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.
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.
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.