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Apple's Jobs still shapes PC laptop future

Steve Jobs and Apple designers have set the course of cutting-edge laptop design for years to come. And one of the biggest beneficiaries of Apple's influence has been Intel.

Steve Jobs' imprint on PC laptop design in 2012 and beyond will be large. But we have to step back a few years to see the arc of that influence.

In January 2008 Apple introduced the MacBook Air. That groundbreaking design bore most of the hallmarks of PC laptops that are expected to flood the market in 2012.

Let's look at what Jobs said at that time (see video below).

Highlights of Jobs' MacBook Air presentation in January 2008:

  • "Instant-on the minute you open it up"
  • "Generous trackpad"
  • Multitouch gesture support
  • Solid-state drive
  • Under 0.8 inches thick
  • Aluminum chassis
  • About 3 pounds

Those are essentially the same specifications that Intel and the PC industry are building into Ultrabooks, which are expected to arrive in force from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer, Asus, Samsung, Sony, and others in 2012. (The iPad has had an impact too. Windows 8 devices are expected from PC makers by 2013 that offer attributes of a tablet--testimony to the iPad's popularity.)

And it's not just the nuts and bolts. PC laptop makers have obviously been taking aesthetic cues from the Air. Particularly the sub 0.8-inch thickness combined with a metal chassis.

Original 2008 MacBook Air.
Original 2008 MacBook Air. Apple

Of course it doesn't hurt that the Air has been the highest-profile thin laptop since 2008. And Apple has been evangelizing it like no one else--which can be traced directly to Steve Jobs. (Though Dell tried to promote the Adamo, and Sony has made efforts with laptops like the Vaio X.)

Maybe most importantly, Jobs and Apple have had a particularly big influence on Intel (though Intel executives don't usually readily admit this)--in turn, probably the single most influential hardware player in the PC industry.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini made a rare appearance with Jobs at the Air debut in 2008. Here's what Otellini said at the time: "A year ago, you challenged us to get [our] microprocessor into this impossibly thin machine.... When we started this project we didn't think it was possible.... There are times that we sweated over it. But at the end of the day, we did what we do best together, which is to innovate."

Some of the fruits of that project now can be found at the core of all Ultrabooks.

And Intel was challenged again with the most recent MacBook Air, which packs the chipmaker's most power-efficient central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU) combined onto one chip.

An Intel executive recently admitted that Apple threatened to drop its chips if the company didn't improve power efficiency. This is quintessential Apple: badgering a company to improve its product or risk elimination. (When IBM's and Motorola's PowerPC chip roadmap didn't hew to Jobs' vision, Apple dumped PowerPC and went with Intel.)

Whatever happens, Apple and Jobs have made their mark on laptop design for years to come. And despite the popularity of iPhones and iPads, consumers worldwide will continue to buy millions of laptops every year with Jobs' and colleague Jonathan Ive's fingerprints all over them.