Thoughts on the MacBook Air

I’m going to take a short break from my ongoing reports on my new Vye S37 to write a bit about the mobile computing device that is getting the most attention right now.  I’m referring to Apple’s MacBook Air ultra-portable, which was announced with quite a bit of fanfare during Steve Jobs’ annual keynote speech at the MacWorld Expo.

I’m certainly not a big Apple fan and the MacBook Air definitely wouldn’t fit my own personal needs (its footprint is way too big, for one thing), but I do think it looks like a reasonably decent device that should be a good fit for some users.  It has received a fair amount of criticism from some quarters, but I think most of its shortcomings are just examples of the types of compromise that has to take place when portability is a primary focus for the device.  Every such design has to require a fair amount of give and take.  Some potential customers will not be able to get by with the compromises that Apple chose to make, but those same concerns will be less important to others.

The key issue with the MacBook Air is really one that is inherent to Apple’s computers in general: the Mac OS remains a closed platform inextricably tied to a single manufacturer’s hardware.  Competition is one of the main things that makes the compromises on mobile PCs tolerable.   As noted in my recent post outlining the factors that led to my decision to purchase my Vye S37, there were all kinds of factors that led to my rejection of other decent systems in favor of the one that most closely matched what I wanted.  This was made possible by my preference for using an OS that woks on hardware from a wide variety of companies.

Most of the negative commentary about the MacBook Air stems from the fact that it is the one and only choice now available for users that are committed to the Mac OS and want a lightweight portable.  The rumors that Apple was going to fill that gap in their product line got many people excited and that excitement made a hard shift to disappointment for those that found that the compromises were not ones that they could live with.  

I’ve seen a fair amount of material that pointed out other ultraportable laptops that lack some of the shortcomings that people have complained about on the MacBook Air, but all of those competitors lack the Air’s top selling point, which is its native OS.  Those who depend upon the Mac OS basically are left with the choice between buying a MacBook Air or buying a larger, heavier full-sized laptop computer (or a desktop).  Mac devotees might look with envy at the hardware specs on ultraportables from companies like Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Sony or at any of the currently available UMPCs, but they ultimately will remain out-of-reach due to the their OS.

The MacBook Air really represents perhaps the most blatant example currently available of what is going to remain the primary limiting factor for the Mac OS.  Apple is really between a rock and a hard place here, though, as the tight integration between the OS and hardware is also a primary source of most of the strengths of that OS, particularly its advantages in the areas of stability and security. 

As long as the Mac OS remains coupled to the limited product line of a single manufacturer, its market share potential will remain limited compared to its more open competitors.  If Apple opened up the OS, though, the likelihood is high that it would start running into many of the same problems that Windows has now and most Mac users are trying to avoid. 

It is for this reason that the Mac is pretty certain to remain something of a niche product and why new designs like the MacBook Air are destined to always spark some pretty loud expression of disappointments from those that bemoan the compromises and don’t have other alternatives available.

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