It has been a week since Apple announced the new MacBook and the reality distortion field has dissipated enough for me to write about it.
I'm hardly the first person to make this observation but the introduction of this new MacBook feels a lot like the original MacBook Air. A lot of the same words apply: new, constrained, underpowered, future-thinking.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the original Macintosh quadrant Steve Jobs explained when he came back to Apple. At the time, computer manufacturers (including Apple) had so many different products that consumers faced decision paralysis when they went to buy a new computer. Steve wanted to simplify. Specifically he wanted to have two types of computers, desktop and laptop, with two varieties of computer in each type, consumer and pro.
For the longest time Apple stuck with this quadrant system. That's how we got the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. As the technology evolved and Apple got even better at making things, they started to explore how to make an ultralight Mac laptop. I can imagine the engineers lusting about the idea of building a laptop with portability as the primary design priority. That is what led to the first MacBook Air.
This wasn't an attempt to replace the consumer MacBook. Apple explained this laptop was all about portability. The new MacBook Air was something altogether different. I was at Macworld Expo when they announced the original MacBook Air and we all went nuts. Within minutes of Steve Jobs pulling it out of an envelope, they had demo units on the floor in the Apple booth and none of us could believe how light it was.
I think one of the important takeaways is that the introduction of the MacBook Air added a third box to the above matrix. No longer were there just consumer and pro laptops. Apple added ultralight to the mix.
I think it was much more obvious to us back then that an ultralight Mac came with sacrifices. One of the big deals at the time was the optical drive, which almost sounds funny in 2015. But looking back, that original MacBook Air was also RAM constrained and saddled with the slowest hard drive that had shipped in a Mac for years.
There was much wringing of hands over why the new MacBook Air didn't make sense. Nevertheless, the third category was introduced and a lot of people did buy the new MacBook Air. Within a few years, the MacBook Air got a substantial redesign and became the Apple consumer laptop and the “MacBook” got taken to a farm in the country. Or so we thought.
I look at the introduction of last week's new MacBook as another temporary introduction of a third category Apple laptop. The MacBook Pro ticks the pro laptop box. The MacBook air is the consumer laptop and the new MacBook is the new ultralight. I think a lot of the new MacBook's critics don't realize that this third box has been added to the matrix and are judging an ultralight Mac as a consumer grade Mac. I also think the success of the MacBook Air and the march of technology makes it harder for us to accept the sacrifices required for portability in 2015 than it was in 2008 with the original MacBook Air.
Again, I don't think the return of the ultralight category is a permanent fixture in Apple's lineup. The use of the name “MacBook” signals that Apple has every intention in the next few years, with a bit more iteration, to do away with the MacBook Air line and leave this new design MacBook as the consumer Apple laptop once again.
Not surprisingly, this new computer raises many questions. Are people willing to pay the price (both in higher cost and lower performance) to have an ultralight computer? I suspect the answer, again, will be for a number of people, “yes”. This is literally the same conversation we had when the original MacBook Air shipped. It's funny how, as geeks, we all get very personal about these decisions. Is this the computer for everybody? No. Is this the computer for some people? Yes. I don't think this new MacBook is going to supplant the MacBook Air (yet) but it is going to find a home with a lot of users.
Apple has this reputation for being a secretive company but in a lot of ways their intentions are obvious if you look in the right places. The Apple vision for the future of laptops is the new MacBook. Over the next few years, the technologies and design choices made in the new MacBook are going to make their way across Apple laptop line and, ultimately, across the entire laptop industry. That also happened with the original MacBook Air.
So, getting a bit more practical, who is the right customer for this first iteration of the new MacBook design?
1. The Road Warrior
This is an ideal machine for someone that travels a lot and does not need a lot of power. If you spend your days on the web, email, and other low bandwidth computing tasks, this may very well be the computer for you. I know people are concerned about the new USB-C making it more difficult to share data. I think we're going to be flooded with USB-C devices in the very near future. If there isn’t already a manufacturer ramping up a thumb drive with both standard and USB-C connectors on it, I'd be shocked. Moreover, even non-geeks are much more savvy about cloud storage now than they were even just a few years ago. (A few weeks ago I had a 74-year-old friend “offer” to teach me about Dropbox.)
2. The Early Adopters
I have several friends that bought the original MacBook Air just because of its revolutionary design. They knew it had flaws and they knew it was going to cause them some grief but they didn't care. They just loved living in the future. There is nothing wrong with this. Early adopters, I get you.
3. The Retina Snobs
There are two camps over the retina screens. One group can't tell a difference or explain that the difference is not significant enough to matter. The other group completely lose their mind over retina screens. I'm in that second category. I've got a three-year-old MacBook Pro with a retina screen. It was Apple’s first retina screen laptop and I still catch myself gazing lovingly at the text on this screen … after three years. I simply love these displays.
A little over a year ago a friend offered to sell me her used 11 inch MacBook Air. She really just wanted to get rid of it and was offering it to me at a price that was ridiculously cheap. When I told her I wasn't sure how I'd use it, she let me borrow it to see if I had an 11 inch MacBook Air sized hole in my heart. I loved the portability of it and found all sorts of places I'd take it where I would have left the 15 inch MacBook Pro at home. However, I ended up giving it back to her. I could not get over the non-retina screen.
My lesson from that experience was that I simply cannot use a non-retina screen on my Macs anymore. The retina MacBook Pro ruined me. I'm not alone and I'm certain there will be people looking for something less than the MacBook Pro but absolutely require a retina screen. This new MacBook will suit those people nicely.
4. The Second Computer
All of the MacBook's power and expansion problems go away if this new MacBook is your second computer. If you’ve got an iMac or MacBook Pro that you keep docked somewhere and just want a Mac you can carry around with you for classes or client meetings, I suspect this new machine will serve nicely.
If you find yourself in one of the above categories, the new MacBook is a perfectly acceptable option. For me, the big take away is that the introduction of this new MacBook once again represents Apple carying three categories of laptops. This makes my own decision process slightly more interesting.
I am interested in the new MacBook. My existing laptop is three years old and it is about the time I usually start pining away for a new one. Moreover, my own laptop requirements have changed significantly. Up until a few months ago, I needed my large MacBook Pro because it was my full-time computer as I commuted back-and-forth to my day job. Now I spend a significant amount of my time working on my retina iMac at home. My laptop is no longer my main computer but instead the thing I take along for client meetings, speaking gigs, and other road trips.
This work does not require the power of a MacBook Pro and with this new retina screen MacBook, I suddenly find myself with an alternative. Nevertheless, I still have questions. The new keyboard could be my deal killer if it doesn't work for me. Likewise, I'm a bit concerned about heat. I think the idea of a fanless MacBook is a good one but I don't know how hot it will get. I’m going to need to see the reviews on the devices come out and spend some time in the Apple Store but I have not ruled out the possibility of selling the big laptop and buying a small one.
Regardless of what you think of the new MacBook, I believe it is the future consumer line Apple laptop. It's only a question of time before Steve’s quadrant is restored.