Switched On: Apple bets that to Air is human

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

The MacBook Air is the third member of Apple's notebook line and weighs only three pounds while it barely penetrates the third dimension. Nonetheless, Apple is again banking that human factors -- particularly that bigger screens and keyboards are better -- will allow the blade-like profile of the world's thinnest notebook to slice into the traditionally slim market for ultra-portable notebooks.

The Air was certainly the show-stealer at this year's Macworld keynote. While some Mac fans were hoping for a pocket-sized productivity product, the best hope for that in the near term are third-party solutions that can turn an iPhone or iPod touch into such a device. Furthermore, Apple remains one of the few major notebook companies to not offer a product with integrated 3G wireless connectivity. While most of these products have been aimed at business users, the premium positioning of the MacBook Air should have exceptional appeal to these potential customers.

While the computer may fit in an interoffice envelope, the company clearly did not mail the effort in. As usual, Apple has asked much of its suppliers and some of its users in order to achieve stunning results. The Intel chip die package that powers the MacBook Air is 60 percent smaller than those used in other notebooks. For users, there are also compromises, including a bare minimum of ports that exclude wired Ethernet and FireWire. The latter has been a Mac hallmark since the days of the first iMac, but with camcorders now rapidly moving to USB and flash cards, the case for its inclusion where space is at a premium is not as strong as it once was.

The removal of the optical drive, a major space hog, may actually be more of a gamble. While Apple is offering a $99 removeable SuperDrive for use with the MacBook Air, the trend among ultraportables in the Windows world has been to reintegrate the drive. Dell, for example, moved back to this configuration after shipping the Latitude X1 that ditched the disc.

Apple counters that most of the functions served by the optical disc have been surpassed by various devices and services that the company already offers, and its Remote Disc feature should fill in the gap for those who already have a Mac or PC around. Having the ability to install software is a necessity, but it is a rare one for most users. Taking a cue from the iPod and iPhone, the MacBook Air may be the only notebook on the market without a removable battery. However, Apple has taken advantage of the saved case space to embed a large internal battery that it claims will provide five hours of Web-surfing time.

In return for these omissions, Apple provides a relatively mainstream 13.3" display that will adequately service OS X, a full-sized backlit keyboard, and a trackpad that would allow giants to to gesture freely. While a 12" widescreen display could have probably accommodated the Mac OS nearly as well, reducing screen size and input areas compromise usability quickly. Apple is bringing the idea forward from the iPhone that consumers want the biggest possible screen in the smallest possible form factor.

At $1,800 with an 80GB hard drive and considerably more for an SSD-equipped version, the MacBook Air's price reflects the premium associated with less as more. And with a screen that measures up to its entry-level MacBook, Apple will need to count on more than New Year's resolutions to attract those so determined to drop a few pounds. But its new notebook's whisp of a body and showcase retail placement in Apple stores could put the smell of success in this Air for Apple.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.