Is the MacBook Air a peek into the future of laptops?

Marco Tabini
27 October, 2010
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“We think all notebooks will look like these one day.” Those were Steve Jobs’s words when he took the stage on October 20th to introduce a refreshed version of the MacBook Air, making it clear that Apple’s newest computers were a harbinger of things to come.

Many people insist on calling the Air an overpriced netbook despite the fact that every single one of its specifications would easily blow any other computer in that category out of the water. But much of the analysis on this new product has been on its immediate usefulness as a mobile computing platform, rather than on its significance for the long-term evolution of the notebook computer.

A triumph of integration

There are a number of major changes in the Air that clearly tag it as a forward-looking system; it seems clear that Apple has gone out of its way to redefine the very concept of portable computers.

Those old enough to remember a time when laptops were still a niche area of computing will also remember how alien they looked inside. While the desktop industry was already well on its way to standardizing component sizes, specifications, and arrangements, laptop manufacturers were faced with the unenviable task of fitting a whole computer into some sort of portable format—and that was before loading it up with heavy, bulky batteries.

The early attempts at this process resulted in some rather bizarre contraptions that were called “portable” simply because they happened to be fitted with a handle: case in point, the 16-pound “luggable” Macintosh Portable. It wasn’t until the industry started rethinking the components themselves that the form factor of laptops started to evolve into what we’re used to today. The need for retooling and rethinking made laptops expensive for many years until, eventually, the entire market once again standardized on the components that make today’s laptops possible: 2.5-inch hard disks, ultra-slim optical drives, smaller and less power-hungry processors, more efficient batteries, and so on.

If Apple wants to push laptop design to a new level, the newest Air clearly indicates that the roadmap it has chosen points in one direction: integration. A picture of the Air’s underbelly clearly shows that no effort has been spared to squeeze every last cubic inch of space from the device’s interior. This has meant letting go of the traditional 2.5-inch casing that solid-state drives have adopted in favor of a set of a chips on a circuit board (which is really all an SSD is, of course), shedding the optical drive, and tightly integrating every chip into a custom design that minimizes clutter and leave as much room as possible for those still bulky batteries.

From this perspective, then, the Air is much more than a thin laptop: it is a proof of concept that a powerful computer doesn’t need to come into a big package. If Apple can squeeze a machine like the Air into a container that others have only been able to use for underpowered devices—such as the many netbooks currently on the market—imagine what it can do with a system like the MacBook Pro.

The death of spinning

Elsewhere on Macworld, my colleague Chris Holt makes the point that SSDs are not for everyone. Apple, for its part, seems intent on ridding its portable computers from anything that spins. While replacing a hard disk with a different form of fixed storage is a mostly-internal change that can affect the user in speed or reliability, removing the optical drive is more akin to decreeing that CDs and DVDs are, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Of course, the previous incarnations of the Air also came without an internal DVD reader/writer. Apple, however, still shipped them with optical installation media, and Jobs himself made sure to point out that an external optical drive was available, in addition to the option of sharing a drive remotely from another computer. This time, optical media didn’t even qualify for a mention in Jobs’s presentation and the OS X install DVD that has been a staple of Mac packaging for many years has been replaced by a read-only USB key.

Now, it might be premature to declare discs dead, but they’re certainly being shown the door. Speaking from personal experience, I honestly cannot remember the last time I used the optical drive on my early-2009 laptop—in fact, I don’t even know if it still works, and I’d gladly swap it for an extra hard-drive bay.

Is Apple moving to ARM?

The last big unknown in the future of Apple mobile computing is whether the company will stick with its current Intel platform or move everything to ARM, the architecture that powers its iOS-based mobile devices like the iPhone and the iPad. Of course, this means entering the world of speculation, which is always a dangerous game to play with a company that, like Apple, just loves to keep its cards close to its corporate chest.

However, Apple could benefit in several ways from moving its entire mobile line to ARM. First of all, ARM processors were designed specifically for mobile applications; this makes them more efficient in terms of power consumption, thermal dissipation, and space optimization. In other words, you can squeeze more processors into the same space, which means more power without a bigger box. Apple has already plenty of expertise with the ARM platform thanks to its acquisitions of key chip design firmsand the work that has gone into several generations of iPods, iPhones and iPads.

Most importantly, however, the use of ARM processors would give Apple that which it craves most: control. With the current platform, Apple is dependent on Intel for the key component in its computers: the majority of hardware and software decisions made by the company cascade from its choice of CPU. ARM, on the other hand is a specification that leaves Apple free to design and build its own chips, which it’s already done with the iPad and iPhone 4. A move to a platform that it controls completely, therefore, would give the fine folks from Cupertino complete, end-to-end vertical integration in all its products—which, given what they have been able to do with their other mobile devices, could yield some amazing results.

On the software side of things, the Mac has already been successfully transitioned out of the PowerPC era through a fairly smooth process that saw the gradual introduction of Intel chips with minimal disruption to both developers and end-users. This has given the company all the tools it needs to make another transition, this time to ARM. In fact, one could argue that this transition is already well under way: we know that the guts of OS X, on which iOS is based, run perfectly well on ARM; by the same token, the company has built developer tools that are equally at ease on both platforms. It has also been working hard on abstracting development away from individual architectures for years, so that developers today compile “for iPhone” or “for OS X” rather than “for ARM” or “for Intel.”

Still, if such a transition is in the cards, it’s unlikely to just be a cakewalk—not the least because there are so many different Mac models involved, each with its own market segment to cater to. ARM has proven itself a worthy choice for mobile performance, where power consumption and heat dissipation are important characteristics, but it has no track record where raw power is the key metric. So, while imagining an ARM-powered MacBook may not be a stretch, the same cannot be said of, say, a Mac Pro running on the same architecture.

Like its predecessor, this move is going to take time, planning, and a lot of work on both hardware and software. In the meantime, we can look forward to our laptops getting thinner, lighter, and cooler—in every possible sense.

[Marco Tabini is a frequent contributor to Macworld and a Toronto-based developer.]

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