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Nearly every tech company in the world tries to sell parachutes to people who are already falling.

In that scenario, the need is obvious and not the least bit abstract. Really, the only reason why PC makers can’t sell their parachutes for $25,000 is that during free-fall, there are about forty different companies in jet boots hovering around the consumer and lowballing each other for the sale. (But that’s OK: the PC world’s business model benefits from the long-term aftercare that’s required after their products are actually used and their inadequacies reveal themselves.)

Apple’s different. It’s in the parachute business, yes, but it has taken the unusual tack of selling them to people on the ground. Even more impressive: it then convinces these people that throwing themselves out of perfectly good airplanes for fun is the greatest thing ever.

Honestly, Apple should get a Nobel Prize or something for that, shouldn’t it?

The MacBook had to go

Think of what Apple did in July. It introduced two updated Airs, which is what everybody figured, and they also discontinued their entry-level MacBook, which took many people by surprise. In retrospect, I can’t understand why I didn’t see that move coming. The $999 MacBook Nothing was the awkward freak of the MacBook line… and not just because of its quaint, retro-2003 looks. It was—steady yourself—a conventionally-designed laptop (boxy but totable) with a familiar and reassuring feature set (DVD drive, lots of storage, lots of ports), which Apple sold at a price that was competitive with similarly-outfitted premium Windows notebooks.

Does this sound like an Apple product to you? No. Clearly, it was way too sensible and it had to go.

By deleting the MacBook Nothing from the lineup, the 11- and 13-inch Airs each take one step forward and define themselves as the center of the MacBook world. The incredibly quirky and overpriced design fribble of 2008 has emerged, after considerable growing pains felt by everyone who bought its previous incarnations, as Apple’s “default” mobile Macs.

And what seemed like a risky idea last year now seems inevitable: next year, there most certainly will be a 15-inch MacBook that’s as powerful as a MacBook Pro, but which is designed along the Air’s lines. The 15-inch Air’s most glaring limitation—no optical drive—will even be touted as a feature. By chucking out an increasingly-marginal component, Apple will be free to design a desktop-class laptop that’s lighter, trimmer, and less prone to failure.

These are all good things.

I bought a new MacBook Pro a few months ago and if I knew then what the new Airs would be like—well, if I had known it for sure… okay, I’d still have bought it. My MacBook is my daily driver and I’d trade a little bulk for a lot more features any day. Still, I have to admit that I’ve used the DVD drive only four or five times: first to install Adobe Creative Suite, and thereafter to rip the odd DVD and CD into digital files. Deleting an optical drive from a large, expensive notebook doesn’t even seem like a silly idea any more.

I look at my MacBook Pro and I wonder what other hardware features Apple could delete from it in the coming years.

Next victim!

I have to believe that Apple has the same sort of feelings about USB ports that Gargamel has about Smurfs: it’s a white-hot hatred that expresses itself as a passionate, irrational desire to annihilate, even though they know deep, deep down that the damned things are utterly indestructible. USB is old technology. It’s practically steampunk by Apple standards, and without the redeeming adorability of a tiny tophat festooned with wristwatch parts.

I imagine that the first Air (armed with just one USB port and a whole lot of marketing that emphasized the word “wireless”) was a failed trial balloon. USB is just too useful. Apple can tell you to use cloud storage instead of a flash drive, built-in 4G instead of a mobile broadband stick, WiFi network printers instead of cabled ones, and that if you still want to whine about a lack of USB, then just buy a Thunderbolt USB hub. But nobody’s ready to make that leap yet.

High-speed ports? OK, those are dead. Thunderbolt has a long list of technical features but I can’t help but think that the feature that matters the most inside Apple is that it’s a universal “oh, shut up and stop complaining, you babies” port; it’s a feature that relieves their engineers of the need to keep cutting holes in that lovely, lovely case that the industrial design team came up with. So: no Ethernet, definitely no Firewire, and—in time, my pet, in due time—no USB ports. Apple’s answer to the inevitable outrage will be “If you must have that connector, buy it as a Thunderbolt dongle.”

Memory card slot? See “USB.” Apple wants to live in a world where photos are almost always shot with phones and immediately streamed to the cloud. But they also wanted to live in a world where people would chuck away their home stereos in favor of three or four $349 iPod speaker docks. We live, we learn.

Keyboard: Well, obviously, they can’t…

I mean, they wouldn’t…

(…)

No, they absolutely would. This goes to my above point of how Apple goes about selling parachutes. If there’s one company with the vision to think about a way to divest the MacBook from the size and mechanical limitations of physical keyboards, the arrogance to convince themselves that they can definitely make it work…it’s Apple. They’re also the only company that might seriously pursue that idea simply because it’s cool and audacious and there’s a chance it might be great.

A tablet Mac? Naw. Think deeper. Apple, thanks largely to its ability to get developers on board fast, could be the first company to make a “folio” computer that actually works. Keyboards are most appropriate for apps that require lots of typing. A virtual lower keyboard—with fancy-pants haptic feedback—could be a credible typing surface, but also reconfigure itself into the perfect control deck for whatever task is at hand, whether you’re editing video, organizing files, or defending the Motherland from hordes of Canadian insurgents. And we simply can’t let go of the super-ginchy idea of an electronic book that can be held and read like a book.

Actually, the ultimate Apple device of them all would be a Mac with no ports, no keyboard, and no display. Imagine the brain and a MacBook Air inside the body of an AppleTV. It lives on your network, serenely projecting Mac OS application services to any device—check that: any Apple device—that requests them. Even better: one that runs for ten hours on battery. If you want a MacBook, great, buy a conventional MacBook. If you just want to add a little MacOS allspice to your iPad, your iPhone, or your TV, or just ensure that any random Mac anywhere in the world can instantly and temporarily become identical in apps, files and settings to your Mac at home with just three keypresses, just buy a stripped-down pocket-sized iTile for $299.

(“It’s a stupid idea,” you say? Well, what’s the 2011 Mac Mini but an iTile that requires AC and a monitor? Which isn’t to say that an iTile isn’t a stupid idea but at least it’s a stupid idea with precedent.)

We, the adventurous

Any of these ideas could work, because of one of Apple’s unique and enviable company assets: a certain core percentage of faithful users who are game for just about anything.

Would you order a goat-brain appetizer if you saw it on the menu at a gas-station diner? Likely not. What if you were at El Bulli or Per Se or The French Laundry? Hmm. They do have a knack for making the damnest ideas into the most delectable dishes.

It’s not the whole Apple user community, but it’s enough people that even Apple’s damnedest ideas can at least get a fair hearing.

And there’s a little of that impulse in all of us. There are people who would never associate the word “fun” with “leaping out of an airplane and contemplating the Earth rushing up toward your face at a manifestly-wrong 120 miles per hour.” That’s a perfectly sensible reaction. Similarly, there are people who can never see the appeal of a machine that’s jarringly different from the sort of computers that have worked well for them since they were kids.

Repeat-offender Apple users are the sort of people who are drawn to the rush of an unfamiliar experience, and intrigued by the possibility that this thing that conflicts with our most obvious, sensible instincts might in fact be the most wonderful thing in the world.

[Macworld senior contributor Andy Ihnatko is technology columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.]

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