Sometimes the rumors are true. All of the endless (and endlessly tiring) speculation about what Apple CEO Steve Jobs might spring on adoring fans in his annual Macworld Expo keynote shared a common element: this would be the year that Apple produced a subnotebook, easing the backpack and briefcase burden of the Macintosh crowd.
Indeed, of the four things Jobs rolled out during the packed San Francisco event (after introducing a Wi-Fi base station that's also an automatic backup hard disk drive, a software upgrade for the iPhone, and movie rentals on iTunes) the final item was a subnotebook, the Macbook Air. Sheathed in silvery aluminum, it weighs less than three pounds, has a nice 13.3-inch screen, and sports a full keyboard. Even for Steve Jobs—a connoisseur of thin whose products, in terms of avoirdupois, are the high-tech equivalents of the Olsen twins—the Macbook Air is really, really skinny. Shaped like a wedge with the edges smoothed off, the laptop is 0.76 inches at its thickest point, tapering off to a miniscule 0.16 inches. The whole thing fits into a manila envelope.
"Thin is in," he told NEWSWEEK after the show. "We wanted to build the world's thinnest notebook. How thin could we get this and still build a robust computer? Maybe 18 months ago I saw the first model with Jony [Jonathan Ive, the industrial design wizard responsible for the look of Apple's recent products], and we were just giggling. We thought, 'If we could really fit all this in here, this thing would be so hot.' And we did."
Well, they didn't fit in everything. Gone after the anorexic design process are some things that users take for granted. There's no Ethernet port, no Firewire port, and only one USB port. The only hard drive you can get for Air is 80 gigabytes. (The only other storage option is the forward-thinking alternative of 64 GB of flash memory, at a price, admits Jobs that's "very expensive." He won't even quote it exactly but says it's around a thousand dollars more than the unit's base price of $1,799.) The battery is not removable, and when it wears down you must take the laptop to Apple to replace it in a similar system to the one used to replace iPod batteries. And, most jarring, there is no optical drive. That means no playing DVDs, no burning CDs of your favorite playlists, and not even a way to install software on the device itself.
In Jobs's view, dropping the Superdrive was no big deal, just as ditching floppy drives with the original iMac in 1998 was a yawner. Instead of buying DVDs you can rent or buy movies on iTunes. And to install software, Apple has figured out a clever way to wirelessly borrow the optical drive of a nearby computer—either a Mac or PC. "I don't think people are going to miss the optical drive at all," says Jobs. And if they do want one, he adds, Apple will sell an external drive to them for $99.
"You definitely make compromises to build something this thin," he says. "But we didn't compromise on the three most important things: full-size keyboard, full-size display and performance. I think we drew the line in just the right place. If there was anything we really wanted to put in, we would have, because we were working so hard anyway."
In some senses the Macbook Air occupies a strange place in the Apple product line. Because it has less storage, a smaller screen, and no optical drive, it isn't a full-service option, like the high-end Macbook Pro. And even the lower-cost Macbook offers more storage, more ports, and an optical drive. What it does have is a gorgeous design and that trimness that makes it the Audrey Hepburn of laptops. But will customers spring for it, or will it become the portable version of the Apple Cube, an achingly beautiful computer whose awkward price/performance curve made it a marketplace bust?
Jobs obviously thinks the former. The current subnotebook market, in his opinion, is "e-mail machines for executives"—overpriced (around $2,500), low-performance, often flimsy devices. "That doesn't interest us," he says. "We're trying to create a new category of mainstream notebooks, not a little niche. To build a really thin, lightweight notebook that could become mainstream. That's what we set out to do. And I think we've done that and priced it at a mainstream price. $1,799. I think people will look seriously at this. Some as their second notebook."
The answers will begin to come in two weeks, when Apple begins selling Air. One thing is certain: the first people to begin traveling with it will be the center of attention in airports, as rubberneckers gather around it to gawk at yet another great-looking Apple creation. Jobs is so happy that he says he's not bugged that the rumormongers figured out early what he had under his sleeve this January. "There was some speculation that we'd introduce a notebook, but I don't think anybody thought it would be like Macbook Air," he says. "Sometimes people get a category right, but they don't get the magnitude right."