What the Pundits Are Missing About New MacBook Air

In the hours since Apple introduced its revamped MacBook Air, I’ve already heard quite a few pundits smirk about how the Air is Apple’s “answer to the Netbooks,” and calling “gotcha” about how the company has backtracked on its criticisms of netbooks and hypocritically turned around to make one after all. Here’s my reasoned, well-articulated response: Huh?

The MacBook Air is indeed Apple’s answer to the netbook. (One of them, anyway — more on that later.) But the answer they’ve given is “you’re doing it wrong.” Those who think Apple simply released their version of the product they’ve been deriding just aren’t paying attention.

Let’s take a look back at what Apple actually said was wrong with netbooks. In Apple’s January 2009 Earnings Call, COO Tim Cook was asked about what the company thought about netbooks. Here’s how Macworld reported it: “What Cook said then was that netbooks were ‘much less powerful’ than consumers wanted, with cramped keyboards and small displays.

But, Cook added, ‘We’ll see. We are watching the space… We’ve got some ideas here.’” OK, so we’ve got three clear areas where Cook said netbooks were failing: power, cramped keyboards and small displays.

A quick search on Windows netbooks shows that a top-of-the-line Dell netbook comes with an Intel Atom processor running at 1.66GHz with “up to” 1GB of RAM. The MacBook Air sports an Intel Core 2 Duo processor at either 1.4GHz or 1.6Ghz.

Don’t let the processor speeds fool you — the Core 2 Duo is not only a much more powerful chip, it has two processors on it. The Atom is a single-core chip designed to run at lower temperatures — a feat it manages by running at lower power.

The Air also comes with 2GB of RAM standard and can hold up to 4 gigs. The combination of processor and RAM makes the Air a much, much more powerful machine. Compared to other MacBook Pros, the Air is less powerful, but certainly not “underpowered.”

Steve Jobs made a point of mentioning the full keyboard on the MacBook Air. It’s a differentiation that I think is one of the most important. Trying to type on a reduced-size keyboard can be an exercise in futility.

The Dell notebooks we compared carry keyboards at 92% of full size. In other words, about an inch smaller than a standard keyboard. Rest your fingers on a standard keyboard. Now move them an inch closer together. Imagine the individual keys are correspondingly smaller/closer together and you begin to see they’re are going to be a lot of typos in your future, not to mention a lot of cramped fingers.

As far as displays go, there’s not too much to say. Some people like smaller displays; others aren’t comfortable with them. Largely, it’s a matter of personal preference. The Dells we looked at generally sported 10.1” displays at 1024 x 600 pixels. Other netbooks offer even smaller displays at the same pixel density.

The MacBook Air comes in 11.6 and 13.3 displays, with a native resolution of 1336 x 768 and 1440 x 900, respectively. Pixel density has a big impact on the usability of small screens, but if your eyes can handle the small screens and that’s what you like, more power to you.

And although Mr. Cook didn’t mention it in his comments, another frequent criticism of netbooks is build quality: cheap plastic housings, hinges that break easily, etc. With unibody aluminum construction and precise engineering, the MacBook Air line appears to be as well built as its MacBook Pro siblings.

The whole idea of Apple coming out with a product to “answer” the netbook is flawed from the start. Apple doesn’t develop products to combat competitors, it develops products to fill needs and desires. The question Apple decided to answer then, “Wasn’t what to do about netbooks?” but “What to do about highly mobile computing?”

It’s at the core of Tim Cook’s comment above: “we are watching the space…we’ve got some ideas here.” Apple, as usual, was watching the space, not the products. Develop for the customer and the rest will work itself out.

One final point. At the risk of parsing words too finely, consider Mr. Cook’s use of the words “some ideas.” Apple’s entry into the space wasn’t the MacBook Air, it was the iPad before it. The highly mobile computing space — the netbook space, if you will — could accomodate two answers: the tablet at the most extreme end and the MacBook Air for those who still want a traditional keyboard and “full” computing experience.

Is the MacBook Air for everyone? Certainly not. But to call it the netbook that Apple has heretofore mocked is to show ignorance about what’s been wrong about the current state of the market, what Apple actually introduced and how the company looks at competition and opportunity.