Apple's New MacBook Is A Lesson In Vision And Market Power

On Monday, March 9th, Apple announced the first new MacBook in four years. The new MacBook includes a 12-inch "Retina" display and is a design that targets a sharply restricted user base, at least in early 2015. At 2.0 pounds it is the lightest notebook Apple has ever made, lighter than Apple lightweights of the past such as the original PowerBook 100 in 1991 (5.1 pounds), the PowerBook Duo 210 (4.2 pounds), the PowerBook 2400c (4.4 pounds), the original MacBook Air (3.0 pounds), and the MacBook Air 11-inch (2.4 pounds).

Like they did with the original iMac all the way back in 1998, Apple is using the new MacBook to push a new connectivity standard. In this case, it is a standard that I believe was the single most important technology at 2015 International CES - the USB Type C connector running the USB 3.1 standard. Apple is using its market power to push adoption of this standard by making it the only way to physically connect peripherals to the new MacBook - the only other physical port is a headphone jack.

If Apple needed to choose a single connecter, the Type C connector is an excellent one to choose. In additional to traditional USB connections, Type C running USB 3.1 can pass HDMI, DisplayPort, and (most importantly) up to 100 watts of power. Type C also has the advantage of being a real standard, not an Apple-specific design; in fact, Nokia shipped their N1 tablet with Type C late in 2014 and Google recently announced the latest version of their Pixel Chromebook with Type C). That said, there are very few Type C peripherals right now – early adopters will often have to use Apple's $79 adapters: either the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter to connect to HDMI and older USB devices or the USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter to connect to VGA and older USB devices.

The MacBook is a view of the future. Apple obviously believes that most MacBook users will connect via wireless (via 802.11ac or Bluetooth 4.0) and that Type C devices will be available reasonably soon (LaCie has already announced a Type C mobile hard drive). However, Apple is hedging its bets, at least for now: the MacBook Air 11-inch and 13-inch configurations stay in production (in fact they have been updated with Intel's Broadwell microprocessor chipset) and they include traditional USB ports, along with Thunderbolt 2.

There are also open questions about whether the MacBook's Intel Core M chipset has the power that mobile Mac users (used to the Intel Core i5 and Core i7 chipsets) have gotten used to and this is a question that can only be answered with real-world testing when the MacBook ships in April.

What the MacBook does show is Apple's design direction for notebooks. It is reasonable to expect that the MacBook Air (with its no longer class leading weight and its embarrassingly low screen resolution) will be de-emphasized and eventually discontinued. MacBook Pros will get thinner and lighter (and perhaps change display sizes), inheriting the MacBook's thinner screen bezel (though that bezel is not nearly as thin as the smartphone-like bezel in Dell's new XPS 13).

John Mulhern III, Posted 3/15/2015

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