Minority Report: MacBook Air - slim chance of success?

Lightweight faces heavy competition from existing Apple line…

Lightweight faces heavy competition from existing Apple line…

A new Apple sub-notebook was the product the expectant public most wanted to see. But then the MacBook Air arrived. Hit or miss? Seb Janacek assesses its chances.

In July 2000 Apple launched the G4 Cube, a ground-breaking desktop computer that sat between the Power Mac and iMac lines.

It was spectacularly beautiful, featured an innovative design and wowed the Macworld crowd. But sales sucked and the device bombed in 12 months.

Some eight years later and Apple launches the MacBook Air, a ground-breaking laptop that sits between the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines.

It is spectacularly beautiful, features an innovative design and wowed the Macworld crowd. Apple will be hoping the resemblance between the two products ends there.

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The failure of the Cube was a huge disappointment to Apple and Steve Jobs in particular, who took particular relish in the unveiling. Although the Cube was a milestone in PC design and a brilliantly engineered computer, there were a number of trade-offs - it wasn't very expandable and was pricey for the hardware that fit into its tiny enclosure.

Crucially, the Cube also squeezed itself in between the consumer iMac and the pro Power Mac. All three featured the G4 chips, which lagged badly behind Intel and AMD chips at the time.

Inevitably, it failed because, aesthetics aside, it didn't deliver anything that its close desktop Mac relatives already offered, in some cases at better prices.

Before last month's 2008 Macworld, a sub-notebook was the product most eagerly awaited by the expectant masses. Bloggers and rumour sites had been rabid with speculation for months. And with justification: the market was ripe for a sub-notebook from Apple and the company has always been ahead of the game with its laptops.

The MacBook Air was unveiled to the world with the usual Jobs pizzazz. The Apple CEO slipped the wafer-thin computer out of a manila envelope to the inevitable cheering and whooping.

Any Apple product is lauded as much for what it features as it is criticised for what is left out - particularly given the rampant Apple rumour mill.

The consensus from early reviews and comments is that while the Air is a finely made machine, it's not exactly what Apple really needed to deliver.

Ironically, one complaint is the size. While incredibly thin, Apple decided it wanted to feature a full-size keyboard. If you've used one of the new Apple keyboards recently you'll understand why.

But the end result is that the screen is just over 13 inches wide, the same as the MacBook. Many were expecting a smaller form factor and not just a thinner profile.

Complaints about the absence of a removable battery aside - replacing the main battery is a minor task - there's also no built-in Ethernet and only a single USB port. It doesn't have a built-in optical drive, and as other commentators have noted, it has the feel of a Mac that exists to complement another main computer.

The remote disk technology feature, which allows the computer to use the optical drive of another networked computer, is a neat trick but reinforces the impression that the computer is reliant on another machine for access to CDs and DVDs.

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On the plus side, the Air has a decent 2GB of RAM as standard, enough for most tasks, but that's it. Given the engineering feat the company pulled off with the case design, it's hardly surprising that there are no expandability options.

The big difference between the Cube and the MacBook Air is that the market has been calling for a sub-notebook from Apple since it made the decision to cull its popular 12-inch PowerBook model in 2004.

However, small niggles about the product's specification aside, the biggest threat to the MacBook Air is from its own relatives in the Apple laptop family.

One of the most elegant things Jobs achieved after his return to Apple was the simplification and refinement of the product line. Two laptops, consumer and pro. Two desktops, consumer and pro. Other machines have slotted in but none has become a mainstay, with the monitor-less budget Mac Mini probably enjoying the longest lease of life.

The MacBook and MacBook Pro are the main threat to the Air. Both are fine machines which have helped buoy Apple hardware sales in recent quarters.

The slim MacBook has the same screen size as the Air and is only 2lb heavier. It probably won't fit into a manila envelope but it's hardly what you'd describe as chubby. It's also more expandable.

Meanwhile, the higher-end MacBook Pro - the laptop formerly known as the PowerBook - had until a couple of weeks ago been the company's flagship laptop. Just last year it was declared by PC World as the fastest Windows Vista notebook - all the more ironic given that Vista isn't optimised for the Mac.

The MacBook Pro has also more or less kept favour with the same case design since the launch of the G4 aluminium PowerBooks back in 2003. The company is trading off the quality of the hardware and not flashy, changing case designs.

Apple is ahead of the rest of the market in unit sales. In its last quarter the company reported record Mac sales and in recent years, sales of its laptops have ridden high above the industry average. Another entry in the crowded laptop market seemed the natural step for Apple.

However, resellers in London and the south-west of England I spoke to admitted that while there had been a lot of interest in the Air, there had only been a trickle of orders so far - although that might change as soon as potential customers get their hands on one.

Apple gear always looks better in front of you than it does on a web page or in a QuickTime stream. In addition to its eye-candy credentials, the MacBook Air is a computer that is likely to have a tactile appeal as much as a visual one.

The MacBook Air will be marketed aggressively by Apple in 2008. It's packed with innovative ideas and, of course, is ridiculously thin. Even if it isn't precisely what the market wanted it's another design success for the company.

But it might prove a slow-burner because of stiff opposition from its own stable mates. Apple and its many fans will be hoping the MacBook Air doesn't go the Cube route.