Up in the Air

It was introduced in 2008 and it changed Apple’s philosophy on the notebook market. It was a radical departure for Apple, getting rid of an optical drive, using a battery that users couldn’t replace, offering a solid-state drive for the first time in an Apple laptop. Like many devices, it had to be seen and held to be really appreciated.

The first MacBook Air was amazingly thin and elegant, but the specs at the time were a little underpowered, disk options and memory were fairly small, and there was a real premium to be paid for the form factor. Sure, for everyone who ever carried a MacBook or MacBook Pro and thought it too heavy to carry around, it was in many ways a dream come true. But for most users, the value proposition and price/performance ratio just weren’t enough to justify a purchase.

Flash forward to last year’s refresh of the MacBook Air with a new 11” version, flash storage in every model, and an even more portable form factor. And then to this year’s models with the latest and greatest Intel Core i5 processors, the return of the backlit keyboard… and more importantly, an entry price of $999, replacing the aging white MacBook as the entry-level notebook. Combined with Lion and its trackpad gestures influenced by iOS, and concepts such as full-screen applications that make the 11” MacBook Air significantly more usable on a day-to-day basis, Apple is taking the personal computer to a new level of evolution in many ways.

The MacBook Air is really an always-on device. For the most part, the concepts of on and off are deprecated. Instead, there’s just open and closed, with a wake time that’s virtually instantaneous. Reboot times are among the fastest in the industry, with less than ten seconds going from cold boot to connected system. While other PC vendors talk about this ability in limited devices such as the Chromebook, Apple has delivered it in a full-featured personal computer experience with a complete, mainstream operating system.

In short, the MacBook line now feels much more appliance-like. At the same time, this new generation of MacBook Airs have processors that are capable of executing the majority of tasks most consumers would require, all with little or no compromise in performance.

Long-time Apple customers will recall it was Apple that actually invented the subnotebook category with the cool PowerBook 100 back in 1991. (That machine shocked the world at the time… by not having an internal floppy disk drive.) The new MacBook Airs carry on that tradition of breaking the mold, and while they are clearly part of the MacBook line, they carry little of the baggage that came before.

With the current MacBook Air models, Apple has come up with a design that is both elegant and functional and at the same time marks a new level of affordability. Apple has managed to evolve its product line while showing how its trademark integration of hardware and software design can lead to new experiences that drive the state of the art forward while remaining familiar to users.

It’s likely that we’ll see more of the MacBook Air’s features make their way into the rest of the MacBook line, including the current Pro models. And I expect that every other Mac model will evolve in a similar fashion, as Apple continues to fuse the personal computer and digital appliance into a seamless ecosystem that consumers will embrace.

[Michael Gartenberg is an analyst and long-time Mac user who covers the world of the interconnected consumer for Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own.]

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