How will Apple make the MacBook Air relevant in a post-iPad world?

Rumors strongly suggest Apple's Back to the Mac October event will feature the introduction of an all-new, perhaps all-different MacBook air, the first in a post-iPad world. And that has got me thinking -- how does Apple still keep it relevant?

Apple originally introduced the MacBook Air as the ultimate ultra-light, bereft of optical drive, reduced to a single USB port, yet still boasting a full-sized 13-inch screen and keyboard. Light and impossibly thin but powerful and a fully capable Mac. It was the anti-netbook.

Throughout 2008 I used a second-generation MacBook Air as my main blogging computer. I took it everywhere from my room to the coffee shop to Macworld 2009. The second generation model, with Nvidia graphics, ran Photoshop like a champ and was perhaps the best text and photo blogging machine on the market at the time.

Now we have the iPad. Also no optical drive, but without a single USB port (camera adapter notwithstanding) or hardware keyboard whatsoever. It most certainly can't run full-on Photoshop, or drag and drop between multiple windows, or maintain persistent SFTP and other connections, or do any of the million things Mac OS X excels at. But those things the iPad does do, like movies, web, email, games, books, etc. it does very well, at a much lower cost, with far more intimacy and immediacy, and with 10 hours of battery life.

Apple's ultra-portable category suddenly had two very different contenders, and that's a problem because if there's one thing Apple likes more than stunning design its simple product lines.

Upon his return to Apple it's said Steve Jobs drew a grid with only 4 boxes, portables and desktops, consumers and pro -- what's now known as MacBook and MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Pro. It's more complicated these days, but compared to any and every other company it's still ridiculously simple and intentionally so. When you go to Apple to buy something, they don't want you confused over what you should buy. They just want you to buy it. Need portable, get portable, Need pro, get pro.

Even today while iPad has cut deeply into netbook and cheap laptop sales it doesn't seem to have hurt MacBook's much if at all. That's because iPad is a viable option compared to a $500-ish netbook or laptop. It's not a viable option compared to a $1000-plus MacBook, much less a $1500+ MacBook Air.

So what happens if Apple re-invents the Air? If it gets smaller and lighter, like the iPad, if it goes NAND Flash, like the iPad, if the price drops -- though nowhere near the iPad's -- enough to make it compelling?

Is a 11-inch MacBook air with a hardware keyboard at $1000 a viable option compared to a 7-inch iPad with multitouch? A $800-plus fully tricked out iPad 3G 64GB?

And what if Apple removed the multitouch differentiator from iPad? What if the MacBook Air got multitouch as well?

It may not this year, not if it runs OS X. OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard simply isn't built for multitouch and even if OS X 10.7 Lion is sneak previewed next week with multitouch support it probably won't reach GM status until WWDC in June, 2011, and consumers sometime thereafter. The new MacBook Air will likely ship this year in time for the holidays.

Could it be a hybrid, however? Could it run OS X but have a multitouch iOS layer on top of it? Could it have iOS come up instantly when it boots if all you want to do is surf the web, check email, watch a movie? Could it have iOS slide up, fade in, or carousel around instantly in place of the almost abandonware layers that are now Dashboard and Front Row? It sure would increase responsiveness, never mind battery life.

Think about it: iOS is what Apple has spent so much time on as of late. It was what all but bumped OS X from its traditional place at the last WWDC and it's what has been driving more and more of Apple's profits. It's even replaced OS X 10.4 Tiger on the Apple TV. Eventually, it has to move onto the Mac.

It would post some challenges -- how would a device with a fixed keyboard handle rotation to portrait mode, for example? -- but it would have definite advantages as well. Maybe not right now, but maybe by the time iOS 10.7 Lion ships later next year?

iOS comes from OS X, could it return back to that source and become the next leap forward in Apple's OS evolution? How the new MacBook Air could be relevant in a post iPad world is by being the first step in that next leap -- the first Mac to bridge the gap between iPad and MacBook.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

How will Apple make the MacBook Air relevant in a post-iPad world?


I think your predictions are pretty spot-on here Rene. This might not come in their announcement later this month, but this is definitely coming. There's no doubt about it.

Enjoyable post....buttttt seriously... You need to go through and edit these things before you let public eyes view them. This is getting ridiculous Rene.

Blog posters never proof-read before they post. I think it might be an unwritten rule.

with the suspected loss of hard drive casing, freeing up room, could the new MacBook Air get a bigger battery? possibly giving it that 10 hours that the the iPad gets? maybe more?

Best way to give the new MacBook Air longer battery life? Switch to iOS and an A4 chip. Keep the fixed hardware keyboard and trackpad, or maybe replace them with a touch-screen keyboard + trackpad combo.
The latter is the only way to drastically reduce the height of the lower half of the MacBook Air. Of course, it might use more power than a conventional keyboard + trackpad + LED backlight, but it sure would be thin.

"That’s because iPad is a viable option compared to a $500-ish netbook or laptop. It’s not a viable option compared to a $1000-plus MacBook"
Funny statement since a $1k MacBook is the equivalent of a $500 laptop....

Forgot to mention: the main screen would not be touch-sensitive. Only the keyboard "screen" would be, which would require adding a cursor to iOS. Not a small task, so it's a real long shot.
Most likely scenario is Mac OS X running on yet another low-power Intel chip. Second scenario would be a special build of Mac OS X for the A4 chip. That's far less likely, but far easier than hacking iOS to display a cursor and to handle fixed keyboard/trackpad. (Although the entire surface of the touchpad keyboard could be used as a multi-touch trackpad with sufficient finger-position and finger-count sensing.)

Erik - "Funny statement since a $1k MacBook is the equivalent of a $500 laptop…."
Yeah, but MacBooks last at least twice as long. And you get a vastly better ownership experience. Far more bang for your buck.

WOW I can only imagine! I loved my iPhone (it died!!!) I love my MacBook pro and i love my iPod touch. I dont know if love could describe what I would feel for a hybrid Mac Air. more like...I dont know there are no words. Simply put. One can only dream. Great article.

There have been all kinds of mixed signals in all the rumors about MacBooks. One suggests a smaller form-factor flash memory device instead of "traditional" SSD enclosures, and another suggests a $799 price point. If these rumors are both true, then there will probably be a new low-end MacBook announced alongside the new MacBook Air.
I predict that the low-end MacBook will get the 11.6" screen and will finally graduate to aluminum unibody construction. $799 so it will be more or less priced between the low-end iPad and the 12" MacBook Pro.
I also think the MacBook Air will stay at around 13" but will get some advanced (expensive) technology like the custom-designed miniature solid-state mass storage and carbon fiber chassis with bonded aluminum skin. (And maybe that ultra-slim touch-screen keyboard I mentioned earlier...)
The MacBook Air has to make a huge statement for Apple, like the original one did. It will never be Applle's sales leader, but it will always be Apple's avant-garde trendsetter. I wouldn't expect just a mild update or straight shrink to a smaller screen.

I see an iPad/MacBook hybrid with a sort of iOS. It has wireless USB on which you can connect anything like a keyboard, an external harddisk or flashdrive. The screen itself is touchscreen and can be connected to a tv using dot connector to VGA which produces an apple tv.

I can't see any reason that iOS couldn't be easily br converted to use both/either a mouse/keyboard and/or multitouch. Right now in iOS, your finger is already the cursor. And even though there is no visible cursor, it should be too hard to add. Just think of using Photoshop in this way. You can made edits using a cursor with a mouse, for drawing, and then lets say you want to rotate a picture, you could just touch the screen at two points and rotate it. All without having to go through the more time consuming drop-down menu. Having both would greatly increase the overall interactivility of using a computer, and i'm shocked that it's not been done yet. Just think of all the applications it could be used for.
One reason i never bought and iPad was that it's all touch based. And while it works for the iPhone, I definitely want a mouse with my PC. Maybe I'm old fashioned in that sense, but that's the experience i want.

You are entitled to your opinion @Erik. I respect that. But, if you are going to disagree with @SockRolid, at least present some facts and/or evidence to support your position. That is, if you want to be taken seriously.

I think you are exaggerating (sorry if its not written like that) a little bit, Rene. As many have stated before me, you should unplug and get some fresh air :)
Now, if this by some chance happens... I wont be interested. But hey thats just me :)

Shouldn't Blogs be interesting reading? If I want boring drivel with no "outside the box" thinking I could, well, read the newspaper.
@sockrolid. Interesting take. Enjoy your posts!
One Love!

What's the matter with you people? I know our collective attention span is ridiculously short, but let's take it easy on one of the best bloggers in the industry, at the very least from the point of view of sheer writing skill.
Some of y'all may have to read it twice or even three times, but you'll get it eventually. I promise.
I, for once, can't wait for this coming Wednesday! Though I'm not personally in the market for a MacBook Air, I'm still hoping that it will continue the trend of all screens going IPS, for example, which would only leave the MacBook's and MBP's after that.
As for OS X 10.7 ("Lion", is it?), I thought one new flavor of OS X came out each year, and isn't that also one point the Mac haters like to make, the fact that we supposedly get screwed over by Apple by being asked to upgrade to a new flavor of OS X (10.x) as frequently as every 12 months vs. an average of 3 years with Windows? But who's counting...
I do disagree with one prediction Rene made and that is the release date of OS X 10.7. I don't think we'll have to wait until WWDC '11, because the $29 Snow Leopard was released over a year ago and it consisted of mostly "under-the-hood" improvements to OS X 10.5, but who am I to talk. I only switched to the Mac platform 3 months ago and boy, is this an exciting time to be an Apple customer/consumer/(fanboy?) or what!? :D
Sorry for the long post. (You know who you are ;) )

AirPlay for OSX would be a compelling reason to purchase a MB Air. Not app specific AirPlay but completely integrated into OSX.

"Apple originally introduced the MacBook Air as the ultimate ultra-light, bereft of optical drive, reduced to a single USB port, yet still boasting a full-sized 13-inch screen and keyboard. Light and impossibly thin but powerful and a fully capable Mac. It was the anti-netbook."
I'm not following the "anti-netbook" statement. Pretty sure you just described a netbook with a 13" screen.

"Anti-netbook" is more a marketing distinction here than a technical one. To sum it up in flamebait terms:

  • From the Netbook lover's point of view: Apple overcharged suckers for inferior capabilities in a pretty package.
  • From the Apple lover's point of view: Netbooks foisted the cheapest crap they could get away with selling on consumers.

Both groups are (at least a little) right, but the simple fact that netbooks and MacBook Airs aimed at entirely different groups of customers makes the "anti-netbook" comment reasonable from a business perspective, if not entirely, as you point out, from a technical one.

With sandy bridge and the a9 chips both coming in 2011, there is absolutely no place in my palace of gizmos for a 2010 Mac of any sort. These products will be dated the instant you buy them. I say no thanks.

I was referring to his statement directed at me about Mac myths, not his personal analysis of rumors. But if you want some examples I've used 3 laptops over the span of 10 years and the only reason I replaced any of them was because of technology advancements, none of them failed.

AN ipad is not a PC or a MAC! It cannot nearly do what a PC or a MAC can do! It's good, useful, handy, etc. But it is not a full computer with all the capabilites! Not everyone uses a computer to read the NY Times, Facebook, and Youtube!
There are other things. Business applications, Programming (which ios devices completely ignore), Graphic work, etc. The list goes on.

@George. You obviously do not own an iPad, and wandering by the display at Best Buy does not qualify you as an expert, either. You say an iPad cannot do business applications or graphic work? Then clearly you have no clue as to what you are talking about. Nobody ever said it had all of the capabilities of a Mac. Apple is doing what they do best:: not inventing a category, but DEFINING it. iPod for music devices, iPhone for smart phones. Do you really think those clowns at RIM would be developing a "Playbook" if the iPad was never introduced? Yet again, they defined the category of tablet computers.
In the future, get over yourself, do some research, then comment. But don't bring that weak "C" game crap here again. Toolbag!
BTW....One Love!

@Bob Marley,
Actually, I do own an iPad 3G 64. So please do not assume.
I love it, it is a great device, but it is not by any means a subsitute for a full computer (mac or pc). It does not have the software, the hardware, the input devices, etc.
Actually, Steve Jobs said the ipad does everything a netbook does and better. Give me a break. A netbook runs a desktop OS. You can install anything you want on a netbook, as long as the memory and cpu can handle it.
I have yet to connect an iPad to 2 external 24 inch WUXGA monitors, a mouse, keyboard, and run photoshop.
My whole point of my first post was why would the Macbook Air be irrelevant because of an ipad? It's ridiculous to even put the 2 devices in the same league.

@ James. Although I agree the iPad and iOS is the way of the future, the iPad lacks many of the qualities that OSX has. Give it another few years.

Pre-iPad I had an iMac desktop and a first generation Macbook Air that I used around the house and when traveling. Keeping the Air synced with the iMac was a hassle, but I enjoyed the thin-light form factor. I had been planning to get a new Air when a significant upgrade was available.
Post-iPad I have touched my Macbook Air exactly once, when I gave it to my daughter to use for commuting to school. The form factor, instant-on, UI, battery life, and easy sync with iMac desktop completely trump the Air for second device, portable use and it does everything I want to do when away from my desktop so much better than the Air. I can't imagine anything they could do to the Air now to make me want one.