How the Macbook Air is the future of Computing

2199248287_cf872cccc2_m.jpgIf you didn’t have a chance to see history made last week, you should go watch it. History was made with yet another computer company announcing yet another laptop with better specs than the generation before. Yet somehow, Steve Jobs’ keynote address at Macworld announcing the Macbook Air was different. Historically different.

There have only been a few similar occasions in history where the future of computing has changed so dramatically. The Apple II in 1977. The IBM PC in 1981. Windows in 1990. Windows 95. AOL’s unlimited internet access in 1994. The standardization of computers without floppy drives.

The Macbook Air defined a new standard in computers. Steve Rubel thinks it has to do with “cloud computing” and it may. However, I think the the standard is fundamentally more practical. There is no optical drive (CD ROM or DVD).

Since last weeks keynote, I’ve posed my thoughts to friends and colleagues and the general consensus is that people need optical drives and the lack of one would prevent them from purchasing. That may be, but the new standard has been set, much like the floppy drive, and the stake has been driven through the heart of optical media.

Let’s think about this. We don’t need optical media for backups – most of us couldn’t fit backups on the discs and we have external drives. We don’t need optical media for file transfer – we have thumb drives and the internet. We don’t need optical media for music – that’s what mp3’s and digital formats are for. Plus, increasingly people buy their music and movies online. What do we really need optical media for that can’t be achieved digitally.

As well, Apple has a vested interest in eliminating the optical disc. Optical discs are competitors to the iTunes store in the music industry. CD and DVD players are direct competitors to Apple TV, iPods and iPhones.

But it’s not just Apple that benefits from the demise of the optical disc. Microsoft benefits – they have Zunes and Xbox Live. Dell benefits – they can lower prices more by not including superfluous hardware. Cisco benefits from increased reliance on wireless networking (Cisco owns Linksys, the market leader in consumer wireless routers). Google benefits as a provider of decentralized (web based) services. The music and movie industry benefits as updating DRM schemes can be done in batch as opposed to mass producing new discs to support new standards.

Everybody benefits from the elimination of optical and that is why the death sentence, and thus history, was issued last week. Your thoughts?

Photo credit to Kenn Christ

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Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

22 thoughts on “How the Macbook Air is the future of Computing”

  1. You are seriously going to claim that an ultra-slim machine is defining “the future of computing.” Apparently, someone else is still under the spell of the Jobsian “reality distortion field.”

    The Air does not spell the death of the optical drive/disc. If that were the case, there would be a clear movement in distribution technology–BitTorrent and its successors. Quite frankly, given the need for firms to maintain their intellectual property, this has not happened. Additionally, while Apple has made inroads into its share of the computer market, the Air will not be the death of optical media as a distribution method.

    On another note, I just have issues with a device that forgets about the limitations of wireless networking. If we have moved beyond optical, wireless is not quite the preferred network to deliver large amounts of data. Not everyone is running Draft-N network hardware.

  2. I’m not ready to read that far into the Macbook Air yet. There have been plenty of laptops without internal optical drives for a long time now. The lack of an optical drive is merely a by-product of miniaturization: ultrathin laptops simply cannot accommodate an optical drive.

    Apple even developed not one, but two components to give the Air access to an optical drive: a software utility to borrow another computer’s drive *and* an external optical drive.

    When Apple comes out with a DVD-less iMac, then we’ll be sure they’ve left them behind for sure. Meanwhile, we really can’t tell.

  3. Interesting perspective on a new trend. Plenty of people don’t trust "the cloud" and want their data "local." The trustworthiness factor will have to be addressed.

    The floppy drive only lasted about 20 years, so it is no surprise that newer media may survive fewer years. Wow, a book lasts many centuries, but today media borne content can only last months or years before it needs to be transferred to a new media. Makes you feel bad for the libraries and other keepers of contemporary knowledge.

  4. @jjt granted that this death won’t happen tomorrow and 802.11n routers are just about the industry standard for people buying new routers at electronic distribution centers like Best Buy. I do, however, agree that 802x is not the best protocol around but it’s ubiquitous.

    @carlos wait for Macworld 2009

    @Jim I think it can be argued that the floppy drive was around 5 years too long and the optical drive has been around for about 15y now.

  5. I think you have made a fatal flaw in your assumptions about the need for optical media by assuming more of the average user than is true.

    The average user is not computer savvy. They might be smart (I have some very smark friends who can be complete idiots when put in front of a computer and asked to do anything but email. edit documents or open a web browser). These people don’t tend to have external drives for backups, sometimes they will only have a thumb drive if their work provided them one. Internet connections? At least a couple of them still use dial-up because they aren’t convinced of the value of a high speed connection for their needs.

    Also I’ll keep my optical discs for easy access to both audio and video in formats that I can largely do with as I please [thanks to CSS having been cracked].

    Also you know what the back-up media is for nearly all my purchased music? the CDs I bought it on. As long as my house doesn’t burn down I can recover a deleted file, re-encode them at a higher bit rate b/c my laptops/MP3 players capacity has increased.

    Also even though I’m a BIG Apple fan I think the market for the MacBook Air is pretty small. It is best suited for people who travel a lot and have flexiblity in choosing the OS thety can run on their laptop.

  6. For me the optical disk is not a king but still a prince. i usually travel with at least 36 movies (4 fun & work). If i rent them they’d disappear out of the “Air” after 24 hours. Maybe, downloading them into an auxiliary disk is an option, but I’m not sure that everyone would agree that this is within fair use.

    Not everywhere I go there is a functioning network and I cannot count the number of hours I’ve spent in hotels all over the globe trying to get their network to work. So, for me right now, I need an optical drive. In 5 years, who knows!

  7. @Nahum Apples movie rental strategy says you have 30 days to watch the movie. Once you start though, you’re on the clock for 24h. Amazon’s Unbox is similar and both are viable as travel partners (iPod + iTunes or Amazon + TiVo + TiVo2go).

    Additionally, both services allow you to buy the movie (in it’s digital format) and keep it forever.

  8. I remember first seeing computers without the floppy drive and thought it was crazy…what was I going to do with all those floppies I had with all my crap on them. Count me firmly in the non-tech-savvy category…but I easily adopted the thumb drive and the internet for my stuff and transfers. The disk will be dead soon for computing, music, movies. The Air confirms this in addition to helping bury them. I say bravo…I lose and/or scratch almost every disk I have.

  9. Hmmm. I had an IBM Thinkpad years ago that had a hot swappable bay. My optical drive was external. I’m not so sure Apple is the champion of that.

    I’m disappointed with the AIR. The monitor has a TON of unused real estate… the surrounding frame makes it look like a 5 year old laptop.

    Quite honestly, going to the AIR from my 15″ MacBookPro would be a significant downgrade to me.

  10. I earned a bit of spending money in college building machines for people and I remember thinking steadily how the floppy drives were just a fixed-price relic. When I built my first 100% homebrew machine, I didn’t bother with one.

    Optical drives… initially, I wasn’t thinking that we’ve reached the same point, but in the last few days I’ve reconsidered. The *only* things I use a drive for is for either watching DVD’s (from Netflix) or burning the occasional iso. And realistically, that second one happens once every few months at best.

    I’m convinced that the death of the optical drive is coming… the next 12 months? Unlikely. In the next 24 (aka after two Christmases and two new school years)? I’d put money on it.

  11. I use macs, I use pc’s, I use linux. It’s all good… but when it comes to the ‘air’, I see the same thing as I see in the ‘iPhone’. It is subpar technology hyped up with a famous brand. If I wanted a fashion accessory, I’d buy an iPhone, and a macbook air… but if I wanted a laptop, I’d buy something that is less brand and more function.

    With the limited battery life we need replacable batteries. With the world being bigger than wireless internet we need LAN ports and optical storage. The air may be a glimpse of the distant future, but today it is something for fashion people, not actual users.

  12. Frank, thanks for not using “adult” links as your URL. That’s been removed (Yes, I can do that since it’s my blog, thankyouverymuch).

    The point is, like it or hate it, the iPhone has been an astounding success. Counter to all of our griping and moaning about the network, about the fragility, about the camera, about the touchscreen keyboard – the iPhone is killing on sales and is becoming a more useful tool for owners everyday.

    My point about the Air is not specific to the Air. My point is that Apple can drive the market by merely “doing”. In the case of the iPhone, they “did” touchscreen, etc and Verizon has now followed suit. In the case of the Air, they are “doing” no optical drive, so I’d expect it to become a fairly no brain choice for other manufacturers.

    I won’t by the Air. I need a desktop replacement (substittute). I’m a power user. However, I see the niche being there for highly mobile professionals but, no, thats not the point of the article

  13. My 3 year old 12″ Dell used an external DVD drive, so I guess it was the future of computing, and Apple just copied them. Oh wait, my 3 year old Dell has 3 USB ports instead of 1, and has a 100Mbit ethernet port built in (as well as wireless). Also, my Dell came with the external DVD drive, unlike the Air.

    Oh yeah, but my Dell was crap, because it didn’t say ‘Apple’ anywhere on it.

  14. Ok, you have a point, but having no optical media is still something that makes me feel uncomfortable..

    But I’m a PC user, so that may explain it.

    There’s one toshiba laptop that is actually lighter and as thin as the Macbook Air though… the Toshiba R500.. and the best thing about it is that it actually has a built-in DVD writer..

    http://www.toshiba.ca/web/product.grp?section=1&group=1&product=7170

    My opinion on these thin laptops is that they are way too fragile to be safely carried around… So I’ll stay with my 15″ 4 pounds notebook, thanks :)

  15. Aaron – Thank you for removing the link, as you say it is your right to do so, as it was a mistake on my side to include it.

    It is your standpoint that Apple is a business leader and that everything it does is to be emulated? I claim this is inherently false. Apple is a brand, such as Nike or McDonalds, which have a large brand following, and many imitators trying to make similar products in order to surf on the wave of recognition.

    The iPhone may have sold like hotcakes, which is typical of the hype surrounding it. I claim many of the buyers did not know of it’s lackings mainly because they bought it sight unseen due to the branding and advertising. Like a beaten woman the fans make excuses for the iPhone’s lacking, but of course sensible people – the buyers outside of the brand recognition buyers – look objectively on the reviews and realize the phone looks nice but lacks feature. Sure, it is and will be imitated – often with MORE features at a lower price – but this is because the image sells, not because it is a wanted product in itself, or even a futuristic product. The iPhone was not a step forward, it was a step back. It is bought for bragging rights, not because of any need for a real phone.

    I say the air is even worse. There are already competitors that are smaller with more functions. Again, the air will be a product only for the fans, since anyone who is not already a mac fanatic will not buy it solely for the looks and branding. It is always a balance between brand and features for a buyer. Could I live without the LAN connection to get a nicer laptop? Well, maybe, I can get a USB adapter. External DVD… What about battery life? Fragility? If somebody GAVE me a macbook air, I’d sell it and buy two REAL laptops for the money. I’m not saying I would not want a mac, I am saying if I have a laptop, I need to be able to use it as more than a fashion statement.

  16. Hey Aaron, ltnb ;)

    While I think the advent of the Macbook Air is great, I love lighter notebooks, but, I am just not ready to cough up $1700-3300 for one. While tossing out the optical drives is great, as long as they are using other options for removable media like USB ports, Firewire, and SDHC readers.

    I just dropped $400 on an EEE PC with Xandros linux platform. Very light, small, highly portable, and is very successful for these new styles of mobile computing.

    Hurry up and get your macbook air Aaron and let’s see those pics :D

  17. I’m still in awe of it. No matter how many times Steve Jobs repeated the features of the Macbook air, I still have my mouth hanging open. From the standard keyboard size to the standard screen size to the way you can just “borrow” software from other pcs or macs… And how thin it really is!

  18. Frank,

    You’re right in that the customer market will decide whether to buy Apple or not. And that based on these consumer trends, the manufacturing market will determine whether to emulate. I think, however, that all the trends indicate that consumers are very likely to buy Apple products and that the user base of Apple products (whether they be Macs or iPods or whatever) continues to gain momentum. I stand by my predictions but time will, of course, tell if the market agrees with me. :-)

  19. You left off the Mac in 1984 and that was the biggest of all revolutions.

    Apple eliminated the floppy drive in the first iMac and everyone said they were crazy. Were they? Soon everyone followed.

    Yes, drives have been left out before, e.g., the early Mac Duo. But they were needed. So everyone bought one. Now you don’t need one, but umbilical cords are still available (remote disk the external drive). Your article is correct! We can do without it, but most need the comfort of the knowing that solution still exist.

    The Air will be big once people understand the new paradigm of computing. I already see long-time Windows users switching due to the Air.

  20. MacBook Air – I would love one and would buy it tomorrow if it came in a 15″ version. Frankly, I need the screen real estate for Photoshop et. al. palettes. The loss of an optical drive – ummmmm… I would definitely buy the accessory drive, but I can see where Apple is headed (leading). But please, Apple, a firewire port would be helpful and another USB port. They’re small, just throw ‘em in and add a gram or two.

  21. Macbook air is awesome but i still think its extremely thin and might not be as practical as they say.. i really love the new idea though .. a “weightless laptop” launched by Apple! that is probably the reason of its success otherwise, it doesnt seem to be a practical laptop to me !

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