The Fabulous Transformation of Apple’s MacBook Air

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.