A new meme making the Mac Web rounds since more purported details about the new 12-inch MacBook Air with Retina Display widely expected for release later this year were leaked last week, suggests that the new machine could represent the swan song for Apple laptop computer development and innovation as we know it.
I take this sort of speculation with a big grain of salt. A few months ago it was being asserted that tablet computers had peaked and would go the way of the PC netbook, which enjoyed a meteoric but short-lived rise in the late ’00s, only to crash and burn just as spectacularly with the astonishing ascendency of the iPad after its a introduction in 2010.
However, it should have been a given that the iPad would be unable to sustain its torrid growth pace indefinitely, and that once the initial wave of adoption had been satisfied, tablet sales would stabilize as an ongoing replacement cycle became established. What tripped many prognosticators up was that’a said replacement cycles turned out to more closely resemble traditional laptop replacement intervals of three to four years, rather than the 18 months to two years for iPhones and other brands of smartphones.
That dynamic should also have been logically predictable. IPhones are a primarily handheld devices that go pretty much everywhere with their owners, in a wide range of conditions, environments and circumstances that are sometimes harsh, and with a much higher potential for being lost, stolen, dropped, or otherwise damaged. IPads, on the other hand, while technically mobile and hand-holdable, turned out to be most commonly used at home or office, leading a much less challenging life than your typical iPhone, and that, combined with Apple’s customary high standard of engineering, materials, and build quality, and backward compatibility of the iOS software, made the iPad a relatively long-lived device with a much more leisurely replacement pace for most users.
However, the same qualities that made the iPad such a sales smash hit in the first place virtually guarantee that it’s not going to go the way of the netbook, which was always a compromised concept. With Apple now aggressively promoting the iPad as a business productivity device to the enterprise market, both through its new collaboration with IBM, and unilaterally, I’m inclined to think the iPad has a sustainably bright future, albeit at a more modest growth pace than it enjoyed during its first four years on the market.
Meanwhile, it’a a safe bet that convergence of the iOS with OS X will continue, although I don’t expect a total merger of Apple’s two OSs in the near to mid-term future, and consequently I’m very skeptical about suggestions that laptop and desktop (ie: the Macintosh platform) is going to disappear anytime soon. Five years hence? Anything we might speculate would be just that — conjecture. Meanwhile, the current MacBook Air design (see current MacBook Air prices from Apple’s resellers), now well into its fifth year of production, was instrumental to Apple’s just setting what may be an all-time Mac sales record for a second consecutive calendar quarter, with market research analysts at IDC estimating an 18.9 percent increase in Mac systems shipped in a quarter when the PC industry as a whole weathered a 2.5 percent contraction. That sort of robust market performance is not something Apple would want to disrupt. However, if that long a production run is repeated with the new MacBook Air, and if Apple were to merge the iOS and OS X in five years’ time, then a new MBA design introduced in 2015 might conceivably be the last exclusively Mac laptop, although I still expect the clamshell laptop form factor to continue long after any such merger, and I consider eventual release of an Apple a-series ARM chipset powered laptop running iOS to be virtually inevitable.
In the meantime, I’m eagerly awaiting a rumored 12-inch iPad (Pro?) tablet, and what that hopefully would mean for the iOS in terms of productivity enhancements that will hopefully address the several major iOS shortcomings as an efficient productivity tool, such as real multitasking and support for multiple open application and document windows; a user-accessible file level directory, improvement on the iOS’a current clumsy and erratic text selection, a full OS X-style Spotlight search engine, and support for external pointing devices — all of which, save for Spotlight, are supported by the Android and Windows tablet OS competition.
However, at least in the short term, a new MacBook Air is arguably overdue, the rumor buzz that it will have a 12-13-inch Retina display but about the same footprint as the current 11-inch MBA and be even thinner. The keyboard is projected to have full-sized key caps, but with closer spacing, which will likely get mixed reviews from touch typists, and a return to the full device width keypad area last seen in the popular 12-inch PowerBook G4 in the early-mid ’00s.
The even thinner profile is predicted to be partly facilitated by dumping most of the new machine’s hard-wired connectivity, with all of the current MacBook Airs’ ports, including even MagSafe and the Mini DisplayPort as well as Thunderbolt port and the 12-inch Air’s SD Card slot, all being replaced by only a single USB Type-C port and a headphone jack. Port minimalism is nothing new with Apple, and the original 2008 MacBook Air got along with one over-subscribed full-sized USB port for data connectivity, although both battery recharging and video out via USB will be entirely new, and controversial to say the least.
I would have expected that even with the introduction of such a machine, the current 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs would be continued, but Digitimes’ supply chain sources are saying this week that only the hot-selling 13-inch model will remain available as the last non-Retina Apple laptop. If so, it begs the question of how to better compete with cheapo Windows laptops and Google Chromebooks, the latter which particularly have been crowding Apple in the eduction market, offering full laptop features for less than the price of even the most inexpensive iPad minis. Perhaps the 13-inch MacBook Air will step into the role of price leader, along with more emphasis on iPads for the education market, including a rumored 12-inch tablet.
An imponderable is whether the new MacBook Air’s rumored extreme connectivity minimalism might encounter buyer resistance. Erik Eckel , a managing partner and IT consultant with Louisville Geek and president of communications company Eckel Media Corp. thinks so, posting a trenchant critique of Apple’s rumored plans on TechRepublic Tuesday,observing that if the scuttlebutt is true, it’s “all bad” for business laptop users. As he puts it:”Lots of business users need additional ports to connect external drives, displays, and other peripherals. What are they supposed to do with just a single USB Type C port? Carry a handful of adapters?” Good question. The original MacBook Air didn’t exactly set the world on fire sales-wise, and it was not until “real” laptop PC features and connectivity were added in the 2010 redesign that the Air took off to become the most popular Mac notebook model.
Whatever, it will be interesting, and if the new MacBook Air does prove to be the last Mac laptop design before an iOS/OS X merger, portable Macs will be going out with a bold flourish rather than quietly fading away.