Why the new MacBook Air is just like the G4 Cube: fetishist sexy, underfeatured, overdesigned, and doomed to commercial failure.
When I saw the MacBook Air in person this week at Macworld Expo, I was having a hard time figuring out what about it seemed so familiar. Then I remembered. The G4 Cube. "Overpriced and underconfigured" were the words we used to describe it in our review in 2000, and many of the same complaints could be applied directly to the MacBook Air.
Where the Cube had no PCI slots or additional drive bays, no standard audio input or output jacks, and wouldn't accept full-length graphics cards because of its diminutive size, the Air has no Ethernet port (!), no optical drive, no removable battery, and requires a micro-DVI connector for output to an external monitor. Both offer underwhelming technical specs--the G4's hard drive was legendarily slow, while the Air's 80GB drive is, hilariously, half the capacity of the largest iPod Classic. Even the price tag was the same: $1,799! And I think in the future, I'll be able to update this post with one more important comparison: the Cube, although a stunning piece of industrial design, was a commercial flop, and I think the MacBook Air will be, too.
The more I think about the Air, the less I am able to answer the grammatically torturous question, "Who is this for?" And that's an important question to answer when you're spending money and resources on a new addition to your lineup. Let's look at the Cube again. Most of its features, plus more power and expandability, were available for less money in the G4 minitowers. The top-of-the-line black MacBook offers the same sized screen as the MacBook Air, a more powerful processor, twice the hard-drive capacity, and with 2GB of RAM to match the Air's, still costs $150 less. And your tradeoff is what, 2 pounds and a little bit of baby fat?
No one who looks at the MacBook Air, even those who are smitten with its insane thinness and...well, mostly just that...believe it would function as their primary machine. No, they say, they want it for its portability. But that's a pretty expensive secondary machine, especially when you could have a smartphone or portable media player or Nokia N810 or heck, an iPhone that's very nearly as useful and a whole sight more portable. In fact, you could argue that the convergence of phone and computer is the dominant trend in consumer electronics right now, and the iPhone is one of the primary examples of how good things can get in that field. If you buy that argument, it would seem to suggest that developing an extremely-but-not-ultra-portable MacBook right now is a bit redundant, if not outright baffling.
So that leaves you in Cube-land again: with a very small and well-heeled potential audience willing to spend $1,800 or more (or just over $3,000 if they opt for the 64GB solid-state drive for maximum tech-forwardness) simply to bask in the glow of outstanding design. Oh, and a resurgent fetishist aftermarket capped by a series of glowing mentions in a William Gibson novel. There's nothing wrong with that approach, as long as you know it going in, and Apple certainly got its hat handed to it with the Cube. Let's hope they're not cranking out MacBook Airs by the hundred-thousand, because I just don't think they're going to need them.