Heavier than Air

by Charles Miller on January 22, 2008

When Apple first introduced the iPod, it was greeted with the now classic Slashdot lead: "No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame." When Apple first introduced the iPod Mini, the pundit consensus was that, at only $50 less than the iPod classic, nobody would buy a device with a quarter of the hard drive space of its older brother.

(John Gruber's rebuttal is fun to read in hindsight, as the Mini went on to out-sell the Classic iPod)

You can go back further. Every single generation of iMac has been greeted with complaints that there are no expansion slots, you can't upgrade it, you can't replace the screen, and in the case of the original iMac it was missing that most vital of peripherals, the 3.5 inch floppy drive.

The tech press, it seems, has a bad record on judging products on criteria you can't fit on a feature matrix.

Which is a problem, because feature matrices suck. A feature matrix says: "Here is what everyone else is doing. To be competitive you must do the same." Where's the differentiation? Where's the innovation in doing exactly what everyone else does, ticking the boxes, shaving off one or two points in each row so you get the green tick?

Ever watch Top Gear review a car? There's always the point in the review where they run through the list of cars that are cheaper, more powerful and better fitted-out... but just aren't half as fun to drive. If it were up to most tech pundits you would buy a car from a spec sheet -- horsepower, miles per gallon, price, optional extras -- without ever sitting behind the wheel and giving it a run around the block.

Enter the MacBook Air, a device that is under-powered, has too small a hard drive, has only one USB port, lacks firewire, a replaceable battery, wired ethernet and an optical drive. Sure-fire flop, right? Even those sites willing to give the Air a look have labeled it as a "secondary" machine, only suitable for those rich (or geeky) enough to own more than one Mac. That's an opinion I can sympathise with because if I were to buy an Air (a distinct possibility), that's the role it would play.

I have to remind myself, though, that I am not a normal person. Nor are most people who write for tech weblogs. I think the step that Apple is taking with the MacBook Air is much like the one they took when they decided to ship the iMac without a floppy drive. They know where the world is going, and they want to be there first.

If you think about it, everything that Apple have left off the MacBook Air is something that 90% of the population don't need 90% of the time. If my MacBook Pro didn't have Firewire, or only had one USB port, or even didn't have an optical drive, I don't think I'd even notice more than once a month, and I'd not find it hard to compensate for their absence those few times.

Don't think of the Air as a secondary machine, think of it as a primary machine, with headless appliances like Time Capsule and the Apple TV filling in the space around it. All that's really missing is some "myLife" storage appliance to hold overflow of mail, documents, Photos, videos and music when that 80GB internal drive fills up.

Previously: The Macworld Stevenote: A reaction

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