Did PC makers copycat the MacBook Air and Pro?

Did PC makers copycat the MacBook Air and Pro?

Summary: A San Francisco-based creative director and design consultant looks at PC notebooks before and after Apple introduced the MacBook Air. Looks familiar.

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According to blog post by Sebastiaan de With, it's easy to tell which company is the market leader. The industrial design starts looking the same.

How do you know someone’s the market leader? When this happens. It’s not just phones. Or tablets. Or TV remotes. Seeing this Macbook Air/iPad hybrid by Samsung this morning motivated me to make this quick collage.

Before the MacBook Air, laptops came in a variety of colors with plastic frames and enclosures. Afterwards, the lot appear to have aluminum or titanium frames with black keys and a large trackpad.

Of course, PC makers have put all their designs on a diet. With designs trying to get thinner and thinner, the designs will tend towards ubiquity, certainly of sillouette, such as the new "lighter-than-MacBook-Air" Gigabyte X11.

This isn't Apple's first influential laptop design. I would point to the PowerBook 500 series, code-named Blackbird, which was introduced in 1994 and was really the first true desktop replacement. It was the first laptop to have a built-in Ethernet port (as well as an AppleTalk port), stereo sound, a trackpad and an internal expansion bay. It also came with a color screen, support for PC Cards, and a keyboard with function keys. I have one of them in some box in a storage locker. A fantastic machine.

I remember seeing the Blackbird, as well as the later code-name Lombard enclosure (the 1999 PowerBook G3) used as a prop in a number of movies, often sci-fi genre flicks. These are striking machines.

PowerBook500-620

However, unlike what has happened with the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, the industrial design of these PowerBook machines weren't copied widely. It was the checklist of features and specifications that were copied. Apple wasn't the industry leader back then.

Topics: Apple, Laptops, Operating Systems, Windows

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38 comments
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  • Perhaps so, but then

    Didn't all laptop makers first copy the Osborne 1?
    martin_js
    • ah no.

      That 3" mono (orange) screen with the keyboard that flipped up and locked in to create a carrying luggable box looks nothing like laptop....
      TimeForAChangeToBetter
  • Did all car makers copy Model-T?

    Am not sure, how laptop makers are supposed to differentiate for these design gurus to be satisfied. Maybe they can triangular or circular laptops. A pentagon with rounded edges anybody before it gets patented?
    mm71
    • They may have, but ...

      ... Ford still can't create a clone of a Corvette, nor can GM create a Mustang-lookalike ... nor a Ferrari copy.

      Designs are often patented (and/or trademarked) on everything from guitars to stereos to pens to soda bottles and just about anything else.

      Folks whining about Apple patenting the iPhone and iPad designs need to get over it. This is nothing new. It's been done for more than a half-century in the automotive world alone. I think the Coke bottle design goes back even further.

      "Design" is a differentiating element. Including the same sorts of capabilities is not, so they just have to come up with a design that doesn't infringe ... which really shouldn't be that difficult. Lots of phone companies have designs that don't infringe, and they don't have to be triangular or oval to getting the evil eye from Apple's legal eagles.
      imalugnut
  • When the Aliens arrive, their first words will be

    "See you in court"
    "We have a patent on your body shape"
    "Pay up or be banned"
    Bozzer
  • Err...what the...

    I swear I've been told that the design of the Macbook air actually came from Asus. Then Asus told Apple where to go and released ultrabooks that looked almost like a macbook air. Who's copying who?
    phatbass82@...
    • I would love to see a reference for that one.

      I think the friend that told you that was referring to the eee pc, which launched around 3 months before the macbook air, so I can see the comfusion.

      The eee pc was the firsr popular netbook over here, they'd been around a while; my first XP machine was a sony netbook similar in external design to the 2008 netbook models back around late 2001... It was a horrendous lilac color!

      In terms of stolen design from asus, i'm afraid not; it used an underclocked celeron processor, updated to atom after the launch of the air. By comparison the air launched with a core 2 duo and was a much thinner form factor.

      The goals of the two projects were completely different; Asus had spotted that most people did not need a full powered laptop anymore and develeoped the netbook form factor to provide attractive, affordable and most of all portable machines that could do all the tasks the average user performed every day.

      By contrast the macbook air project sought to give you the power of a 15 inch laptop in an ultra portable form factor - this was a much bigger ask; for one the thing form factor requirent limited the space for standard laptop batteries.

      It could however be argued that the subsequent popularity of netbooks encouraged apple to create the 11" air form factor 2 years later, but i'm afraid the Air style form factor was an Apple invention.
      MarknWill
      • No...

        ASIs contracted to build the Air. Asia laptops since use the same tech (to be honest, unless Apple own the plant, they should expect that type of reaction.)
        mattmuir
        • Sorry that was unclear

          Which part of my post did you disagree with?
          MarknWill
      • Air style form factor was an Apple invention.

        Not sure how you can call it an invention, they just dropped the DVD drive and made it skinnier. I'd call that logical progression, and really it was where all makers would have ended up anyway.
        Think about what it is, a lighter and thinner notebook with less features.
        martin_js
        • actually...

          I own one, and Apple swapped out the HD for an SSD and created software to run dvd's from remote computers via wifi.

          Also, my understanding is that it is one of the first production labtops to use laser cut unibody aluminum construction.
          nohl_l
  • The First Computer To Be Put On Display In An Art Museum

    The GRiD Compass, from 1982: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_Compass

    Just to counter this tendency to attribute the innovations to the ones making the most noise...
    ldo17
    • Where in the wiki

      does it say it was in an art museum? And it's funny how you whine and cry about Apple's Macintosh OS being based on tech from Xerox but the Compass was ALSO based on tech from Xerox that them subsequently patented by the Compass company - all according to your link. Again, double standards old boy. By you posting the link you must be saying that it's okay for any company other than Apple to get tech from Xerox and the patent that tech.
      NonFanboy
      • Actually, it is.

        Apple licensed the tech from Xerox (in exchange for stock in Apple). So did Microsoft. And probably just about everyone else.

        Unless Apple had gotten an exclusive license -- which it obviously didn't, and I can't imagine Xerox would have even considered -- then it's fine for anyone else to license it, as long as Xerox was willing to do so.
        imalugnut
        • Microsoft did not get a license from Xerox

          When it developed Windows 3.1 - that bit of code was stolen from Apple who did not patent their inventions and IP at the time.
          NonFanboy
          • That's right

            NonFanboy is correct

            imalugnut is incorrect
            TimeForAChangeToBetter
      • GUIs abounded back in 32-bit "home computer" era

        I've never understood this "did Windows copy Mac" thing, having lived through the home computer era, watching this evolve through 32-bit GUI home computers from Atari, Commodore Amiga, Sinclair QL, Acord Archemedes et al. At the time, PCs were 286 dullards, and Windows 3.0 wasn't around yet.

        What happened next was an interesting endorsment for open technology; the very ugliest tech design (lumps in the middle of the memory map because "no-one would need over 640k RAM", awful low-res video standards incompatible with TV, oddball non-SCSI hard disk interfaces) swept the world, as anyone could (and did) build hardware for it.

        From those tribal lock-in days, the only dinosaur left in play has been Apple. And now we have a "new" sub-PC market with the same mutually-incompatible tribalism today.
        cquirke
  • Actually...

    It's been well reported in the past that Apple had a very active "copy Sony" policy in play. You see, Sony would make an awesome design and then trash it (without patents) and release bricks instead. The iPhone was VERY clearly based on the Sony prototype handsets - it was even confirmed as much by the Apple Design Team. And guess what? The Sony VAIO came out with the wedge-shape notebook several years before Apple... but once again, I don't think they patented it, because Apple now owns the patent for that too.

    There were plenty of icons in grids before Apple's iPhone. Plenty of end-of-document feedback (perhaps not as nice as their bounce... but similar). Plenty of wedge-shaped notebooks. Plenty of online stores to buy software. Plenty of rounded rectangle devices. And plenty of touch-enabled devices. And plenty of tablets too. Apple is just a great patent-grabber, and their marketing great at telling you that "Apple made it". Sony, in this case, beat them to the iPhone AND the MacBook Air designs.

    And yeah... in response to one of the earlier comments, Asus had designs like those for ages too.
    NKX
    • ..

      Dont say stuff like that... IFans will flame you...
      danjames2012
    • Again, back it up.

      Not to turn the sprinklers on your rant, but once again, support the rant. As identified, Sony made the first netbook I owned over 10 years ago. The problem with your hating is that you divert too far from the article.

      All technology, from all companies builds on the collective knowledge of the past. This article is about the air and the pro, were they copied. Whilst lenovo do make some sinilar looking machines, I would argue that there is nothing special or unique about the standard MBP, it's such a typical laptop, that there's no need to copy it.

      Woth regards to the air and the retina pro fo factors, Apple just did do those first. I would love to see the Asus designs from 2008 showing their development of the ultrabook prior to the Air. But it's wishfull thinking based of dislike for a brand.

      That's not to say ultrabooks would not have come about without Apple; the advances in chip design at Intel and the development in performance flash drives, combined with the reduction in cd drive use would have given rise to similar products regardless, but Apple did do it first, and when the Air came out there was no product like it.

      The great thing about having miltiple companies in tech is that we now have lots of choice. As I mentioned in another post, I own an Air, but am unlikely to replace it like for like at the end of it's life due to cost, however another factor is design of form factors - all the way back to the introduction of the MBP apple laptop design has been to cold and clinical for me, so I'm looking forward to having more choice in ultrabooks when I replace it in the new year, but when I got it, there was no sensible competiton to the hardware.
      MarknWill