Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Apple unveiled a lot of new toys today, but the highlight is clearly the ubersexy and powerful MacBook Pro With Retina Display. With this machine, Apple is sending a loud message to the world: We aren’t content to just sell computers we want to define what people want in them.

While Apple would probably say that attitude has always been in its DNA, it’s really only been delivering on it since it unveiled the first MacBook Air. Before that, Apple machines the hardware were certainly capable machines, but their standout features typically had more to do with design (think the original iMac) than usability and performance.

Don’t get me wrong. Apple’s design is excellent, and many of its details such as chiclet-style keyboards on laptops have been (rightly) emulated by other manufacturers. It’s even released big, powerful machines like the (now discontinued) 17-inch MacBook Pro. But while those products reliably generate headlines, few people actually buy them.

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Spawn of the MacBook Air

Then came the Air. Even though the first generation was underpowered and overpriced, there was a strong sense that its unbelievably slim and lightweight design was where laptop design was going. And although it was somewhat lacking performance-wise, it was still miles ahead of the Windows PC side’s take on the idea: the ill-fated netbook.

Now, with the Retina MacBook, we see where the MacBook Air was taking us all along: an ultra-portable laptop that doesn’t just prioritize performance it’s at the top of of the heap. The new machine comes with quad-core processors standard, can be configured with up to an unheard of 768GB of solid-state memory (with its speed advantages over hard disks), and has the highest-resolution laptop display ever: 2,880 x 1,800 pixels.

Yes, it’s expensive. With its traditional computer products, Apple has never competed well on price. But I predict the Retina MacBook will still sell well for Apple, and not just as a developer machine (they have to test those retina apps on something, after all).

People will buy Apple’s prize MacBook because, like the Air before it, this is what they want. Ultra-sharp graphics. Blazing fast speed. Great connectivity. Tons of storage. All in a package that’s actually lighter than what you had before. Sure, you’re giving up the optical drive, but how many times have you really needed it in the past couple of years?

Hybrids: The (Flawed) Alternative

It’s fitting that Apple rolled out its new baby now, just a week after a host of new PCs debuted at the
Computex trade show in Taiwan. While many of those designs were also exciting, they were mainly based on “hybrid” form factors machines that combined a laptop and tablet into a single device.

It’s a novel concept, but it’s based on the idea that people will want to use the same machine for both media consumption and productivity. While Windows 8, which is expected to debut in the fall, will encourage this behavior, it still requires encouraging this behavior. People haven’t chosen this paradigm; it’s getting thrust upon them.

For that reason, Apple’s approach is a much more convincing vision of the future. A more compact and powerful laptop class is clearly what people want from their “computing” machines witness the rise of Ultrabooks. Hybrid designs feel more like the cheesy sci-fi version of actual future computers; we just didn’t quite know what they were going to look like until today.