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Apple offers sleek cachet for clunkers

Apple is making a case for smaller computing.

Imagine consumers en masse dumping their old PC clunkers for a svelte MacBook Air running the sleek, new Snow Leopard operating system. An implausible Orwellian vision but probably not that far removed from Apple's marketing aspirations.

In short, walk into any Apple Store in any tony neighborhood and the message is: relieve yourself of those old bulky PCs and flip phones and we'll give you smaller, more stylish computing with the Apple cachet.

Ford Fusion: Ford is emphasizing smaller, more efficient designs, like Apple
Ford Fusion: Ford is emphasizing smaller, more efficient designs, like Apple. Ford

The analogy may be a bit strained, but imagine trading in a 14 mpg Hummer H2 for a 45 mpg hybrid Ford Fusion. The point: smaller is better. And it's not just Apple hardware. Apple's new Snow Leopard operating system is smaller too. About 7GB smaller than the version it replaces.

As this New York Times review graphically (and some claim fawningly) shows, making software smaller violates a basic tenet of operating system upgrades: more is better. Historically, Windows has been the most egregious example of this immutable law of software marketing. This trend culminated in the fiasco that was Windows Vista--at least the dysfunctional version of Vista that appeared in early 2007.

At General Motors, this trend culminated in the H2, a car too big even by Detroit's standards. (GM subsequently struck a deal to sell Hummer to China-based Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company and is trying to make the electric Chevrolet Volt into its marquee model for the Chevrolet nameplate.)

Are those days over? No, but it's safe to say that at an even more profound level, personal computing is moving to smaller gadgets which, by necessity, use efficient operating environments running on efficient silicon. The iPhone comes to mind. Tiny Netbooks are another good example. In short, despite the obvious compromises that small size imposes, many consumers are realizing that they can do what they need to do with less.

Even Microsoft has figured this out, albeit slowly. Microsoft's Windows 7, based on preliminary reviews, is leaner and faster than Vista. (Yes, there's Windows Mobile 6.5 but I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that this isn't the future of smartphone operating systems.) Intel has got religion too. Its Atom and ultra- low-voltage (ULV) processors both offer significant power savings over standard Intel chip designs.

Apple wants to go a lot further than "Wintel" has gone, however, just as Ford wants to out-mpg GM in the fuel-efficiency race. The argument can be made that Cupertino is offering a sleeker operating system in preparation for devices to come. Maybe a tablet. Maybe something that has yet to be reported. What is clear is that Apple is focusing a lot of its in-house development on small, efficient technology. Both silicon and software.

The same thing can be roughly said about Ford. Its highest profile cars these days are the Fusion, Focus, and Escape--all relatively small, fuel-efficient cars (two are sold optionally as hybrids). All the polar opposite of the most popular cars in its gas-guzzler heyday: the Explorer, Expedition, and Excursion.

No Orwellian vision here, just smaller, more efficient computing devices (and cars) that make a clean break from an obsolete past.