple. And now we know why Apple never committed to FireWire 3200.

Last but not least, the Core i5 and i7 in the new MBAs are screamers and make the old Core 2 Duos look pathetic. Recent benchmarks show that the new MBAs are as fast or faster than a 2010, 2.67 GHz 17-inch MacBook Pro. It’s now a machine to lust for by everyone.

As a result of all this, a Mac that was considered an expensive, limited business toy in 2008 has become a mainstream Mac, flying off the shelves in 2011. It’s been a remarkable transition.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Join the TMO Express Daily Newsletter to get the latest Mac headlines in your e-mail every weekday.

9 Comments Leave Your Own

Noam

logicpro08.0.2 wont work whit lionosx “You can’t use this version of the application Logic Pro.app with this version of Mac OS X.You have Logic Pro.app 8.0.2”.that is the message when i try to open my studio.but i dont want it.what can i do?.thanks noamk

b0wz3r

I just accepted a full time faculty position at a four year college, and have decided to reward myself by replacing my 2008 Santa Rosa MBP.  The new 13” MBA will be an awesome replacement for it…  I’m really looking forward to getting one.

mb

Like the analysis. When I went for the 2. gen MBA I thought it as a lightweight office for traveling. Now I use it more than my MacPro w 30”...
But I actually have to admit that the iPad is about to replace the replacer wink

eolake

Well said, they are amazing.

What “hidden partition” is that?

John Martellaro

eolake: The Lion installation creates a hidden partition on your HDD/SSD that has a pristine copy of Lion plus diagnostic tools.  You can reinstall from there, so no need for a DVD to boot from.

See:

http://www.macobserver.com/tmo/article/whats_best_about_lion/

and:

http://www.macobserver.com/tmo/article/my_favorite_stealthy_lion_features/

eolake

Aha, thank you. I have both articles in Instapaper on my iPad, but news have been thick recently!

Kewl idea, BTW.

DamenS

Unfortunately Apple’s insistence that Optical storage is dead seems to apply to their computers which have optical drives too (meaning that an advertised functionality is missing). 

Since upgrading to Snow Leopard, my 2008 Macbook Pro would no longer burn any form of DVD (whereas it still would when I used my Windows bootcamp partition). 

I have since bought a 2011 iMac 27 inch with all of the upgrades and it cannot burn a DVD either (though it can with Windows 7 - ironic, huh ?).  Although ay least with the new iMac, it’s inability to burn DVD’s is less of a concern than it’s inability to maintain any WiFi connection (once again it works fine on Windows 7).

WetcoastBob

The latest upgrades to the 13"MBA now allow me to retire my 15” MBP (2006).  The cream is back illumination on the keyboard.

It is now the ideal on-the-road machine for a photographer.

Rod

Sorry for a long comment, but here’s what I think Mr. Jobs has in mind concerning the MBA:
The MBA will be ditched within 2011, likely this quarter.
The MacBook will reincarnate into the 13” MBA form factor.
The 11-inch MB Air form factor will become the revived iBook.
The new iBook will be powered by an A5/A6 and run under iOSX.
The base model will probably cost somewhere between $699-$799.
The new iBook will consolidate iOSX as the widest, the most consistent, completely integrated platform/echosystem in the computer industry.
In the first half of 2012 Lion will be licenced to HP, Dell, and family..
This move will be wellcome by PC makers. They will breath fresh financial air, as MS will have to slash Windows price scheme.
Apple can still keep a 10%+ market share as the BMW of PC makers.
Plus Apple will dominate a 70%+  of the high-end-phone + tablet PC market phenomenon.

At $30 a copy, Lion will throw a deadly blow on M$ income.
In a few years, Lion may well tear down Windows supremacy too.
That’s what the LION name means, right?  The KING of the jungle.
I suspect the ‘Lion’ name was thought for this master strategic blow.
A few years ago somebody wrote an article headed by: “The OS war is over. Apple lost”  The author may be soon wanting to reconsider.
Sometime next year he might ponder writing another article under the name OS WAR-2: YOUR DAYS OF GLORY ARE GONE MICRO$OFT. FOREVER.  And there won’t be more chapters to this saga.

I said you have a keen eye for strategic analysis in an email comment I sent you a couple of years ago. From Santiago, Chile, remember?
It’s hard to believe you haven’t thought of this scenario and more. Just wonder why you haven’t written about ir.

Log-in to comment