MacBook Air: Ethereal or Unrealistic?

The day is coming when Apple learns that creating a big splash with new product is not entirely about surprising your prospective customer base. Wowing people is a good thing. But making a product they can live with is what it's about.

Over the years, Steve Jobs and Apple's various design and engineering teams have shown a willingness to compromise the full breadth of its users' needs to make a point. Perhaps no product exemplifies that better than the MacBook Air.

How could you not applaud the guts it took to deliver a subnotebook this impossibly thin? No other subnotebook comes close. And while many reviewers and analysts are dismissing the MacBook Air as being a nearly unusable piece of art, I can't agree with that. Someday we will have the technology to make a subnotebook this thin work for most people. And it will be good. Very good. I can't blame Apple for pushing the envelope.

But that doesn't mean that Apple has succeeded in making a good product in the MacBook Air. Steve Jobs may be personally willing to give up all the utility that the MacBook Air gives up, but that doesn't mean would-be Mac notebook customers will do so in numbers. I think the MacBook Air, as is -- despite the allure of its undeniably sexy form factor -- is fatally flawed for enterprise executives, the class of user that similar Windows-based machines target. It will be even less appealing to Apple's traditional sales base, small business, home users, designers and artists, and the education market.

Last September I called for Apple to create a 13.3-inch subnotebook based on the MacBook Pro design. In my view, Apple's enterprise-oriented subnotebook would be roughly one-inch thick, be sized to the 13.3 screen, have the MacBook Pro keyboard, and come with most of the ports that that the MBP 15 offers. I also suggested that it be equipped with a 100GB hard drive (some readers scoffed at that, saying of course it would have that), 2GB of RAM, and start at $1,400.

As lacking in drama as that computer would be, it would sell many more units than the MacBook Air will.

Apple could have eliminated most of the serious complaints about the MacBook Air by creating (albeit, by adding a large port) a docking-station option for the MacBook Air. From the specs, Apple's design decision was to target its new subnotebook at existing Mac users as a second computer for the road. But that's not what people want. They want one computer that can do all things. It's not what enterprises want, they want to buy only one computer per employee. And it's certainly not what home users want. Without the ability to easily expand when you're back at the ranch, the MacBook Air is an amazing prototype without a real market. It's like an automobile "concept car." You're not actually going to build it with that many compromises.

Point by Point

For those of you who aren't so sure ... a few basic facts. The MacBook Air offers only these ports: Audio out, one USB 2.0, Micro-DVI. It offers built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1. That's it. There's no built-in optical drive. The battery isn't removable. The 80GB iPod-style 1.8-inch hard drive spins at just 4,200 RPM. The smaller, faster 64GB solid-state drive adds about $1,000 to the price, and is only available in a $1,300 upgrade including a slightly faster processor.

Of all these drawbacks, though, the single USB port is is the biggest one. Some hotels don't even offer wireless, for example. Yes, there's an Ethernet dongle, but with only one USB port, what if I want to plug in a USB drive or use an external mouse? You're out of luck, too, if you have ExpressCard-based air card for WWAN (or EV-DO) Internet access. At the very least you'll probably be toting a small USB hub if you've grown accustomed to other "comforts."

In the office, you'd probably be forced to have a larger USB hub. I fill up all three USB ports on my MacBook Pro 17 with printer, mouse, and keyboard while I'm on the job. There's enough cabling around my desktop without adding a USB hub. What good is a supremely thin and light notebook if its loss of flexibility and expansibility causes you create workarounds that involve messing with more stuff?

Apple may never succeed in the enterprise if it continues to believe that it can lead enterprise users by the nose and dictate the compromises they must accept. Steve Jobs is not Apple's target customer -- and customer focus is what makes great companies successful, not brilliant vision in an insulated bottle. The MacBook Air is technically and aesthetically stellar, but its usability in the real world falls far short. Truly elegant design blends form and function. That's the true art of engineering.

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