Expect iPad Technologies in Next MacBook Air

The iPad has been shipping since April, and it was on the minds of Apple engineers in its design phase well before that. That means one can make some some educated guesses about how the iPad will influence the MacBook line, and it may all start with the Mac Book Air. I’ll call it MacBook Touch.

The iPad is a huge success. It’s adoption rate has been phenomenal. That means that not only are customers buying into the whole widget, but they’re also buying into the fundamental concepts of what makes the iPad portable: 3G data, a virtual keyboard, Flash memory and gestures on the display.

MacBook Touch Concept

MacBook Touch Concept  (Thanks to Jeff Gamet)

Now Apple is rumored to be coming out with an 11.6-inch MacBook Air. Why would the screen size be smaller? Here are some ideas.

  • A touch enabled 13-inch screen might be too expensive. An 11.6-inch display is only incrementally bigger and more expensive than the 9.7-inch on the iPad. Easy to do.
  • Lighter and smaller is better, especially for travel. Customers are tired of 5.5 pound luggables, and even the current MBA at 3.0 pounds (1.36 kg) is too heavy by modern iPad standards.
  • When at home, many users connect a larger display anyway. There’s some opportunity there to sell a companion 27-inch Cinema display.

It’s reasonable to assume that the kind of thinking that went into the iPad, now validated in the marketplace, will make it into the next generation MacBooks. I’ll guess that Apple will start inserting those technologies with the MacBook Air, perhaps renaming it the MacBook Touch, because it’s a low volume, low risk product designed for businessmen and others who are willing to pay a premium for advanced technology and low weight. All of this explains the rumored production run of only 500,000.

What cool things might we expect in the MacBook Touch?

3G data. For a long time, Mac users wondered why Apple didn’t include 3G data capability in the MacBook Pros. Sure, you could add an ExpressCard/34 with the older MBPs, but then Apple started replacing those with SD card slots. A lot of people think Apple went in the wrong direction there. It’s always been trivial to do on PC notebooks. Also, we’ve pretty much shown that there’s a good sized market for small computing devices, like the iPad, with 3G data. I’ll bet that the MBT will have a 3G data option. But it won’t have 3G voice because Apple wants to sell you an iPhone for that.

Virtual keyboard. Apple is keen on serviceability and reliability. Now that millions of customers have taken to the virtual keyboard on the iPhone and iPad, why not extend that to the MBT? There would be oodles of advantages. It would be more reliable, easier to modify the keys for localization, easier to see at night when lit, and probably weigh less. And more resistant to coffee spills.  Apple couldn’t take the risk before the iPad shipped; now they can in the MBT.

Touch Screen. We’re all in love with our iPads, for one, because we can touch the graphics, even whole text pages, resize with a gesture, and move them around. It wouldn’t be hard to add some of that iOS goodness to Mac OS X and allow us to manipulate graphics the same way. Whether the concept of the mouse pointer would go away is problematic, and I’m sure Apple is wrestling with that. I think it’ll stay the same because it’s fundamental to Mac OS X. This is all part of the slow, incremental move of the Mac towards iOS technologies.  No rush.  Take the temperature of the marketplace.

NAND Flash SSD. To complete the transition to zero moving parts, the MBT won’t come standard with a rotating hard disk. That’s just so passé for a small, mobile device. However, for upgradability, speed and easy interface to Mac OS X, it’ll be an SSD.

Ports. The current MBA has USB 2, audio, and Mini DisplayPort. Change that to USB 3 and you’re good to go. Here’s a USB 3 FAQ. Note that the USB 3 connector is cleverly designed to support both old and new devices. Plus, those technical professionals who have lamented the lack of FW800 on the MBA will have USB 3 to lean on.

No Optical Drive. There hasn’t exactly been a huge outcry from MacBook Air owners about the lack of a SuperDrive and the way it connects to another Mac’s optical drive for OS installs. That’s a good base of experience from which to move forward.

FaceTime. On desktop systems, we had iChat and Skype for video calls. The problem has been that the caller, probably a fairly technical person, had to depend on the technical expertise of the recipient. I’m thinking about a situation where a business person is on travel wants to do a video chat with a spouse, son or daughter, but they are mobile as well, and even if they were at home, they’d have to sit down at the family iMac and boot it up, log on, launch iChat, etc. What a delay and what a pain. Why not just make the call with FaceTime to an iPhone? The MBT will have that.

Form factor. I still think it’ll be a clamshell device with a virtual keyboard and track pad on the bottom and a flip up display with an iSight camera. just like the current MBA. That’s because notebook users like to be able to rest their wrists on the keyboard and adjust the angle of the display. That’s an ergonomic issue that isn’t going to go away. Notebook users will continue to expect that comfortable arrangement.

Mac OS X. It will run Mac OS X because it can run the apps people expect to have on a notebook computer. Like Parallels and MS Office. If you want iOS apps, you’ll use your iPad. The MBT must give technical professionals the productivity apps they’ve come to expect and know how to use in Mac OS X. Especially when connected to a Cinema display. This is fundamental.

Being Aggressive While Mitigating Risk

Most importantly, this MacBook Touch would have just enough cool features to make it an iPad sibling, but retain the advantages that Mac OS X and notebook users have come to depend on. It exploits some iPad technologies that customers love, and so that reduces the risk of introducing them on a notebook. Some quasi-iPad-like features will insure enthusiasm and adoption. And that also sets the MBT apart from the oh-so-ordinary PC notebooks and netbooks.

If this redesign on a low volume, low risk, high profit item goes well for Apple, then we can expect to see the features seep into the standard MacBook and MacBook Pro in 2011/2012.