The 11 (inch MacBook Air that is)

About 500 words into this post I deleted everything because I saw this:

Screen shot 2010-10-27 at 11.01.19 AM.png

Right now you can get any new MacBook Air with the ‘Ships in 24 hours’ availability, except for the base model 11 – that model has a 1-3 day wait on it. That alone doesn’t say all that much, but if you couple it with reports across Twitter that local Apple Stores are sold out of the base 11 model you start to begin to get a much bigger picture of what is going on.

I think the 11 is going to be much bigger than we think.

One would think that 1.4GHz 2GB RAM and a 64GBs of storage would make for a pretty poor computing experience, and one would be wrong, apparently. Take these reports from major reviewers across the web:

Jason Snell:

The release of the iPad made me wonder if I’d consider a Mac laptop as my constant traveling companion ever again; the release of the 11-inch MacBook Air proves that there’s still plenty of life left in the Mac after all.

Joshua Topolsky:

The very low-powered 11.6-inch unit obviously had the bigger issues: while it generally acted just like you’d an expect a Mac to act — windows, applications, and new browser pages loaded quickly, and graphically heavy features like Expose seemed to have no trouble — we did notice some occasional stuttery behavior while scrolling heavy webpages and galleries, and full HD video in YouTube did not play back smoothly. (Maybe we can blame that on Flash… we’re sure Apple does). Still, the overall feeling was snappy and bug-free.

Laptop Mag:

The 11-inch MacBook Air is a powerful ultraportable that makes other systems in its class look positively bloated. More important, this machine never keeps you waiting, thanks to the way it uses flash memory.

Andy Ihnatko:

I’ve been using the 11” model nonstop for five days now. It left me with the emphatic conclusion that the Air is truly — finally — a “real” Mac. The Air certainly didn’t perform as well as my 15-inch MacBook Pro, but the key point is that it could handle every app and every task that I perform daily on my main machine.

Anand Lai Shimpi & Vivek Gowri for AnandTech:

As a pure writing device however, the 11-inch is great. The SSD ensures that performance is consistent and applications launch quickly. If all you do is write, browse the web, write emails and talk on IM – the 11 gets the job done. Ask more of it for long periods of time and I think you’ll be disappointed.

That is some impressive text written about this tiny little machine that on paper looks terrible under-powered. When at the Apple Store picking up my 13” MacBook Air I asked the guy helping me which model was selling the best, and which was drawing the most interest. He pointed to the table – table – of 11” MacBook Airs – they sold out the first day and have been running on short supply since being restocked.

I inquired what the typical buyer was, he told me it is 60% students and 20% business travelers. Imagine that, students opting to spend $500 more on a MacBook Air instead of the iPad. Interesting.

All of this lead me to think that Gruber is right about the 11” MacBook Air it is very much a non-primary Mac – that it is a complimentary device to your main computer. I don’t think that the 11 stops there though, there seems to be three types of buyers for the 11: students, business travelers, niche buyers.

Students

This, I think, is going to make up a huge segment of 11 buyers. I was trying to think about why, as a student, you would prefer to have a 11 instead of an iPad 1 when I realized that the great part about the 11 is that you get less hassle. Here is what a student trying to use an iPad in class would have to put up with today:

  • Lack of multitasking on the iPad 2
  • Having to use the onscreen keyboard.
  • Limited to iOS apps.
  • Syncing files via iTunes (worse than a root canal).

Now think about how much more cumbersome setting up an iPad for note taking would be if you add a keyboard dock or bluetooth keyboard to the mix – it really becomes a pain in the ass at that point. No student wants to be the nerd in the corner that takes a few minutes to set up his note taking system before class, and another few minutes to put it away after class.

Thinking about it that way the 11 starts to make a lot of sense for students. You can fly into class, pop open the screen and have no problem working right away. Likewise you can slap the lid shut, stuff it in your bag and walk out – there are no moving parts you need to wait for, and it sleeps really fast. Further, you can go goof off between classes without worrying about your battery draining, the thing has 30 days of standby. Absurd.

And the coup de grâce of the whole thing is that if you really needed to, the 11 could easily be your main machine when you are back at your desk. All you would need to make it your main machine is to spend $150 on a monitor, and another $80 on an external hard drive, and some change on a keyboard and mouse. You have now given students a notebook that does a few things they really care about, but most importantly that stays out of their way so that they can do what they want.

A tool that stays out of the users way – well that tool is invaluable.

Thinking back to my university days I would bet that I would get more use out of an 11 than I would out of an iPad. The only way that would be reversed is if all my textbooks came on the iPad, but even then I would probably just want both.

Business Travelers

Ah yes those men that rack up the miles and talk annoyingly on their cell phones until the flight attendant rips it out of their hands – the business travelers. Again at first glance I would think that this group would want an iPad instead of the 11. I mean the iPad has twice the battery life and is smaller and lighter – seems like a match made in heaven. What do we think business travelers are using a computer for though?

Possible business traveler computer uses 3 :

  • Working on Excel files
  • Working on a presentation
  • Responding to email
  • Writing reports
  • Entertainment
  • Video chatting with family

Here is the problem: have you ever tried to work on Excel files on an iPad? I have, let’s just say it is a less than pleasant experience. The iPad works great if you are just viewing files, and doing minor edits and markups – Numbers can handle that kind of stuff. Heck Numbers can probably handle most everything a business traveller might want to do. Your fingers are the weak point here. Your fingers and hands will tire long before Numbers runs out of features. It’s not that you can’t do the work, but that you would much rather not have to do it all on the iPad. I am in no way stating you can’t create content on the iPad – you can – but that on a cross country flight it is less than ideal.

Think about it another way, say you are taking a cross-country (U.S.) flight and you need to go over sales projections that your staff sent you as an Excel file. You have the option of using either an iPad or a 11” MacBook Air – which are you going to grab? If you think the screen is cramped on the 11, wait until the onscreen keyboard pops up on the iPad – then you will feel cramped.

Carrying a keyboard for the iPad has the same implications for the business traveler as it does for the student – you again become the guy with all these little parts and pieces that need to be assembled just so you can work. Not to mention: on an airplane, where would you prop up the iPad, and where would you rest the keyboard? 4

It further helps to solidify the 11’s place for business travelers when you think about the fact that most of these purchasers will probably have another computer at their office or home already. That means that for travel they must choose between the iPad 5, a Net book, a MacBook Air. When you think about it like that, and think about what most business travelers use a computer for, a MacBook Air moves to the top of the list.

You can almost remove the iPad from the list unless the traveler has an iPhone 4 that they can use to talk to their kids back home. I have talked to a few people now that want an iPad badly, but are waiting to get a FaceTime camera on one because they like to video chat with their kids while they are traveling. Don’t underestimate the power of that video connection for business travelers.

The Niche Market

This is the general group where we will throw everybody else that buys the 11” MacBook Air – these are the people who want it because it is small, or fills a very specific need, or they just want it. There does exist one other type of buyer though: new Mac users. I would not be so naive to think that there is going to be a mass of people buying Macs just because of the 11, but I do think it offers a more compelling reason to switch than Apple previously had.

The MacBook Air could act as a stepping stone computer into the Mac world for people. I am not saying this will happen on a large scale, but I bet it won’t be very hard to find people that buy an 11 as a secondary computer to their PC, only to come back later when they need to replace their PC and buy q Mac. The 11 could be a trojan horse for getting more Mac users.

Here is a scenario that keeps popping into my head, and seems to make a lot of sense. A stay at home mom wants to get a computer that she can use when the kids are gone, and when she is waiting for them and working on her various projects – in other words, light computing needs in short spurts. She has been turned off by the iPad because she has been told it is not a ‘full’ or ‘real’ computer, so instead she has been looking at a cheap Net book. Most likely playing with them at Costco and Best Buy, but the MacBooks keep catching her eye. Now she sees there is a Net book sized MacBook, that, while more expensive than all other Net books, really looks good. So she walks over and starts playing with the 11 and talking with the Apple Rep about it. She eventually says forget it – the price is way too high, and she just doesn’t need it.

Now what happens when she goes back to the Net books? She is going to find herself waiting for things to open. All of a sudden the 11 doesn’t just look like a sexy little over priced Net book, but instead a really, really, small computer. That is powerful, being able to draw a consumer in that would not normally look at your computers (in this scenario a stay at home mom) and give the a compelling reason that is hard for competitors to compete with – flash storage.

Another way to think about it is to think back to something that you were looking into buying – perhaps a car. You drive a whole bunch and maybe one, just for fun, that is a bit better and out of your price range. If that car is so good that it makes all the other cars you drove feel like a dog, you are probably really going to run the numbers to see if you can get that car. People like to treat themselves, especially if they feel they can justify said treat. With the 11 the justification would be that it is smaller, than most computers, looks better, feels faster, and is a Mac.

These are Powerful Markets

When I got my 12” PowerBook G4 there were very few Mac users on campus – by the time I left there were markedly more. The majority of them were 12” PowerBook G4s – it was just the popular machine to have. I think the 11 could do the same thing once again, by getting into the hands of a ton of people you are helping the 11 to become ‘mainstream’, instead of people looking at the 11 and thinking how cool it is, they look at the 11 and think oh yeah – there’s another one, what is so great about those?

When you get people interested enough to ask questions, then you get them interested enough to look into it. That brings them to Apple.com and that takes them one step closer to being a Mac user. Whether or not you like the computer that you use, every time someone sees you using it, you become an endorser of that computer, by virtue of the fact that you are using it and therefore must have bought it for some reason. Now imagine first-class being full 11s, lecture halls being dominated by them, and a mom waiting in her car for her kids checking email with one. That’s kind of how the iPhone started…

This could be powerful – or maybe I just need some sleep.

  1. Assuming there is another computer of sorts in play already.
  2. This is coming soon, yes. But I doubt that enters into the immediate decision process.
  3. Not ever having been a business traveler myself I can only guess.
  4. Assuming a bluetooth keyboard. As the keyboard dock I would guess would make the iPad all together too tall to work off the tray in front of you.
  5. Possibly other tablet devices.
Originally posted for members on: October 27, 2010
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