What’s it all mean (MacBook Air edition)

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I don’t think I’ve ever so many people completely miss the point of an Apple product in quite some time.  You must remember that Steve Jobs doesn’t hate Microsoft because of how they have achieved their success.  He hates them because of what they created.  Jobs spent a lot of time in the wilderness observing what Microsoft did and how they did it.  What he learned from them is to form alliances when you need to learn something to enter a new market and that protecting the core of your ecosystem is critical to building long term dominance in the industry.  Apple will never release a major product that doesn’t support one of those objectives and strives to hit both at the same time.

The MacBook Air is exactly the kind of product that epitomizes the overlap of those objectives.  Partnerships with IBM and Motorola in the PowerPC alliance failed to produce a viable alternative to the x86 processor family.  Therefore Apple has partnered with Intel to gain access to their engineering talent and unique manufacturing processes to further Apple’s product goals.  So how does partnering with the dominant processor manufacturer protect Apple’s ecosystem?  Glad you asked.

The howls of protest that you hear from the punditry are largely because they weren’t a part of Apple’s development focus group for the product.  They’d written about their beloved 12″ PowerBook and their 2400 before that.  They made up their little wish lists of must have features and nice to have features and had a grand time speculating on how wonderful life would be if Apple would only listen to them.  The problem for them is that Apple’s focus group consists of one and only one person.  Steven P. Jobs.

Steve Jobs believes very strongly in the centrality of the personal computer.   Apple’s other products exist to work in concert with the computer.  They support each other, but not directly.  It’s not a coincidence that the MacBook Air, AppleTV 2.0, and the Time Capsule were announced at the same time.  They’re intended to support each other through the desktop computer.  Through the Mac.

Why is there no disk drive in the AppleTV now entering its second generation?   Why is there no hard wired ethernet port on the MacBook Air despite the fact that the Intel chipset used almost certainly supports it?  Apple is deliberately following the Microsoft strategy of making a good product that stands alone into an outstanding one when it integrates with other Apple products.

Microsoft does this mostly with software.  Their OS is only okay if you compare it against other choices (Solaris, Linux, BSD, OS-X, etc.).  It’s when you start adding the complimentary products that it really takes off.  Windows with SQL Server with Exchange with Visual Studio with …  They build on each other logically and extend the influence of the platform exponentially. That’s what Apple wants.

Why does Apple go to the trouble of making servers and storage solutions for networks?  It’s probably profitable for them, but they’re not focussed on the business market which is the largest buyer of these products.  They’re investing in the future of the home market which is much larger than small business and enterprise combined.  It’s also far more important to Steve Jobs from a personal standpoint, but that’s another column.

Microsoft has released a Windows Home Server (WHS) OS in combination with several hardware vendors to offer a complete solution for the home. It’s a fairly naked attempt to copy what Apple has been quietly doing for some time. Digital media take up a lot of space and keeping it organized is a nightmare.  Many of us don’t bother trying to weed out old or duplicate files for fear of deleting something important; we simply buy a new computer with a larger drive and copy everything over. Here’s how it works for Apple.

The Mac Mini is your entry level model.  It gets you some storage, wifi, bluetooth, and the all important CD/DVD drive.  It partners with your AppleTV and a third party tuner solution to give you a direct competitor to WHS.  Need more power?  Replace the computer with an iMac or even a Mac Pro in another room.  Need more power?  Apple has a complete solution for the next level of home media management.  Storage area networks.  With an 80 gB iPod, you don’t worry about which songs to load; you load them all.  with an Apple SAN in your home, you don’t worry about which compression scheme to use for your media or how to organize your disks.  You just load and go.  Their server products are too noisy and power hungry for this application right now, but when the time is right the product will be also.

The MacBook Air (you only thought I’d forgotten about it) is the first product that really shows the plan.  MacBook Air was never intended for business users.  It’s for use in a connected home and wifi enabled world.  It’s a Mac Mini that you can take with you anywhere.  It’s not supposed to be expandable.  Used as an extension of the other Apple products in your network, it gives you an exponentially greater experience than used by itself.  At least, that’s how I believe Apple sees it.

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