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MacWorld Highlights: MacBook Air a Winner

These last two weeks have been interesting. Before CES, Warner Brothers basically gave up on HD DVD and Toshiba (in what was an amazing lack of good judgment) clearly putting HD DVD on the ropes (and the newly lowered prices came too late to make a difference). This was followed by CES which really lacked anything that I would call a true break-out new product of the iPod or iPhone caliber. This week we had MacWorld, and while it is focused and everything that Steve Jobs announced effectively stood out, it was like the middle movie in a movie trilogy in that there really wasn’t a whole lot to get really excited about, unless you are an Apple fan and for them just having a MacWorld is likely excitement enough.

I wonder if we expect too much for shows and from vendors in January right after the biggest consumer sales season in the year. The right time to make big product announcements is in the second half of the year because that is when folks are ready to buy. Right now people are recovering from their Christmas spending and just aren’t that interested in buying consumer electronics. As a result the folks that make them, from the CES crowd to Apple, just aren’t that interested in announcing them and maybe the industry should think about this a bit. Let’s talk about all of this stuff this week.

MacWorld vs. CES 

I did the live coverage for Bloomberg TV as Steve Jobs was doing his keynote, and much of the back story was how rapidly Apple’s stock price was falling as he spoke. The problem for Apple is the market tends to expect really big things out of that company every single time and no company, not even Apple, can hit a home run more than one or two times a decade; expecting them to do it twice in two succeeding years was simply not very likely. 

On the other hand, CES didn’t give them that much to shoot at. There were no huge notebook announcements at the show. There were however lots of set top boxes, but given content is the problem, outside of Microsoft’s IPTV (which is sold by companies like AT&T) and Comcast, none had the required content and set top boxes tied to either Cable or Telephone companies; plus they are considered more of a service than a product.

Personally I was starting to wonder if anyone can realistically compete with the cable and telephone companies. I know a lot of folks who have Comcast or Direct TV and they are OK with the fact the hardware sucks as long as the content is good.

Apple had some nice improvements to the iPhone and the iPod Touch. I still think the opportunity they are missing is connecting the iPod Touch via Bluetooth to the data channel on cell phones as I know a lot of folks who have RIMs in addition to an iPhone (one for business and the other for personal use) and this would save them a lot of money on duplicate services. The iPod Touch (and iPhone) have the best browsers currently in their class of device. 

The enhancement to both offerings were good but, given one of their big advantages is ease-of-use, and the more features they add the more complex these things will become; I worry that they will lose the magic these products have. Were it me, given the excitement of the current offerings, I’d be working more on making what they currently do better and bringing the technology down to price points folks can afford rather than adding more features that consumers aren’t screaming for. The biggest limitations to the iPhone and iPod touch aren’t the lack of features, its connectivity speed, battery life, price, and video content. 

Speaking of video content, Apple did a nice job enhancing the Apple TV and their “Take Two” offering now looks like it has some legs. They now have much better quality and quantity of content and at a much more attractive price. For this product they are doing exactly what I think they should be doing more of for the iPod Touch and iPhone.

MacBook Air

The big product for the day was the Apple “Air” which is a true flagship offering and technology showcase. It positions against the Toshiba R500 which has similar features and better (if you want to view it outdoors) screen option, and reminded me a lot of the old Sony X505 which was the thinnest notebook I’d ever used.

2008 is looking like the year of flash (SSD) drives and I expect the performance benchmarks for the Apple Air (which may actually be the thinnest notebook on the market) with the solid state drive to be impressive. Before I’d get the cheaper version with the magnetic drive I’d see if I could live with the performance; the tiny magnetic drives can be painfully slow on a laptop and in sharp contrast to the blinding speed the flash drive option will offer. This product was clearly designed with the flash drive in mind, and in that regard, is the first of its type.

Still, for those that can afford it, this notebook looks to be a very nice showcase offering and providing an early look at technology that will be coming later in the year from Apple and others. The biggest improvement is that this notebook supposedly has a great keyboard (one of the traditional weaknesses of Apple notebooks) which should be well received by those that buy the product. While expensive it appears to be a nice offering and, for those that can afford it, it should a really nice experience. 

It doesn’t have an optical drive though and there were no Blu-Ray products from Apple again this year which made the Fox comment on stage, in support of Apple TV, on “Blu-Ray being the future” seem really weird. It made it look like he missed the memo on Apple not actually having a Blu-Ray offering and doing HD downloads instead. Earth to Fox…


As far as Apple, Microsoft, and Cisco are concerned (among a whole lot of others) the market is moving to downloads and the Blu-Ray win looks to have come too late. Coupled with the CES disclosure that all of the existing Blu-Ray products (with the exception of the PS3) are soon to be obsolete you can probably see why these firms think this way. I’m thinking of how I’d feel if I’d bought a $400 to $1,200 Blu-Ray player and suddenly discovered that it wouldn’t work well by year end, and might not work with some new movies next year at all. 

The comment that they had to rush the product out so they could make sure HD DVD didn’t win probably won’t make up for the pain of having to buy another player late this year or early next. Granted if you want to own movies, there isn’t anything better right now, but given you don’t really “own” the movies you buy (you license them which is why you can’t make copies or easily put them on your iPod) and seldom watch them more than once. I still think the download rental approach just makes more sense. I mean at $4 a pop you’d have to watch a movie over 5 times to justify buying it and, I don’t know about you, there are only about 10 movies I’m likely to even get close to doing this with myself (closer to 5 actually). And even then I’m typically on a plane where I’m not likely to have a Blu-Ray player and watching a movie off my hard drive might make more sense (particularly if I had the MacBook Air). 

So, in the end, I think Steve Jobs is right to focus on downloads rather than HD optical as the future and while HD DVD is gone, I’m not convinced that Blu-Ray isn’t following close behind.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.