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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Striking Balances


As certain as Steve wearing his black turtle neck and blue jeans, pacing the Moscone stage with his palm sized remote and his strategically executed sips from his bottled water is that Apple for two decades has walked a tighrope between coolness of design, ease of use and power, and ultimately price. The patterns of emphasis and granularity of magnification with how Apple decides to execute its computer and electronics products - what to leave out, what to include and at what price - is the high-drama guessing game.

When Apple gets it wrong it is because the balance is not reached. When Apple is at it most brilliant and revolutionary is when almost perfect harmony is obtained. Making a great consumer retail product is not very different than producing a great movie - the beauty and brilliance is in the details. Last year Apple obtained sheer acuity with the release of the paradigm busting iPhone.

MacBook Air
With the MacBook Air, its life began as an intensely improbable design mission. MacBook Air did not originate as a challenge to make an incredible inexpensive laptop and to undercut to price of a Dell. In fact, just the opposite, the MacBook Air was going to be designed for the high end market and compared to the most expensive Sony laptops.

Instead, MacBook Air had to be designed to occupy the smallest or thinest space profile or any portable computer running a full fledged modern day operating system. The allure has to be its sexy slim profile and almost nothing else. And as Steve revealed in his presentation, Apple did not want to compromise the size of the LCD screen or keyboard. One could argue the entire playing field has been changed for keyboards and perhaps they should be designed out not around but those were the specifications Jonathan Ives was given for design.

Given those specs, you'd have to quickly get rid of the optical drive. There is no space for an optical drive inside a less than one inch high box. One item missing. Add the DVD drive externally and you pay $99 more. Also, with respect to the components inside any computer, you'll have to radically change the battery compartment and this traditionally volatile and undependable unit cannot be easily replaced [Apple is offering a replacement MacBook Air battery for $129 and they will install it for free if you take it to an Apple Store). And there is a limit in this amount of thin space to putting standard ports or jacks for input and output jacks for monitors and firewire. Apple ditched a lot of connectivity for this design spec, although they do provide adaptors to make back some ground.

And a major unknown going into design had to be the type of drive the machine would use. It is almost a given that the future of mobile computing and fast, energy efficient design are solid state drives that use less battery power and increase speed. Much of the speculation before today's keynote was if Apple would use the 80 GB Samsung 1.8 drive or 64 GB flash drives and they decided to go with both although at a huge cost to the consumer.

If you think about it tje MacBook Air has a hard drive (at 80 GB) that is half the capacity of the largest iPod Video. And the flash drive version, priced at $1200 more that the hard drive version, has even LESS storage capacity at 64 GB.

In order to reach this incredble design mission, having to leave out an optical drive and limit the storage capacity to 80 GB, I think Apple, talked themselves into hoping users will be happy to off-load functionality to non-present optical and wifi backup to compensate for missing storage capacity inside the ultra-thin MacBook. This decision to cripple the MacBook Air could be a break deal for Apple.

Did all these stringent requirements lead Apple Away from just the perfect balance? Is the MacBook Air just the Mac Cube 2.0? The verdict is still out.

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