There’s Not Enough In The Air

A lot has been made about how MacWorld 2008 was a disappointment. Uninformed reporters and analysts who look only to wall street as an indicator of the show’s success were quick to point out the decline in Apple stock following the show, but let’s not be stupid here. Not only is the old axiom “buy on the rumor, sell on the news” almost always true, but of the approximately 30 tech stocks I personally follow, almost all of them are down sharply in January, especially on the day of the MacWorld announcements. Google is down almost 18% in January on general market sentiment alone. Furthermore, anybody who uses 2007’s MacWorld as a measuring stick for what Apple should announce every year is a fool. The iPhone is in many ways, a once-in-a-lifetime product announcement, not to be expected again for a long, long time. The only other announcement Apple has ever made of such instant magnitude was the original Macintosh in 1984 (the original announcement of the iPod was actually met with widespread apathy).

That said, I think the show this year was a success (and mostly in line with my predictions), with the surprising exception of the one product I was most excited about: The MacBook Air.

I’ve waited for a new Apple subnotebook since ditching my beloved Duo in 1997. That’s ten long years, having mostly leaned on the 12 inch Powerbook until it was snatched out of the lineup a couple of years ago without any notice. In order to move into the Intel Mac world, I was essentially forced into a 13 inch MacBook, which I have to say, I don’t particularly care for. It’s a fine machine, for the most part, but it’s bulkier than my 12 inch Powerbook was, and more importantly, it gets greasier than a KFC dinner bucket when you touch it. The “SmudgeBook” as people call it, annoys me more than I thought it would. So much so that I have to give it a rubbing alcohol sponge bath almost every week.

So by all measures, I am the absolutely ideal customer for an Apple subnotebook. If they can’t sell one to me, they have a problem.

And unfortunately, I’m not buying one.

Even more unfortunately, it’s only one and a half specs that completely kill the proposition for me: the 80 gig hard drive (huge deal) and the 2 gigs of RAM (somewhat huge deal). I don’t care about the slower processor, the lack of swappable battery, the minimal connectivity options, or the absence of removable media. These are all things you give up for the incredibly sexy shell. But can anyone comfortably get by on 80 gigs these days? My MacBook holds 230 gigs. And what about the 64 gig “high end” MacBook Air for a thousand bucks more!??! Who the hell is going to buy that model? I bet the lower end model outsells the higher end one at least 10-1.

Steve Jobs said on stage that they know micro hard drives very well, due to all of the iPods they sell, so why couldn’t they have thrown a 160 gig drive in there? It’s already in the high-end iPod Classic. Maybe it’s a heat issue, I don’t know. But what I do know is that at least in my case, it’s the difference between a sale and a non-sale. Between reading The MacBook Air Austerity Program and thinking about moving media storage completely over to something like TimeCapsule, it’s just more hard drive management than I’m willing to take on. And you know it’s going to be a monthly worry.

Memory is the second spec that I think Apple flubbed. If you’re going to offer a slower processor, you need to at least make up for that with ample RAM and ample hard drive space. Free memory and HD space can often mean a lot more to performance than processor speed. I mention the RAM thing as a “half spec” that I don’t like, because if the hard drive issue was addressed, I’d overlook the RAM shortcomings and buy a machine.

So in the end, we have a product line that a lot of people are really clamoring for, but a single spec that is going to turn a good portion of that consumer base away. To make matters worse (or better, depending on how you look at it), we *know* that the MacBook Air will sport at least a 160 gig hard drive probably before the year is over, so there is essentially a zero percent chance people like me will suck it up and buy one now.

The pessimists will say Apple has produced another Cube… a smaller, less functional machine that nobody has much of a reason to go out and buy. The optimists, on the other hand, see the footprint for what will one day be one of the most popular computers around… just as soon as its brains catch up with its body.

Me, I’m an optimist, but it’s going to be a tough several months waiting for revision two.

19 comments on “There’s Not Enough In The Air”. Leave your own?
  1. Jeff Croft says:

    I tend to agree, in general. As you point out, though, their mistake should be easy to solve: just drop that 160GB in there. They’ve already got the drive. I imagine it was more a supply issue than a heat one, though I could be wrong.

    And, frankly, I wish people would stop calling the Air a “subnotebook.” It’s not. It’s got the same footprint as a MacBook. It’s got a 13″ screen. It’s a full size laptop that is super-thin. It’s not a subnotebook.

  2. Sean S says:

    I think you’re being a little _too_ optimistic with your 10:1 ratio of buyers of the SSD version. I bet it’ll be more like 100:1.

    You’re spot on narrowing it down to the one spec that’s the Achilles heel. I’ll echo your exact statement: if the hard drive issue was addressed, I’d overlook the RAM shortcomings and buy one.

    I’d be upgrading from a 1.67GHz PowerBook G4, and would find the speed increase, however slight it might be, adequate enough. Actually, the Intel processor alone is reason enough for me. I’d take that, even without a speed increase.

    But less hard drive space? No, thanks. Apple, once again, missed the niche.

  3. Stop me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the drives in the higher-end hard drive iPods (last year’s 80 GB and this year’s 160 GB) were noticeably thicker than the smaller ones, which may be one reason why a 160 GB drive isn’t available for the Air even as an option. There is no doubt in my mind that if Apple could have made a larger drive available, they would have.

    As for whether an 80 GB hard disk is a deal-breaker, I think that amount of space is actually very generous for a second computer, and I really don’t see how anyone could get by with an AirBook as their sole computer, even with the SuperDrive add-on. Only really, really casual users would find it adequate, and those folks probably don’t mind taking on the extra bulk (and smudges) of the plain MacBook in order to save several hundred dollars.

  4. Vince says:

    We all know th Apple game plan.

    release a cool product that just barely falls short but not enough to keep the hardcore apple Kool Aid drinkers away. Get some good real world R&D. Then release the ‘hooked up’ model 6-9 months later. Or just drop the price (iPhone).

    I expect the MacBook Air to be something to consider by summer.

  5. I agree. The MBA is a wonderful concept, but falls just short in implementation. The killer for me isn’t the hard drive size (I keep my media on my desktop for the most part), but the drive speed. And $1000 to solve that problem is just too much.

    This product might be killer in a few years when SSD prices are low and capacity breaches the 150GB mark at a reasonable price.

    The product Apple needs to introduce today is a 12″ MacBook Pro. Make it as slim as you can — kill the optical drive, but don’t skimp on the hard drive. Apple could sell it for $1300 – $1500 for a great profit margin and plug the price gap between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. As sexy as slim is, I don’t want the world’s slimmest notebook — I want a slim notebook with good storage and a decent processor.

  6. Christian Stewart says:

    You’ve echoed my thoughts exactly re why the first incarnation of the Air will be passed over by many.

    However, Jobs and Ives don’t put a lot of effort into a form factor these days without it having legs, especially with the memory of the Cube relatively fresh.

    The iPod 160Gb drive is supposedly too thick, although nobody has yet been able to attempt a retrofit. Given that Intel made such an effort to reduce the footprint of an existing design, I’d expect two guaranteed things within the next 18 Months and one possibility within 2 years.

    Enlarged capacity hard drive to a new thin design that will also find it’s way into a new iPod. Faster processor, perhaps Penryn also having been given a smaller footprint.

    I also think that they’ll find a way to squeeze at least one more port into it. But that will take more time before they admit it’s necessary.

    I’ll be a version two buyer.

  7. Mario Stocco says:

    You know, my first Mac was the 12″ PB and what sold me was the small form factor and the ability to ssh into my linux farm and write code from there. I am currently working off of a 15″ 1.67Ghz PB and I miss the portability that my first Mac had. My only hesitation in getting a MBA now is Apple’s reputation with their first generation products. I am ready to retire my G4 laptop as soon as the MBA hits its second revision.

  8. Josh Bryant says:

    As David already mentioned. The 160Gb drive is quite a bit thicker than the 80. This is the only rational reason why they limited it to 80GB and it makes perfect sense seeing as how much marketing they are putting into the “thin” aspect.

  9. Ed Eliot says:

    For me neither the size of the hard disk or the memory are an issue. 80GB seems fine to me when travelling around and one can always hook it up to bigger disks via USB when back home. 2GB memory is also fine for most uses – where I’d need it most is in running Windows images on Parallels. That works just fine with 2GB on my MackBook Pro.

    One place where I do think they’ve made a real mistake is in not including an ethernet port. Expecting people to rely on the wireless adapter is unrealistic. In many corporate environments where wireless networks are unavailable (or hidden behind annoying VPN login systems) not have an ethernet port for direct connection is a bind.

    Given the high price I also think it’s kind of rubbish that they haven’t thrown in the external DVD drive for free, instead making it an optional extra. That’s kind of annoying particuarly if one needs to restore the OS.

  10. I think a lot of people forget that products are designed to fit within a certain price point. So, sure, they could probably produce a killer machine in the Air chassis, that costs about $5,000 – but who’s going to buy that? So do they wait and launch an Air product when they can get the price down to the industry norm of between $1,000 and $2,500, which is what 80% of notebook buyers are prepared to pay? Or come out with a non-hardcore machine that breaks new ground in portability, and sell the heck out of it to those who’s primary criteria is portability (or slick “na na na I’ve got a super cool looking machine” snobbery, of which, I’m guilty), actually turn a profit on it in the mean time, and then beef up the specs as production and volume and future price of components warrant?

    All things in time. People would laugh at a 1GB iPod today, but not too long ago that was pretty amazing in such a small package. Unfortunately, portability and processing power will always be at odds with each other, forcing a tradeoff. That considered, it’s a heck of an advance.

  11. Bradley says:

    Walking into my local supermarket, the security guard around the entrance asks, “Escuse me, do you know who the Colts played in the Superbowl last year?” I take the headphones out of my ears and pull out my touch. He says, “Are you kidding me?” as baffled as one can sound, that I’m about to look that statistic up right in front of him.

    As our conversation ended, he mentioned this company that just released a really small portable computer. “Like this thin…” he says, holding up his fingers. “Only 1700 dollars too! But no battery… it only lasts about four hours.” I paused, and politely told him that’s actually good, and that mine only gets about 2.5 hours.

    We all know the pundits and general media have been tough on the iPhone and Air for lack of a removable battery, but I was surprised to find someone who had heard them bashing the battery life itself, which is two-fold better on both of these devices than their comptetitors.

    But you’re right, Mike. A number of people have asked me if I regret buying my MacBook Pro last February. The full year’s use of my Mac aside… wha? I love my machine. It’s not terribly heavy for me and I need all of its specs all the time. It’s a desktop replacement for me.

    My response is always the same: I know this new notebook is for someone, but I’m not sure who that is. It’s a really cool machine, but it’s not for me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but now that you mention the cube it has me thinking, what *were* the objectives for this machine, aside from engineering it to be small?

  12. Mike D. says:

    Jeff: I think the “sub” in subnotebook applies equally to the feature set and the size. The fact that it leaves some things out for size’s sake, like a DVD drive, kind of makes it a subnotebook. But yes, ultraportable is probably a better name.

    Sean S: Yep, 100:1 could be more likely. I just can’t imagine someone plunking down $3k for a machine with 64GB of storage.

    David, Christian, and Josh: Yep, the 160GB drive is just a TAD thicker, but cmon, look at how the MacBook Air is tapered so it gets even thinner towards the front. I’d rather sacrifice some of that tapering for a bigger hard drive and an SD slot. That is a no-brainer to me.

    Ed: I think you can turn the USB slot into an ethernet port with the adaptor, no?

  13. Ed Eliot says:

    Mikw: Yes true. Apple sells one for $29. The DVD drive costs $99. The cost of all those additional accessories adds up (on what’s already an expensive computer) and increases the number of things you have to carry around with you.

  14. I’ve been stifling the urge to post something to my blog about why I’m not buying an MBA (I’m trying to get out of the business of giving Apple free publicity), and for me it all comes down to the fact that it’s really not a lot of portability for the money. It’s much less capable than a regular MacBook, but I still can’t toss it into a normal messenger bag along with my camera and a Moleskine and go.

    This is one area where I rather wish Apple had made some compromises. A 3.1 or 3.5 or 4 lb. laptop with a 160 GB hard drive at $1500 is a much better proposition for me (and a lot of others, I would think) than a $1800 alien wonder that can’t hold as many songs or photos as I need it to.

  15. Jason says:

    I’m stil happy with my MBP to be honest, it’s bigger, but I like having the massive screen real estate (I’m not *that* mobile). Mostly I was disappointed that they didn’t include MMS (picture messaging) and video capture as part of the iPhone update. Sigh.

  16. Lucian Marin says:

    What I don’t like about the MBA is the audio part. Mono speakers for a laptop in 2008? Are they serious? Even smart phones have stereo speakers.

  17. Stu says:

    “I’d rather sacrifice some of that tapering for a bigger hard drive and an SD slot. That is a no-brainer to me.”

    Apple doesn’t sacrifice anything when it comes to the ultimate goal of making it the thinnest. If people like that or not, that just how Apple works.

  18. crk says:

    Seems like the MBA is meant for folks who already have a Mac desktop and and iPod or iPhone. 80GB won’t hold all your photos and music? Exactly, because that stuff is supposed to be on your Mac desktop or external drive, at home, and you should have a synced copy of it on your iPod or iPhone, with you, and not on the MBA.

    As for the price of accessories… really? You just dropped $1800 for a comparatively underpowered fashion statement of a laptop, what’s another $130? You can afford it…

    And the mono issue? It does have a stereo headphone jack. No one likes your taste in music anyway, so keep it to yourself.

  19. Court says:

    I think they know what they’re doing. Eventually The macbook pro and macbook air will converge. IMO they’re grabbing the higher-end market as usual while it’s available. Theyre masters of making gazillions off a small niche. That whole moores law/acceleration/singularity thing should allow for some whopping hard drives in no time.

    With the eeePC blowing up, anyone who tries to take on a lower-ended market is going to get creamed at this point. That thing’s pretty sweet for 300 buckaroos.

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