The Appeal of the MacBook Air

A month after its debut at Macworld Expo and a few weeks after it began shipping to customers, there seem to be an awful lot of people doubting the sales prospects of the MacBook Air. I remain convinced, however, that it’s going to be a big hit.

The key to understanding the appeal of the Air is that you’ve got to stop thinking about technical specs as the primary factors. Here’s an analogy: the MacBook Air is like a sporty convertible coupe. You buy one not for practical reasons, but because it is satisfying to own something beautiful and clever and fun.

The MacBook Air is like no other recent notebook from Apple, in that its price is not relative to its performance. In the previous iBook/PowerBook matrix, the “small” high-end machine, the 12-inch PowerBook G4, did have a price that was relative to its performance: it cost a lot more than an iBook but a little less than a 15-inch PowerBook, and it performed a lot better than an iBook but a little worse than a bigger PowerBook. The Air, on the other hand, inverts this equation: it costs about 50 percent more than a comparably equipped regular MacBook, but the regular MacBook performs about 50 percent better.

I’m not immune to this obsession with statistical comparison. In my initial write-up on the Air, I concluded:

The MacBook Air is undeniably beautiful and clever, but clearly designed as a secondary machine, not a main machine. I like using a notebook as my sole machine, which means I’m almost certain to stick with the Pros.

It is true that I’m personally not going to buy an Air. But I was wrong that the Air was designed to be a secondary machine. It certainly is a compelling secondary machine for anyone whose primary machine is an iMac or Mac Pro, but for many people, the MacBook Air will serve just fine as their one and only computer. (Again, consider an analogy to a convertible coupe — for many, yes, it’s a secondary car, but for anyone without kids and with no need for significant storage space, it works just fine as their only car.)

In my initial Macworld Expo coverage, I asked for email from readers who had pre-ordered Airs, asking why they bought one. Responses (and there were many) ran nearly 50-50 between those who bought the Air as a secondary machine and those who bought it as their “fast enough for me and I never use FireWire anyway” main machine. Given the nerd-skewed demographics of the DF audience, I suspect the Air-as-secondary-Mac group is way overrepresented in the responses I received. My money says most people buying an Air will be using it as their one and only computer. Those critics predicting a sales flop seemingly aren’t aware that this second group even exists.

The smartest thing I’ve read about the MacBook Air is this piece by David Galbraith, wherein he points out that the Air’s CPU is several hundred times more powerful than an original Intel Pentium, and most people still use computers for the same sort of tasks. Galbraith concludes:

The initial reception of the Macbook Air proves that the current process of designing, marketing and selling computers has nothing to do with “specification” requirements, but everything to do with specification lust.

What struck me regarding Macworld’s MacBook Air benchmarks wasn’t how much worse the Air performed than the standard MacBook or MacBook Pro, but how much better it performed than their baseline notebook, a 1.67 GHz 15-inch PowerBook G4 — the fastest Mac notebook you could buy two years ago, and the very computer I still use every day. That the Air isn’t as fast as a regular MacBook does not matter because the Air — for most people and most tasks — is clearly fast enough.

Whenever “the Internet” consensus is that a new Apple product is under-specced, the Internet has been wrong. The Air’s missing optical drive and FireWire/Ethernet ports are like the original iMac’s missing floppy drive. Critics panning any new Apple device will almost inevitably compare it to Apple’s only significant product failure this decade, the G4 Cube. Air critics are no exception. But here’s the thing: the Cube was not underpowered. It was, if anything, overpowered. I’ve long thought that if it had been the G3 Cube rather than the G4 Cube — powered more like the then-current iMacs than the then-current Power Macs, and down-priced accordingly — it would have been far more successful.1 I offer the Mac Mini as proof.

The apt comparison for the MacBook Air is the iPod Mini. The iPod Mini debuted in January 2004 with 4 GB of storage for $249, alongside a regular iPod with 15 GB of storage for $299. The Internet consensus was clear: Why would anyone buy the iPod Mini when for $50 more they could get almost four times the storage? The Internet consensus was, of course, wrong. The consumer consensus was that the iPod Mini was adorable and 4 GB of storage was more than enough. The Mini quickly became the best-selling iPod model, a position still held today by its successor, the iPod Nano.

Here’s what I wrote when the iPod Mini debuted:

Everyone wants to focus on the $50 price difference between the iPod Mini and the 15 GB iPod. I agree that the $50 price difference between the Mini and 15 GB iPods is negligible. That’s exactly the point. Take it a step further and imagine if Apple cut another $50 off the price and sold the 15 GB iPod for the same $249 as the Mini. I say, even then, there would still be people who would choose the Mini. For roughly the same price, you get to choose between a significantly smaller footprint and 11 extra GB. If hard disk capacity were the only factor that mattered, we’d all be using brick-sized players from Creative Labs.

Jason Fried got the iPod Mini right, too, and his argument applies just as well to the MacBook Air:

Further, when it comes to technology, smaller is almost always more expensive. Miniaturization requires more R&D and greater engineering precision.

Given that Apple still charges a $125 premium for black MacBooks, it’s hard to take seriously any argument that people aren’t willing to pay for style. The Air’s technical deficiencies are irrelevant to a large swath of users, and its aesthetic appeal is undeniable.

  1. Arguably, the main problem with the G4 Cube had nothing to do with its technical specs, price, or aesthetic appeal, but rather that its case was overly prone to cracking and/or unsightly injection mold lines. I.e., the Cube’s fatal flaw was in the design and engineering of its case. ↩︎