October 30, 2018

The new MacBook Air – Apple’s MacBook killer

It has been said about Apple that they are very sure about what they are doing and that they are right – up until the moment they change their mind. We might just have witnessed such a moment, or at least the result of such a change of mind .

The MacBook Air has been one of the, if not the, most successful laptops Apple has made, in fact is might be the most successful line of laptops ever created. I certainly know, from my experience servicing Macs here in Lusaka, that it is the most popular Mac in Zambia, by far. The defining features of the MacBook Air has always been lightness and sleekness – there were gasps in the audience as Steve Jobs unveiled the first generation by famously pulling it out of an envelope.

That was over 10 years ago however, in January 2008. The MacBook Air received a redesign two years later, but has since remained virtually unchanged. In 2012 Apple introduced its retina display MacBook Pros, and with a few more years passing, and Airs still retina-less, it seemed clear the Air line didn’t get much attention. With Apple that is usually a sign they have gone back to the drawing board to think and redesign.

The result of that thinking was unveiled in 2015 in the form of the new ultraportable MacBook – or so it seemed. And, I think, that was Apple’s plan at the time. The 2015 MacBook was by all accounts the new MacBook Air: thinner, smaller, with the modern high-resolution retina display and a great battery life. Sure, Apple continued to sell its MacBook Airs, but it now seemed destined to languish and fade out, and it did not receive any speed bumps in 2016, the first year without a new MacBook Air model since its introduction in 2008.

MacBook Air – reborn

Fast forward to 30th October, 2018. Apple Event, Brooklyn, New York. Apple CEO Tim Cook is on stage and unveils an all new MacBook Air.

But, as it turns out, this is no mere speed-bumped MacBook Air. It is a completely redesigned machine, with a new, gorgeous retina display, new keyboard, powerful CPUs and lots and lots of new and updated details. And, if you compare it to the MacBook line, it is now very similar in physical features, more powerful, and similar in price. So that begs the question…

Why? Why redesign the MacBook Air to a position were it very clearly competes directly with the MacBook? Take a look at these two alternatives I just specced out in the online Apple Store:

MacBook and MacBook Air specced out with 512GB SSD. Which would you buy?

It’s mind-blowing: If you choose the MacBook Air, you get a faster CPU, of a newer generation (yes it matters), more screen real estate, better GPU, Touch ID and Force Touch trackpad, and more ports. For the same price!

The MacBook Air is about 2cm longer and wider. Hardly large. And only about 2mm thicker. In my mind, there is no comparison. I think Apple is going to sell a gazillion of these new MacBook Airs.

But again, why? I think we can dismiss the idea that Apple planned this all along. If they wanted to update the MacBook Air, they would have just done that and not introduced a MacBook in 2015 at all. My theory (Apple doesn’t break out sales figures by model) is simple: The MacBooks haven’t sold very well, the MacBook Airs continued to sell well. Therefore they realised they had to change course and give the people what they wanted: A completely modern and updated version of the always-beloved MacBook Air.

I think the problems with the MacBook were several: For one, Apple made too many changes too fast, when introducing the MacBook in 2015. They switched from “normal” USB ports to one USB C port. Not cool. They switched from the same type keyboard they had used in their portables since forever, to a new type that many found hard to type on. Not cool.

And the name. MacBook nothing. MacBook had previously been used for a line of white plastic Apple laptops that nobody had any fond memories of: they were slow and prone to breaking due to the brittle plastic. In short, there was nothing much to be really excited about with the MacBook, and a few things to be annoyed about. Just does not make for a good first impression, and that counts for a lot. I have not seen many of them here in Zambia.

Quo Vadis, MacBook?

I can see Apple going one of two ways going forward with the MacBook line. It is still smaller than the MacBook Air. It has no fan and is intentionally low-power (it draws little power, it delivers little power). So potentially, Apple can position it as a low cost Mac notebook, which would also be more in line with its name as MacBook nothing. If so, it needs to come significantly down in price.

Or, Apple will quietly discontinue it, maybe already next year. Personally, I would place my bet in that hat. Apple has traditionally not attempted to chase the lower-priced laptop segment and tend to rather drop less popular products than cling on to them.

What is a fun speculation of course, is Apple using the MacBook, which already has a very iPhone-like interior, as a first candidate for switching its entire MacBook range to its own CPUs, the same kind that it designs and produces for all its iPhones and iPads. They are already as powerful as most laptop CPUs, and incredibly power efficient. The MacBook would in many ways be the ideal candidate for this, with its limited ports and internal design.

It is good to see Apple again showing it has not forgotten the Mac. It actually feels like it is the beginning of very interesting times to come.

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