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MacBook Air: Apple drops another product

Is the lack of an optical drive in the MacBook Air a smart or stupid move from Apple?

The Air is free from a CD slot, but does it matter?

commentary Apple's ultrathin new laptop contains no optical drive. Is this the start of a trend? It will be, if they're smart.

If you're in the position to afford one -- and they're certainly not an entry-level ultraportable in the way that Asus's EeePC is, for example -- then there's a lot to like about the MacBook Air. Once again, the industrial design boys and girls at Apple have shown why they're amongst the best in the business in producing a laptop that's really visually appealing. Walking past the massive Apple booth at the Macworld 2008 conference, every couple of seconds I'd hear a different American accent cooing or squealing "It's so thiiiin!"

Even in a world where notebooks are the prominent PC type and literally hundreds of designs vie for your attention, the MacBook Air stands out. And that's even more impressive when you consider that a lot of its design cues come from the existing MacBook Pro line.

Quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle the day after Macworld 2008, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster said that "this was still a game-changing Macworld. The MacBook Air was such a big leap". I agree with Munster on this -- and for the record, I don't even know the bloke personally -- but not in the way that most have either appreciated or derided the Air. No, where I think the Air makes a bold leap forward will only be played out in the next couple of laptops that Apple releases -- and maybe even in its desktop lines as well.

When Steve Jobs announced the MacBook Air at his Macworld keynote address, he very quickly announced that it came without an optical drive of any type. Those that want them, said Jobs, could buy the add-on Superdrive (AU$139, available in February), but he figured that most wouldn't. Some of that was centred around Apple's iTunes movie rental service, but that's not relevant to Australian Mac buyers -- outside fooling the US iTunes store, we've barely got an iTunes video buying service worthy of the name, let alone a rental service. Where the Air makes its big leap for every user is in the introduction of Remote Disc, software that lets the Air access any shared optical drive on the network, whether it's on a Mac or PC platform.

Now, to be sure, plenty of ultra-portable manufacturers have gone to market without optical drives -- Apple's not a pioneer here. But the difference here is that previous ultra-portables haven't offered a simple way to access disc media outside of an external drive. And it's where Apple takes the remote disc technology next that really interests me. Certainly, it'd be great if it offered the software to existing MacBook/MacBook Pro users. While those systems do ship with optical drives, being able to access external drives gives one a great flexibility in scheduling backups, adding additional software, or even just giving you a new lease of life for systems where the optical drive may have gone kaput but the rest of the notebook is still operational. While they're at it, I suspect they could pretty easily offer a firmware upgrade to add multi-touch gesture capability to the existing notebook lines. Hey, I can dream, can't I?

Apple's been here before, of course. When it dropped the floppy drive from the very first Bondi Blue iMac, there were howls of protests from people who thought the world was ending. Now, hands up those who still use floppies ...

Yep, I thought so. That's really where the Air is a revolutionary product, and if Apple is smart, it'll follow through with this in its future notebook lines. So much software is delivered by the network anyway these days, and while we don't have a viable iTunes movie service (rental or purchase) as yet, it's clear that IP-based entertainment, while still in its infancy, is fast growing up. At the same time, dropping the optical drive improves base battery life -- no more discs to spin up -- and should appeal highly to the enterprise crowd, as it offers one less vector for employees to add software, viruses or other unwanted files.

What do you think? Is the lack of an embedded optical drive an appealing factor in the MacBook Air, or another strike against it? Is this the dawn of the death of optical, or has Apple overstepped the bounds? Let us know what you think below.

Alex Kidman travelled to Macworld 2008 as a guest of Apple.