What Future Does the MacBook Air Reveal to us?

MacBook Air

MacBook Air

Apple revealed a long awaited update to the MacBook Air yesterday. Long awaited because their flagship ultra-portable has languished for well over a year without any love from Apple. That’s a long time in the post iPhone era! On the surface of it this revised MacBook Air is a beautiful piece of kit. But when you poke around under the hood there are both a few surprises, a few disappointments and one or two hints at where Apple’s future roadmap for its product line is leading.

Before I delve into all of that I want to touch on a related point that’s just fun. It is worth remembering that many moons ago Steve Jobs famously argued that the computer mouse only needed one button. And that Apple would never produce one with two or more buttons. We all know how that went. Now, it is worth casting our minds back to comments made by both Jobs and Cook about “netbooks” at their Q3 earnings report earlier this year. Apple couldn’t make one that they’d be happy with was the basic point they both made.

Fast forward to this month and Apple have effectively launched not one, but two netbooks (each with a couple of build options) simply by trimming down the older MacBook Air design.

Now holding those memories fixed in our minds for a moment, think about Jobs’ recent comments on the likelihood of Apple producing a 7″ iPad. Not gonna happen is the official line. As I have said before, Apple probably are right to some degree about the form factor of a 7″ tablet not being optimal. But they are also acutely aware of the gap in the market that other manufacturers are about to go for. A 7″ iPad is a reality inside Apple. We know they designed one alongside the iPhone and the larger iPad we all know now. A 7″ iPad may well be brought to market if Apple perceives a threat from other manufacturers.

Ok, back to the new MacBook Air. I have been told, so I don’t know from first hand experience, that Apple have had prototypes with other kinds of silicon in their labs in MacBook Air prototypes. This silicon may well have been alternative vanilla laptop silicon from AMD. But it is very likely that it is also based around mobile silicon like the ARM / PowerVR SoCs they use in the iPad, iPod Touch and the iPhone.

One reason Apple have been looking at other sources for chips is simply because Intel’s new mobile silicon is particularly bad in the graphics department. This is evidenced by the fact that the current Intel CPU in the MacBook Air is around the same performance as the old MacBook Air – unusual in a hardware revision coming to market a year later than its predecessor. In fact the CPU is not even Intel’s current mobile flagship offering. It’s last generation gear. Apple have gone with that older CPU to get reasonable performance out of the GPU they are pairing it with. The option of one of Intel’s integrated GPUs in one of their existing netbook chips was simply seen as too underpowered. And bolting on another external GPU to solve that took up too much space inside the new Air.

Apple have been stuck with chips they had to source from a single supplier that didn’t perform as well as they wanted, once before in the pre-Intel days. And they don’t ever want to have that happen to them again. Right now Intel’s stubborn missteps must be very concerning to Apple. The separation between mobile computer and mobile device CPU and GPU performance is getting increasingly blurred in the marketplace and Apple’s OS development strategies make it very clear that Apple is keeping its options open when it comes to the flavour of silicon they can use in future products.

What Apple would really like to do is bring the MacBook Air into the iPad ecosystem. But it is unlikely that we’ll have that kind of performance from mobile ARM based SoCs for another 12 months or more in cost effective packages. PowerVR who make the current GPUs in Apple’s iDevices expect to have PS3 style performance from their products, which can go into mass production, in about 12 – 18 months.

Steve Jobs also pointed out yesterday what most people have known on an instinctive level for a while, but perhaps haven’t formed into a solid opinion. His point was that touch screens on laptops are not comfortable to use for long periods. Put simply: Your arm gets tired. But at the same time it is clear that the kinds of intuitive touch interface we are used to on our mobile devices are something that we want from our laptops too.

Unsurprisingly at “Back to the Mac” event yesterday we were introduced to many things which further blur the line between the OS X and the iOS. We were also introduced to the Mac App Store. And it seems that apps on desktop machines are now also called “apps” and not “applications” any more. A welcome development overall. But one which many developers are apprehensive of too. More on that in another piece I plan to write.

Overall a lot of these developments from Apple are to be welcomed. Both operating systems, and both of their respective User Interfaces and low level functionality have a lot of things they can offer each other, and a lot of similarities from a common core anyway. So ultimately we are heading towards another unification between Apple’s operating system. A much more gradual, but equally more significant one this time, than the quick merge of the iPad and iPhone OS recently. But nonetheless iOS and OS X will be one OS at some point in the future.

Pulling this altogether what do we get?

Well, Apple has produced the first stages of the changeling laptop. That’s what the new MacBook Air is.

It’s still based on OS X. And controlled by a track pad and has a physical keyboard. But the huge touchpad is all about increasing our use of multi-touch gestures. It’s all about instant-on, and long utility times with its solid state, fast but low power Flash mass storage.

The new MacBook Air actually has no moving parts, and no user serviceable parts either. The configuration you order it in is what you get. Forever. It’s all soldered to PCBs in the factory. The Flash “hard-drive” doesn’t even pretend to be an HD like most Flash drives from other manufacturers – which come in cases and plug in a bit like real HDs.

The MacBook Air has a really tiny, simple to mass produce, low chip count motherboard. A motherboard that looks more like it fell out of an iPad. It’s quality kit, as you’d expect from Apple. But it is geared for mass production. And it’s geared so that it can evolve over the coming months.

If you imagine that the PC as we know it is one swirling universe, and iPhones, iPads, Blackberrys and Android devices form the swirling maelstrom of another universe, and the two are colliding, the mess in the middle is the MacBook Air’s territory. There may be other notebooks in there. But Apple has just popped up as a slightly better evolved hybrid than most.

It’s not clear exactly where it is all going yet. But the Air is at the centre of our PC to Mobile Device evolution. In about 12 months time when the Atom mobile chips from Intel (perhaps) and ARM and Imagine Technologies (PowerVR) roll out their next generation of silicon, the Air will be there. Same form factor, they’ve slimmed it down nicely ready for that. Perhaps a nip and tuck here or there. But ultimately we’ll see a touch layer more firmly concreted in OS X 10.7, a mobile app store for OS X, and mobile silicon appearing in MacBooks which will look like MacBook Airs.

So forgive the fact that the MacBook Air is not quite the fire-breathing all new uber-portable semi-laptop that we perhaps dreamt of. Rather marvel at its svelte design overall. And remember that it’s a rare glimpse into a more Darwinian than Moores style evolutionary phase of our computer ecosystem.

Is the MacBook Air the beginning of the end for the laptop as we know it? Have your say in the comments.


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