I fear for the MacBook Air. I fear for Apple.

What should Apple do about its best-selling* computer? The answer is obvious to everyone but Apple.

Mark Gurman and Debby Wu’s Bloomberg News report last week about “a new low-cost laptop” coming later this year has got a lot of people thinking about one of my most pressing problems: What to do about the MacBook Air, a 10-year-old design increasingly long in the tooth. The extended warranty on mine expired this spring and I’m in the market for a replacement.

Technologically conservative by nature—and growing more so in my dotage—I’m with Creative Strategies’ Ben Bajarin, who addressed the MacBook Air conundrum back in March in a podcast with iMore’s Rene Ritchie.

If all they did was update the Air with Retina and some modern specs and priced it around $899, they would take share like it’s no one’s business. It would really, really disrupt PC sales in a significant way… If they wanted to just completely rain on their parade and boost Mac from five, seven million and go way higher than six million units a quarter, that’s what they’d do. They’d come in at $899 with an updated MacBook Air at Retina and modern specs. It would be a force.

Seems like a no brainer to me. But two of the writers closest to Apple’s thinking on the matter—iMore’s Ritchie and Daring Fireball’s John Gruber—took deep dives into Apple’s mindset last week and came to the same conclusion. No way.

Gruber:

A new MacBook Air that’s very similar to the current one but with a retina display would be, to at least some extent, a repudiation of the last three years of MacBook and MacBook Pro design. That doesn’t sound like Apple to me.

Ritchie:

Apple has to do more than just a refit, a resize, or a price-drop. I think it has to do what Apple has repeatedly shown it does best: Once again bring the future of notebooks to market today.

If this is Apple’s thinking on the matter, I fear not just for the MacBook Air. I fear for Apple.

The Air’s origin story goes back to an itch Steve Jobs wanted scratched. In Ritchie’s version:

Rumor had it Steve walked into a meeting with the Mac team one day, dropped the iPad on the table, said what it could do, and asked why the Mac couldn’t do the same: Instant on, great battery life, amazing standby life, completely solid state storage, and even thinner and lighter to be even more mobile.

The first iteration, introduced in 2008 at starting price of $1,799, was overpriced and underpowered. But by 2011 Apple had it right. I must have bought half a dozen MacBook Airs since then, for myself and my family.

Did Apple stop innovating? They did not. They made new, more expensive laptops—the MacBook and MacBook Pro. They streamlined the ports, dropping the popular MagSafe power connector and camera card slot. They made the keyboard thinner and more fussy. They added a control strip that solved problems nobody seemed to have.

Meanwhile, they poured resources into new and more capable iPads, marketing keyboard-less solutions to road-warriors and educators with mixed results.

In short, they made a series of design decisions that cost Apple its beachhead in the schools and grew the market for the MacBook Air—a 2008 design that has somehow emerged as Apple’s best-selling computer.

It reminds me of Apple’s dilemma in the first Steve Jobs era, when the Apple II was the company’s bread and butter and the Mac—the embodiment of the future—was a business failure. We all know the end of that story. Jobs was ousted and his successors eventually drove to the company to the brink of bankruptcy.

Here’s what I wish for: Someone with the authority of a Steve Jobs to tell the Mac team that the last three years of MacBook design—making laptops that resemble iPhones—were a failure. Those design decisions should be repudiated. What the market is asking for—what Phil and Ben and everybody else seems to want—is an updated MacBook Air with modern specs and a Retina screen priced at $899.

Like Ben Bajarin says, it would be a force.

Meanwhile, if what Apple wants to do is bring the future to customers today, there are markets more ripe for disruption—markets that could use the power of Apple’s integration and its gift for user-friendly design—than laptop computers.

See also: Why oh why did Apple kill MagSafe?

*”Best-selling” was my understanding, but this statement has been challenged by a reader. Working on nailing that down, one way or another. Apple does not break down Mac sales by model.

21 Comments

  1. David Emery said:
    > Meanwhile, if what Apple wants to do is bring the future to customers today, there are markets more ripe for disruption—markets that could use the power of Apple’s integration and its gift for user-friendly design—than laptop computers.

    But abandoning the laptop market means abandoning the long, loyal, often suffering customer base that kept Apple alive. The alternatives are few, Windows boxes with their continuing security problems and generally appalling build quality, or Chromebooks, with their questionable build quality and “all your data belongs to us” web based applications. Neither alternative is appealing.

    1
    August 26, 2018
    • David Drinkwater said:
      Agree here strongly. As a 1984 Mac user, I do not want to see Apple abandon that base. As an engineer, I want a keyboard and pointing device (i.e. not an iOS device for work). My reflexes still scream “mouse” – albeit with scroll bar and left right clicking capabilities. And I am still not a fan of the overweight Dell P. O. S. that work forces on me. We are slowly allowing Macs at work, but it will be hard to get them into the engineering ranks.

      2
      August 26, 2018
    • Gregg Thurman said:
      But abandoning the laptop market means abandoning the long, loyal, often suffering customer base that kept Apple alive.

      That was 21 years ago. How long does Apple have to continue paying homage to that base (I’m one of them)?

      1
      August 26, 2018
      • David Emery said:
        Until there’s a viable alternative, or until the Mac no longer produces meaningful revenue.

        1
        August 26, 2018
        • Gregg Thurman said:
          or until the Mac no longer produces meaningful revenue.

          And Apple will give Macs a proportionate share of its resources and attention until then.

          0
          August 26, 2018
  2. Martin Beutling said:
    Anyone remember how Apple under Steve Jobs leadership refused to offer an Apple NETbook?

    Finally they gave in and offered one…..they called it the MacBook Air 11“.

    Sometimes, Apple is listening…..

    0
    August 26, 2018
  3. Gregg Thurman said:
    The Apple is doomed meme is getting really boring, especially when it comes from Mac users.

    In 2008 Mac revenue accounted for 38% of total revenue. It has gone down steadily from that point until today when it has averaged 10% for the last 3 years (at the same time doubling Mac revenue), while total revenue has grown >700%. Why?

    They’re called iPhone and iPad. THE MARKET HAS DECIDED WHAT IS IMPORTANT AND WHAT IS NOT.

    Unlike MSFT under Steve Ballmer, Apple is not resting on its Mac laurels. Apple has pushed the COMPUTING experience further than anyone else, hence its leadership in revenue, gross margins, and market capitalization.

    I hope everybody gets the Mac computer they wail for. In the meantime realize that Apple is going to focus on where the future/growth is.

    And for Christ’s sake, stop whining that Apple is doomed. You all sound like spoiled babies.

    3
    August 26, 2018
    • David Drinkwater said:
      I do at least believe (perhaps contrary to what you suggest) that the “laptop” is not dead, and could be a larger revenue stream for Apple.

      I wouldn’t wish for Apple to turn away available revenue. Really getting the enterprise dollars is tough, though, because most of enterprise is driven by bean-counters who don’t comprehend the benefits of a Mac.

      It is what it is.

      0
      August 26, 2018
      • Gregg Thurman said:
        I hope I haven’t implied that the laptop (or desktop) is dead, I just believe their relative importance is much smaller than they used to be.

        0
        August 26, 2018
    • Richard Wanderman said:
      Serious question. How can you tell the difference between:

      1. Macs aren’t selling well because the market has moved to iPads and iPhones.

      or

      2. Macs aren’t selling well because Apple isn’t paying enough attention to them and is putting out machines that aren’t what people want (in addition to a bit of #1).

      1
      August 26, 2018
  4. Gregg Thurman said:
    The only Mac users with a legitimate complaint are MacBook users. But their angst is erroneously directed at Apple, and not the supplier of the brains that drive MacBooks – Intel.

    The base MacBook Air is $999, just over half of what the original MacBook Air sold for, and is far more powerful than the original, despite its continued reliance on LPDDR3 memory (an Intel issue).

    Today’s MacBook Air doesn’t have a retina display or magsafe? Oh, give me a break. Those are pretty weak arguments for not upgrading a laptop in nearly 10 years.

    1
    August 26, 2018
    • David Emery said:
      Sorry, but I think you missed the point from most of us “whiners.” I’ve heard no one complain about processor. What we’re upset about are ports, keyboard, system reliability and upgradability. NONE of those things have anything to do with the processor (Intel or ARM.)

      As a Long Time user of laptops, I find 15″ to be the sweet spot. Anything smaller, including the Air line, and I’m not interested – too little screen. That also applies to iPads. I can’t hook an iPad up to a 27″ monitor. Furthermore, for precision pointing a mouse works better than a finger, and the ‘distance’ from keyboard to mouse is less than from keyboard to screen. (I tend to do a lot of work in ‘keyboard only mode’ – but then I took pre-secretarial typing in high school.)

      2
      August 26, 2018
      • Gregg Thurman said:
        My point, not well made apparently, is that feature desires are fragmented. Satisfying one doesn’t satisfy another. To satisfy everyone would require an ultimate device, but then everyone would complain about the price.

        I’ve been reading feature complaints since I first joined AOL’s Apple Forum back in ‘96. It’s never ending and it’s boring.

        0
        August 27, 2018
        • Richard Wanderman said:
          I agree with you that we’ve always had feature requests/complaints going way back (I helped run Apple’s AOL Forum) but I disagree that they’re “boring.”

          While its true that users are fragmented in their ideals, there are patterns that Apple or any observer who takes the time might mine from listening.

          One of them is that long-term Mac users (power users) feel slighted for a variety of reasons. You may think this is bull#### whining but I assure you it’s very real.

          This set of users tends to be early adopters of all of Apple’s various devices and many of them are formal or informal evangelists of all things Apple. It’s less about keeping them all happy, I agree with you, its a fragmented group, more about regular communication so that we all know that the Macintosh as a platform is getting some attention.

          This is less about features, more about attention paid. It’s tough to see much of a direction in the Macintosh line at the moment, and that’s the main piece that upsets lots of long-term users.

          0
          August 27, 2018
  5. John Butt said:
    I am a power user of MacBooks, upgraded to Pro last year and have never been concerned about the “What we’re upset about are ports, keyboard, system reliability and upgradability. ”
    This is mostly because you rarely use any of them, even on my old MacBook Air. I use the recommended screen on USB-C, which is just wonderful and when not at my desk have a powerful machine. I very rarely need any port, most things are now on wireless, and more will be in the future – only my SLR remaining to be replaced and that is 10 years old.

    0
    August 27, 2018
    • David Emery said:
      Is there a good Bluetooth mechanical keyboard? I learned to type on manual machines, then IBM Selectrics, and I can’t stand the little chicklet keyboards on the MBPro or the Apple Wireless keyboard.

      0
      August 27, 2018

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