The guy with a Mac who plopped down next to me after coming in late to International Studies: Foundations quickly minimized his notes and began looking at a Web site that was summarizing the events of the MacWorld 2008 Expo in real time. A conditional fan of Macs myself, I was somewhat amazed that someone who drools over the latest technology even more than I do was sitting in the seat next to me.
With the usual Steve Jobs fanfare apparent in the Web site’s snapshots, it was obvious that this year’s convention was yet another Crystal Palace affair — culturally iconic and demonstrative of the fact that many consumers are, perhaps, too greedy for novelty. Yet when I shockingly discover that my mother spends her lunch break watching YouTube clips that her colleagues have sent her, I soon realize that what was geeky 12 months ago quickly becomes the norm when widespread adoption necessitates simplicity in the market.
The best example of such simplicity is the MacBook Air, Apple’s latest “hot” product. Although only three-quarters of an inch thick at its thickest point, the hinge, and slightly larger than an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper, it maintains the same screen dimensions and resolution of its older, larger sibling, the MacBook. Apple advertises it as fitting comfortably inside a Manila envelope and as providing a solid five hours of battery life. Sadly, the cheapest version demands a hefty $1,800. One would only hope it doesn’t easily snap in two.
But the hype that preceded the unveiling of the MacBook Air is a more interesting story. Journalists and bloggers alike presented ideas for what they thought or hoped the next Apple gadget might turn out to be. Patent listings revealed various touch-screen technologies, and many pundits guessed the new gizmo might have two screens, a tablet-like pen input and possibly even an on-screen keyboard. The hype, to a lesser extent, was very much like that which surrounded the iPhone’s release.
It seems as though Steve Jobs felt the necessity to compete with a market-wide trend. Since the early ’90s, technology companies have always pressed for miniaturization. Apple failed somewhat spectacularly with the 1993 Newton PDA. Bill Gates touted the new Ultra-Mobile PCs in late 2006, but they, too, were unwieldy and hard to use, even if Sony’s implementation with a slide-down keyboard has become somewhat iconic.
One might also claim that a nonprofit’s design, MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop per Child project, a ruggedized, miniature green laptop, brought about this trend toward miniaturization in the more general market. Having used the software on board this unit, I cannot imagine how young students in developing countries will come to enjoy using computers. Still, the project’s goal was to achieve a price point of $100. This past Christmas, many donors took part in a “give-one-get-one” package that set them back $400, but I guess the organization is making progress.
Oddly enough, that same $400 price tag can be found on a similarly sized laptop, the EeePC, produced by Asus. The package includes a tiny laptop with a seven-inch screen, speakers, a keyboard, mouse, battery and webcam. Although it has no DVD drive, there are instructions on Asus’ Web site on how to install Windows XP. Even if it might be slow, it is now conceivable to stow a fully functional — and not awkward to use — Windows laptop in a coat pocket. And it’s tremendously cheap.
Perhaps a better option is the Everex CloudBook, also priced at $400, which provides the user with a 30-gigabyte hard drive, far more spacious than the eight-gigabyte chip in the Asus. Neither unit is extremely spacious, but both rival the size of a personal DVD player. They are perfect for working or watching movies on cross-country or trans-Atlantic flights.
The strangest option of the niche is Finnish telecom giant Nokia’s N810 Internet Tablet. The latest rendition has a slide-down keyboard in addition to the shoddy handwriting recognition seen in an earlier revision. This unit will only run its proprietary version of Linux, so users can never have the comfort of XP, but Firefox and Thunderbird will look familiar to users of this unit. Skype and several Google programs are also available, and the unit sells for $440, while its older, keyboard-less sibling sells for a measly $230 — perfect for reading e-mail and the New York Times while sitting on the can.
Still, the MacBook Air looks the best of the bunch and likely will provide users with the most flexibility. The market-wide trend was about both price reduction and convenience, contrasting years of claims of increased speed and capability. Nonetheless, this laptop is quite impressive: I’m very close to swallowing the red pill and indulging in Steve Jobs’ dictatorial and cult-like Apple lifestyle. I hope Steve won’t make us drink the punch, too.
Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column appears on Wednesdays.