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Pondering the Mac Air

by on22 January 2008


Is it more than an iPod Dodo in disguise?

Now that the dust has settled from MacWorld, and all of the salivation has ebbed from the introduction of the Mac Air, we think it is time to re-examine the Mac Air.  It is obvious that no one is able to get people hyped up about a product better than Apple. In the past we have praised Apple’s design and engineering teams for being able to achieve what only other companies can dream of. We do believe that this is still true, and on the surface the Mac Air is another fine example of Apple’s engineering and design teams pushing the limits of what companies believe is possible.

After all of the razzle dazzle was over, like many in the industry, we were left to wonder what the target market was for the Mac Air. Are all of the trade-offs that the Mac Air make too far over the top for the average consumer to be able to use this ultra portable? Who are the consumers that are going to pay what this system costs? Let’s look at each of these individually to see where this leads.

To start with, every product has to have a “targeted market segment,” and if the product does not have a targeted market segment, your company had better be excellent communicators and willing to spend advertising dollars to communicate that you are creating an all new market segment and your product is ahead of the curve because it is the first new product in this segment.

In the case of the Mac Air, it is obvious that the target market segment is what has been defined in the past as the “ultra portable” laptop/notebook market space. This market space has seen significant growth over the past couple of years by users who want machines that take lightweight and small size to the extreme. If you have worked in an IT shop, you know that many high-level executives fit into wanting an ultra portable laptop/notebook for the reason that they do little more with it than Email, word processing, light spreadsheet editing, and, of course, some Web browsing. For these users, because they travel a lot and use their notebook in a variety of on-the-move situations, the portability, light weight and small size are more important to them than the overall ability and performance of the notebook.

The trade-offs of the Mac Air are more than the typical ultra portable notebook. The fact that it does not offer a wired Ethernet port or built-in cellular broadband connectivity are more than just a bit of a hassle. For example, when we were at CES in Las Vegas two weeks ago the hotel that we stayed in did not offer any wireless Ethernet in the hotel rooms, but did offer wired high-speed Ethernet in the rooms. If you did not have a wired Ethernet port or cellular broadband connection, you were forced to use dial up or find wireless access someplace outside the hotel.

In addition, the Mac Air does not have a built-in optical drive.  While this isn’t a show stopper because many users elect not to carry their optical drive on the road with them but rather use a “blank spacer” to save weight, it still is an issue if you happen to have to load software while you are on the road, or if you want to watch a movie from DVD. Yes, there are other ways to get your stuff on the hard drive, but the hard drive is another issue altogether.  The ATA 4200RPM hard drive in the unit is slow, and when we say slow, we mean tortoise speed slow! When compared to today’s 5400 SATA notebook drives, you are going to notice the performance difference. While you can opt for the 64GB Solid State Disk, the cost of the 64GB SSD makes this a cost issue that many users are simply not going to be willing to deal with.

In addition, we get into the lack of any expandability or user serviceability. The Mac Air comes with 2GB of RAM, but you can’t add any more to it because you cannot access it. You also cannot change the battery if your battery no longer holds a charge. Instead, you have to take it in to an Apple store to have the battery replaced. The Mac Air only includes one USB port, which also limits your options as to what you can plug into it, unless you are going to carry a USB hub with you (and it had better be a powered USB hub, as we doubt that the Mac Air is going to be able to power a HUB plus multiple USB devices if they are power hungry). We are not even going to get into the fact that if you want to plug the Mac Air into a projector, you are going to have to carry an adapter to convert the MicroDVI connector to VGA/DVI in order use it, since next to nothing is supporting MicroDVI at the moment.

In the base configuration, the cost for the Mac Air with all of the noted issues above is US$1,799. For about the same money, you could get into something like a Dell XPS M1330 that weighs just a bit more and offers more expandability and options than the Mac Air. Of course, like the Mac Air, if you start toying around with the configuration, you can run the cost up quickly if you start adding options. You do get almost an estimated 5 hours of battery life with the Mac Air and an ultra portable that comes in at under 3 pounds; which, to many users, is what matters most.

Like the original iPod, the Mac Air is an excellent design and the engineering is very progressive when compared to other products in the same sector; but like the first generation iPod, it could be that the Mac Air will be called the Mac Air Dodo in the end, for all of the things that it does not offer. While it is obvious that this is an innovative first generation design that will attract some consumers, others who jump right in may wind up being more aggravated by the things that it does not offer than the things that it does offer.  Hence, the reason that we think that Mac Air sales may not set the world on fire after a serious look at it by consumers.

In the end, we do think there is going to be a market for the Mac Air, but it might be the second generation Mac Air that really sets the world on fire. In the meantime, the release of the Mac Air will drive innovation in the PC ultra portable segment. Don’t be surprised if you see some laptop makers adopting some of these concepts into their next generation of ultra portable designs. Right now, it will work for some users, but others will wind up feeling as if they have just purchased a dodo that will soon be extinct and obsolete.

Last modified on 22 January 2008
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