Expo Update #2: Everything is Not Coming Up Roses!

January 16th, 2008

When you depart from a Steve Jobs keynote, it’s usually hard to keep from smiling, and the same holds true, in large part, when you watch the QuickTime playback stream, although you aren’t sharing the “reality distortion field” experience with thousands of fellow Mac users and tech pundits.

Either way, you will probably come down to Earth soon enough, though, and then you begin to pick apart the nagging elements of the keynote and the new products that don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Sure, you might understand the reasoning behind the decisions, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Take the MacBook Air — please! I can see where it may be fun to have a mostly-functional note-book computer that’ll fit comfortably into a manila envelope and all. It’s also nice to know that Apple has discovered “green,” and this ultra-thin gadget is appropriately recyclable and all.

However, I am not completely enamored with the way it all turned out. All right, I can understand why Apple ditched the built-in optical drive, Ethernet and FireWire. You can replace the first two, separately, with external USB add-ons. But the battery? Maybe — just maybe — it makes sense to have it sealed up in an iPod or an iPhone. I’m not thoroughly convinced of that either, but I’ll accept the argument that the sleek looks might suffer. But a note-book computer? If you’re designing a product for the committed road warrior, what about the concept of having a second battery in your carrying bag?

Sure, five hours battery life, assuming the Air actually fulfills that promise, is pretty decent and all. But what are you to do when it runs out of power? Do you look for an available power outlet, or get a power converter for your car, so you can charge it via the lighter socket?

I’m particularly concerned about such matters because, early on, I had to get a replacement battery for my first-generation 17-inch MacBook Pro. The original unit would die after an hour of use, even though it was supposedly fully charged. Popping in a replacement took 30 seconds. With a MacBook Air, if I had a defective battery, the whole computer would have to be returned to Apple and, according to the current claims about such matters, I’d have to wait five business days for it to be fixed and returned.

What do I do in the meantime? Postpone the business trip, rent or borrow another computer? Does Apple have any accommodation for the possibility of a defective battery? What say you, Steve?

Maybe I’m just nit-picking, but bear with me. You see, I’m only getting started.

Let’s take a look at the iTunes movie rental feature. Right now, I use Netflix. I pay a fixed amount every month and I can keep up to three DVDs at a time for as long as I want, and as they are returned, I get new ones. Other plans range from one to four DVDs. I can start watching a flick on a Monday, and finish on a Friday. There’s no danger of the disc automatically self-destructing, and no late fees.

While Apple isn’t unique in this regard, when you download a rental movie, you have 30 days to start watching, but only 24 hours once you click the play button. You may want to check a few seconds of the movie out of paranoia just to see if the file came through uncorrupted. But the clock has already started ticking, and there are 24 hours remaining before the file is vanquished.

Sure, you can just rent it all over again, but that would get unreasonably expensive and it’s certainly inconvenient.

In fairness to Apple, they had to make concessions to get all the major movie studios on board, and this egregious DRM scheme is standard operating procedure. Sure, Steve put a friendly spin on his ability to corral the studios to make deals with Apple, but at what cost?

Now nobody forces you to rent a movie from iTunes now or ever, and I can see where most of you will have little difficulty completing the movie within the 24-hour timeframe.

I do wonder, though, why the film industry is so paranoid about online sales and rentals. DVD sales are flattening and, in some instances, declining. They should take advantage of new revenue streams, but why cripple the product so severely? If the thing doesn’t take off, even in Apple’s hands, where does the blame lie?

Do I have to tell you?

The other concern is minor. Time Capsule is a sensible way to package a Wi-Fi router and a backup drive in a single box. The price is sensible too, assuming these are truly high-grade mechanisms. However, I wonder if this signals the restoration of the promised Leopard feature to be able to backup via Time Machine to a drive by way of a wireless connection. That capability was pulled at the last minute before 10.5 was released, but you clearly need it for Time Capsule to function. No, I don’t want to subscribe to the conspiracy theory that wireless backups of this sort will be limited to this single device. I’d prefer to think there’s a Leopard update in the wings that’ll address this shortcoming.

Now it’s your turn, gentle reader, to tell me what irritated you about Apple’s new product announcements and, of course, what you really liked? Do you plan to buy a MacBook Air?

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8 Responses to “Expo Update #2: Everything is Not Coming Up Roses!”

  1. Joseph says:

    MacBook Air is a nice addition to the Mac line. What I find more significant is form over substance. Apple is showing us the future of notebook computing – thiner, mini powerful processors, wireless and multi-touch. Within 18 months you’ll see these features migrating into the other notebooks. Warp 9

  2. Tim says:

    The MacBook air is not in my future, but I can see it’s usefulness to folks who travel. Apple’s being very gutsy with this, they had to know that losing a user upgradeable battery and RAM would be a negative, but it would add a few grams here, a couple of millimeters there, and pretty soon, it’s as fat as a SONY. You could look at it as their GT40, something that demonstrates their design skill, looks gorgeous, and only marginally useful for the average customer, who’ll all but drool on it, the go to a nice, sensible taurus.

  3. Russ says:

    Although the MacBook Air is not for me now, I could see how it would have been a nice computer when I was traveling 90% of the time or for other road warriers. It will also appeal to executives who want to show off the latest in technology. As Joseph said, this will migrate to the notebooks that we buy over time.

    With regard to the rental, this is enough for me to take the plunge on AppleTV. While I am not happy about the 24 limit when I start watching, I understand the paranoid studios forced this on Apple. I am also displeased with the fact that Apple can’t offer the rental until 30 days after the DVD goes on sale. If only all the studios adopt the Fox model of including an iTunes compatible version of the movie in teh box, that would be nice.

  4. MichaelT says:

    I have heard the hypothesis that the battery could NOT be replaceable because of the thickness. The mechanism required to hold in the battery would be thicker than the MBA. I would bet they tried to have a replaceable battery at some point in the development, but at this point couldn’t work out the details.

    So does that mean I expect a future MBA with a replaceable battery once they’ve worked out the engineering details? No. Apple likes closed devices. My prediction is that Apple will rely on improvements to battery technology and stick with a sealed battery .

  5. Bob Lunn says:

    Air Thing …

    I don’t understand the Air Mac’s positioning between low and high end Mac-Books. The design is elegant and should appeal to image conscious people with money. If it had an optical drive and the solid state memory “disk” with accompanying high battery life (no power drain from spinning disk drives), I would expect it to be positioned above the Mac-Book Pro in terms of pricing – an executive notebook. Without the optical drive and a good selection of ports (charging for ports seems a bit gluttonous), the hassle factor increases. It seems destined to cannibalize sales from both ends of the Mac-Book lineup.

    The hard wired battery guarantees that when the battery starts to fail, you have to send it back to Apple – another hassle. If you have anything confidential on your drive, you would have to wipe it. When it comes back you would have to restore it. Meanwhile, you are without the “Thing” for days. Hassles on top of hassles…

    I get the impression it was designed by a committee. One group on the committee wanted a nice looking portable video player as an accompaniment to the new movie rental business model (which also seems gluttonous… but that is another story). Another group of the committee wanted an ultra thin computer. The Air Thing looks like the result of many compromises.

    If you could fit a full featured Mac Book into that design factor… then it goes from a “Thing” to a revolution.

  6. John says:

    The MacBook Air is definitely not for me. I haven’t even found a justification to upgrade my iBook yet. I don’t travel enough for it to matter much really.

    However, I can only speculate about the engineering challenges involved in making such a laptop with a user-replaceable battery.

    The battery in this thing is very large surface-wise and very thin. To make it that big with a protective shell so that it doesn’t bend and break will definitely make it thicker. Also, for such a thin laptop, to have an opening at the bottom to give access to such a battery compartment would weaken the shell quite a bit. I’m not sure it’s possible to have such a large opening without weakening the bottom enough to make it impossible to use in your own lap supporting the weight of your own hands.

    It’s elegant and nice, but of course, like everything else, design compromises had to be made.

    I’m sure Apple knows that this thing will have very limited appeal due to those compromises.

    As for the movie rental thing, well, what do you expect when dealing with media companies. They’re used to getting paid for the same thing over, and over, and over again. They have this 24 hours window so that if for whatever reason you were unable to finish watching it the first night, they you’ll have to pay them again to watch it a second night. More money in their pockets.

    They distrust their customers and they consider all of them thieves. Why do you think the HD rental is only available on the AppleTV and not Macs too? It’s because they think that once the high quality file reaches a computer, some hacker will find a way to break the DRM and disseminate the high quality file on the internet for free. On the AppleTV, it’s much harder to pull off the HD file and mess with it (it’s not impossible, just very hard). I’m willing to bet that the quicktime copy distributed on BlueRay is nothing more than 320 x 240 file for the iPod, which can never be viewed on a TV or any device with a reasonably sized screen.

  7. You are giving Apple far too much of the credit and/or blame here. Apple got all of the major studios on board. To do that, they had to make compromises, no doubt, to get a deal. If you want to blame anyone, blame the entertainment industry for being totally clueless about digital movies and music.


  8. Dana Sutton says:

    Here’s something else that doesn’t smell quite like a rose, a quote from the Apple publicity Web page for TV rentals: “When you download movies from iTunes, you get a 640-by-480-pixel image that’s great for watching on your computer and positively brilliant on your iPod or iPhone.” Hey, wait a minute, I thought the whole idea of Apple TV was to enable you to route rental movies onto that 50″ plasma you just bought. Who’s going to shell out hundreds of bucks for an AppleTV when they find out that the picture quality is so lame? And the idea that consumers are going to sit around watching a feature-length film on an iPod or iPhone is insane.

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