Hot Air

As expected, MacWorld was a big disappointment. The MacBook Air was supposed to be the big “wow” item, but it’s more of a big “meh”. Apple clearly set out to make something comparable to the VAIOs Sony has been selling for years–which is a great idea, as I love small laptops, but in the quest to be thinner than anyone else they introduced a few too many design compromises.No optical drive built in is no big deal; I go weeks between using my Mac’s optical drive. More of a problem is the lack of any Firewire capability, the inability to upgrade the RAM, and the fact that there’s no ethernet unless you carry around a USB ethernet adaptor. And of course, that adaptor will use your only USB port, so better carry a hub too. And cables for your hub.

[Update: It's also no smaller than the regular MacBook; just thinner. So it's not an ultraportable, and no easier to carry around.]

Now, if they had done something like Fujitsu’s P1620 and made it possible to flip the keyboard under and use the device as a tablet, that would have rocked. But as it is, it’s just another laptop, albeit a very thin one; and it’s not really suitable as a primary machine.

So what’s the target market for the MacBook Air? People who want a status symbol, or people who travel an awful lot and need the absolute lightest Mac possible. They also need to be people who can afford a second Mac as a main machine, or people with very light needs. So I really can’t see the Air selling in great quantities. If I were choosing a Mac laptop today, I wouldn’t get one, even if price wasn’t a concern.

I was more interested in what they’re doing with AppleTV. I’ve been thinking for a while that dealing with scratched and scuffed Netflix DVDs is a pain, and I’d rather just rent movies via the Internet. AppleTV is going to offer this as an option. Add in the ability to buy TV shows a la carte, and it’s starting to look pretty tempting.

Of course, there are a couple of problems. The first is that a lot of content isn’t in MPEG-4 format. The iPod would never have been a success if it hadn’t been able to play MP3s and had only worked with MPEG-4 audio; and similarly, if Apple wants the AppleTV to be a success, they need to make it able to play more formats than just MPEG-4.

The second problem is selection. Right now, the movie and TV selection via iTunes doesn’t even come close to Netflix. But give it another year or two, and I think the cable TV and satellite companies are going to be in big trouble.

The economics are simple. I watch 2-3 hours of TV a week, on half a dozen channels. To get those channels, however, I have to buy a bundle of over a hundred channels that I literally never watch. I could buy the shows via iTunes instead, cancel the DirecTV subscription, and save $30 a month. But not this year, not until all the shows I want are available…

The big question will be whether the new AppleTV software can be easily hacked to enable installation of other codecs and playback of non-MPEG-4 content. If so, I may get one. If not, I’ll wait until the content is all available in MPEG-4–which may be a long wait.