MacBook Air is where the iCloud lives

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Two Highly Curious Objects arrived in my office recently and have provoked many hours of blank stares and idle speculation: a tube of sunblock and a Google Chromebook.

A piece of mail that arrived later in the week revealed that the sunblock was a gimmick to promote a backup service. So: one mystery was solved. I’m still stymied about the Chromebook.

The basic concept is simple enough. The idea is to have a whole class of computers that act as nothing more than host organisms for the Google Chrome browser. Everything else—apps, documents, media, and even the set of scratches that the buckle of your watchband makes on the palmrest of an old-fashioned and obsolete notebook, I suppose, exist solely on Google’s servers.

It’s entirely possible that you’ve sensed my skepticism for the whole Chromebook concept. I admit that I keep getting stuck on the fact that this $499 Chromebook costs as much as a nice name-brand Windows notebook. The Windows machine can literally do everything the Chromebook can do (once you’ve installed the Chrome browser). It also runs hundreds of thousands of Windows apps and games and according to this sticker on the box, it has an exciting feature called “can actually function as a computer even when there’s no Wi-Fi present.”

Well, I’ll give Google credit for something: they’ve hit upon an exciting basic idea. As Apple users, we’ve long been aware of the profound benefits of hardware that’s been designed specifically to take advantage of a specific operating system and library of software. A Chromebook takes that idea one step further: it’s designed to take advantage of a specific OS, specific software… and the network.

“Assume that the user will typically have Internet access” has many implications and “if you don’t have it, you’re completely screwed” is only one of them. When you design a PC and an OS with that basic assumption, you’re free to throw away things that would ordinarily be considered sacrosanct. It’s like that Eureka moment in the development of the Apollo lunar lander, when Grumman engineers realized that a craft that would never be manned in Earth gravity didn’t need half the standard stuff that they’d been putting in airplanes for the previous thirty years. Stuff like, you know… seats.

What sort of notebook would Apple have made if they’d come up with this “build a machine with the assumption that its user has access to a tailor-made Internet and a cloud service” idea themselves? The question is of no particular interest. Apple thought of it, and Apple built it: it’s the 11-inch MacBook Air. Apple just couldn’t call it the iCloudBook when it was released last October. The cloud service that caused the machine to suddenly make perfect, elegant sense was still eight months away from its public unveiling.

And when the 11-inch Air was released last year without the added context of iCloud, it made only a little more sense to me than the Chromebook does today. Oh, yes, I loved it and I regretted having to return Apple’s loaner after I finished my review. The advantages of a fully-functional Mac that’s barely larger than a comic book are immediately and intensely compelling whether I’m fleeing the office for just a few hours or fleeing the country just until the FBI has stopped subpoenaing witnesses to testify against Whitey Bulger.

But Apple’s pathological intolerance of overlaps and redundancies in their product line is a bedrock principle in the company’s strategy and success. With that in mind, the 11” was a curious anomaly; it was hard to define the sort of shopper who’d lock in on the 11” Air and wouldn’t be sorely tempted by something else in the Apple Store.

Consumers who wanted an affordable Mac would be tempted by the MacBook Nothing, which lists for the same price as the 64 gig 11-inch Air and has loads of additional features… including a reasonable 256 gigabytes of disk storage. Customers who wanted something ultra-light and super-portable could easily be swayed by an iPad. In many ways, the iPad 3G is an even better travel computer than the Air… and you can buy a top-of-the-line iPad plus a wireless keyboard plus a bunch of handy accessories and still get change back from a thousand-dollar bill.

I didn’t quite get it back then. Why would Apple even bother making such a niche MacBook… particularly one that came with so many tradeoffs? No, they should have kept things simple and produced just the updated 13-inch Air. At $1299, it’s too expensive to compete with the MacBook Nothing or the iPad and it’s and not powerful enough to compete with the similarly-priced MacBook Pro.

Okay, well, I was just plain dumb. Today, I can belatedly identify the 11” Air as Apple’s first public salvo in their cloud strategy. Let’s do the math on the 64-gig drive that I originally thought was a complete dealbreaker. Apple has said that iCloud’s 5 gigabytes of free cloud storage will be plenty for most people, if photos and media don’t factor in. That’s reasonable; it seems unlikely that anybody would buy an iCloudBook to do video or audio editing, and those are the kinds of projects that consume huge tracts of disk space. So let’s figure on less than 5 gigs of user documents.

The official final footprint for Mac OS Lion hasn’t been established, but Mac OS 10.6 requires 9 GB, according to Apple. Unlike the Chromebook, which runs all of its apps through a remote webserver, iCloudBook will need local copies of all of your apps. My MacBook Pro has a 10 GB Apps folder and that includes Photoshop and Final Cut X, so let’s conclude that 10 gigs will be more than adequate for apps.

iTunes In The Cloud, like everything else with iCloud, is a sync service, not a streaming service. You won’t need to keep your entire media library on your iCloudBook, but you’ll still want to store enough music and videos on it to keep you entertained. I’ve got about 16 gigs of that stuff on my iPhone. I’m also going to want to offload any photos or videos I shoot when I travel. An 8 GB memory card is usually ample for several days of aggressive tourism.

Lessee… that adds up to 48 GB of storage, leaving a nice round 16 GB for any disk-hungry iMovie or GarageBand projects you might want to crank up, or for any unexpected storage demands. A 64 GB boot drive is still pretty damned teeny if you intend to use the 11” Air as a MacBook, but it seems just the perfect size for an iCloudBook.

It’s so very clear to me now that just as Superman is the living ideal of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, the 11” Air is the tangible ideal of iCloud. You grab it when you leave the office and that’s it. No syncing, no updating, no need to trust that you’ll find WiFi when you get to where you’re going: iCloud kept your iCloudBook’s files up-to-date as you were updating them on your iMac so you’re already good.

Thanks to the fact that your iCloudBook is a Mac OS device, you won’t need to transmogrify your files between mobile and desktop app formats, as you often must with an iPad. Instead, you can use the same familiar software you’ve got on your office machine. And if you’re missing an app on your iCloudBook, no worries: connect to the App Store and click a button to install it.

All of the work you create and edit on your iCloudBook will have automagically shown up on your home and office Macs when you return. And if our math holds, there’s plenty of free space available to buffer whatever new media or data you happen to acquire along the way… but not so many superfluous gigabytes to jack up the price.

See what I mean? It’s easy to convince myself that the 11-inch Air is a true signature product for Apple. In context, it’s certainly the most significant piece of hardware Apple’s produced in the past ten years whose name isn’t preceded by a lower-case “i.” And Apple seems to have been building up to the iCloudBook for a long time now. They suspiciously shaved a few gigabytes from the size of Mac OS despite the crazy-stupid-low price of disk storage, and they’ve emphatically promoted full-screen app user interfaces at the API level, an option which makes the iCloudBook’s weird little 11-inch display way more practical.

But iCloud was the critical missing piece, the planet which astronomers couldn’t yet see but had calculated must exist, based on its measurable gravitational effect on observable bodies. “Dry, she was nothing special,” went the old saying about the movie career of Esther Williams. “Wet, she was a star.” iCloud will have that same relationship with the 11” Air.

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