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Japanese engineers trash MacBook Air

A team of engineers from Japanese PC makers gang up on Apple's slender new laptop.

Japanese engineers were quick to pour scorn on the MacBook Air. This critique comes courtesy of Nikkei Electronics, a major Japanese electronics monthly, which did a teardown of the Air.

Here's the seeming challenge: The Japanese PC industry must come up with a reason why their own PC suppliers--NEC, Toshiba, Sony, Fujitsu--don't have a riveting 0.75-inch-thin notebook design on the market in the U.S. The answer, for them, is simple: a Japanese company would never approve of the design.

MacBook Air

(Actually Mitsubishi did design an Air-thin notebook called the Pedion back in 1997, but the shallow keyboard was almost unusable--and no one bought it. IBM Japan and Sharp, among others, have made ultrathin notebooks but none that wowed consumers like the Air.)

So, let's do a teardown of the Nikkei Electronics teardown piece.

Though the English is here, let me dissect some of the original Japanese (I worked, reluctantly, as a part-time translator at a Japanese communications company in Tokyo for close to four years.) The article headline uses the phrase "muda nashi" to refer to the exterior, and "muda darake" to refer to the inside of the Air. In short, the exterior of the Air is clean, with no waste (muda nashi), but the internals are a complete waste (muda darake). My (not literal) translation: the Air looks good on the outside but is a piece of junk on the inside. This criticism seems beyond constructive to me and borders on spite. (I will explain why below.)

Let's look at another part. "Sugoi to kanjiru tokoro wa hitotsu mo nai." Translation: "There is not one thing (about the Air) that impresses." Then the engineer adds: "If it was us, we could make it cheaper." This sentiment (that the Air doesn't have even one redeeming technological quality) shows that the person making the statement almost holds an animus toward the Air.

My question. If this guy's company (NEC, Toshiba?) could make a cheaper, better Air, why hasn't it done it?

Other alleged shortcomings: an engineer asserts that the keyboard has too many screws and alludes to possibly less-than-perfect hinges. The team also hazards a guess that the Air was made by HonHai Precision Industry of Taiwan.

That's not to say the article is all gratuitous criticism. An engineer speculates that there wasn't enough feedback from the factory (or factories) that made the Air. And, along these lines, another engineer said the design indicates that Apple's main focus is on software and user interfaces, not the particulars of system manufacturing. These may be valid observations. By definition, any PC company that uses a contract manufacturer is removed from the manufacturing process. Certainly more than, let's say, Compaq was in 1994 when it made its PCs within the same building complex in Houston that housed its executives. But all PC makers today outsource manufacturing, including the Japanese.

That said, the problem with the Nikkei Electronics article is that the engineers are from major Japanese PC makers (though their affiliations are never revealed). It seems clear that at least some of the team may have a vested interest in poking holes in the Air's design because they work for companies that directly compete with Apple and are likely archrivals of Apple. Imagine asking a team of AMD engineers about an Intel chip design. The response would be nothing short of libel.

Also, the Japanese press never targets a domestic manufacturer in this way. In other words, it is not politically correct (in Japan) to tear down a device from Sony or Fujitsu or Sharp and subject it to open disdain (though I'm sure this is done internally at Japanese companies). This kind of hypercritical analysis is reserved for foreign manufacturers: Amercian, Korean, Chinese, and others. The upshot: this assessment by the Nikkei team may contain some valid points, but the premise of the article seems bogus.

Author's note: Though I translated extensively (as part of my job) in Japan for a number of years, in this case, I have consulted with native Japanese speakers too. In short, the dynamics of pairing "muda nashi" with "muda darake" changes the combined meaning. Muda darake alone means "a lot of unnecessary waste" or an "excess" of waste. But, in my opinion, the implication is more harsh, i.e., the outside is nice but the inside is junky.

See the article in Japanese here.