Macworld 2008: Is the MacBook Air the 2008 G4 Cube?

Last week was a lot of fun for me because I got to make my annual pilgrimage to San Francisco for the annual Macworld show.  Unlike other Mac-faithful, I tend to shy away from the full force reality-distortion field.  Instead, I like to go on Friday, right as the show is wrapping up, for a quick two-hour walkthrough of the floor.  Usually the crowds are light, there are already clear “must see” booths highlighted online, and there is plenty of opportunity to actually talk to the vendors who have products you might be interested in.

Originally, I was planning to write a blog post about the MacBook Air, the obvious star of Macworld 2008.  Unfortunately, Crave beat me to it, and effectively wrote a post that summarizes at least 80% of my thoughts about it.

Crave:  The Macbook Air is the Cube 2.0

Here are a few quick, well-written snippets from the article:

When I saw the MacBook Air in person this week at Macworld Expo, I was having a hard time figuring out what about it seemed so familiar. Then I remembered. The G4 Cube. “Overpriced and underconfigured” were the words we used to describe it in our review in 2000, and many of the same complaints could be applied directly to the MacBook Air.

Where the Cube had no PCI slots or additional drive bays, no standard audio input or output jacks, and wouldn’t accept full-length graphics cards because of its diminutive size, the Air has no Ethernet port (!), no optical drive, no removable battery, and requires a micro-DVI connector for output to an external monitor. Both offer underwhelming technical specs–the G4’s hard drive was legendarily slow, while the Air’s 80GB drive is, hilariously, half the capacity of the largest iPod Classic. Even the price tag was the same: $1,799! And I think in the future, I’ll be able to update this post with one more important comparison: the Cube, although a stunning piece of industrial design, was a commercial flop, and I think the MacBook Air will be, too.

A little snarky, but this definitely reflects my immediate reaction.

When I saw the MacBook Air in person, I was actually a bit under-whelmed.  I think in order to appreciate it’s thinness, you have to see it next to other, fatter, MacBooks.  When you see 100 of them lined up together, it somehow devalues the uniqueness of it’s key design feature.  Actually, opened, they look a little rounded, almost reminiscent of the original iBooks, sans the day-glow colors.

I was almost convinced that this was a superior upgrade to the MacBook in every way.  It’s far more durable than it looks, and the new trackpad is incredibly fun to use.  I’m not going to miss the DVD drive, as I find that I rarely, if ever, use a DVD drive anymore.  I’ve ripped all my movies to MP4, and I usually install software over the network.  But the lack of an Ethernet port frightens me.  There are just too many hotels and locations where the wireless LAN isn’t really up-to-snuff.

Now that I’ve had some time to consider my reaction, I think the MacBook Air will do better than the G4 Cube did, largely because the feature set is much closer to what a real target market wants:

  • Primary machine for a traveling professional, with sophisticated home & work computing infrastructure
  • Second travel machine for someone with a desktop as their primary machine

I almost fit into both categories, so this is pretty close to what I need.  In fact, if it had an Ethernet port, I’d be ready to replace Carolyn’s MacBook immediately with one of these.

Apple has a tortured history, going back decades, with the fabled “third machine”.  Historically, Apple has always found success with a “consumer” line and a “professional” line, and every attempt to carve out a third line of machines has found swift failure.

I think the MacBook Air will do much better than the cube ever did, largely because the sub-notebook category has been historically small, but successful for other vendors.  I also think Apple is such a marquee  consumer brand now, they will pick up sales just for bragging rights, at least initially.  Here is a piece on Seeking Alpha that argues as much, defending the MacBook Air from detractors.

Still, no MacBook Air for me, at least, not yet.  Maybe someday.

2 thoughts on “Macworld 2008: Is the MacBook Air the 2008 G4 Cube?

  1. You can connect to Ethernet with a USB adapter (Apple will throw one in for $30, and they’re probably cheaper elsewhere.) That seems totally reasonable to me, considering how rarely I ever use Ethernet; as you say, it would be a security blanket to toss into the suitcase when traveling.

    I think this is the latest example of a problem UI designers are always pointing out: that people make buying decisions based on features they don’t use. It’s easier to compare tech specs in a checklist than it is to quantify intangibles like comfort, aesthetics and simplicity.

    The slow hard disk is the main reason I wouldn’t use one myself; that makes a big difference in software-development tasks (but shouldn’t be that big a deal for casual users.)

  2. Thanks, Jens. I thought of the USB-Ethernet adapter. I suppose I could get used to carrying it around – I have a terrible track record with any “adapter” (witness my inability to ever have the correct VGA adapter).

    If this is a consistent critique, maybe Apple should just include the USB/Ethernet adapter with the machine, and that way they can advertise that it supports Ethernet (with adapter).

    Maybe it will work as a replacement for Carolyn’s MacBook. We can always wait the 6 months for the “1.1”. 🙂

    I think the point you are making about people making purchasing decisions based on features they don’t use is a really good one – that has to be common across other consumer (and enterprise) products as well.

    Adam

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