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Are You Dreaming About the Future MacBook?

When Steve Jobs introduced the latest incarnation of the MacBook Air last fall, he made it perfectly clear that you were seeing the Mac portable computer of the future. In the past, the Air had been the poor stepchild for the rest of the lineup, reportedly with middling sales, but sufficient to keep Apple’s faith and inspire periodic revisions.

Although the numbers won’t be known until next week, preliminary reports indicate another blowout December quarter, with record numbers of Macs, iPhones and iPads sold. Surveys show that Apple outpaced a flat PC industry, where the iPad may have cannibalized sales of netbooks big time. Macs seem immune, or maybe Apple would have sold more if there was no iPad.

In passing, it’ll be interesting to see if the analysts make a more substantial move towards combining tablet and traditional PC sales. If that happens, Apple’s worldwide share will of a sudden expand to join the top tier . Clearly PC box makers don’t want that to happen — until they have lots of iPad wannabes to sell.

But when you return to the MacBook Air, how does its design influence future MacBooks and MacBook Pros?

One strong possibility is the increased use of solid state drives (SSD) in place of traditional mechanical hard drives. That development would be a long time coming, a revelation for those of you who have suffered from failed hard drives, particularly in portables. My son underwent that catastrophe a few months back, but had a full online backup that allowed him to restore his stuff.

My personal encounter of this sort dates back to an iBook Apple sent me to review more than a decade ago. On the day I was to leave to San Francisco to attend the Macworld Expo, the drive began to click annoyingly, as performance slowed down dramatically. I hoped it would survive for the duration of the trade show; it didn’t, but I was able to borrow a Windows note-book from a publisher for whom I was writing regular articles. It was an awkward situation, but it worked out reasonably well.

And in case you ask, no I don’t think the hard drives Apple uses are any worse than the ones other PC makers place in their gear. Stuff happens.

The problem with an SSD is, unfortunately, one of cost. You figure on paying 10 to 20 times the price of a traditional hard drive of similar capacity. Imagine taking a $999 MacBook and spending upwards of $500 to get an SSD that matches its 250GB capacity.

The comparably priced MacBook Air comes with 64GB of storage, and you have to make serious compromises to survive the lack of space to put your stuff, such as putting most of your data on another Mac, and installing only the essential apps, documents, music and videos.

But that’s today, and it probably won’t be long before a 128GB is cheap enough to replace the one that has half the capacity. The situation changes drastically. My MacBook Pro has roughly that amount of data, and I could dump a third of it without feeling threatened.

It’s quite possible Apple will also hasten the migration to SSD by letting you put more of your files in the cloud, perhaps that new server farm they built in North Carolina. Suddenly the need for lots of coal storage will be far less significant for many of you. But I do agree that Apple will probably have to wait a couple of years, at the very least, before making a wholesale migration to SSD. Even then, content creators may insist on a traditional hard drive because of the superior price/storage ratio, or perhaps a hybrid configuration that’s part SSD-part mechanical, which can still speed up performance tremendously.

The other notable change might be the loss of the optical drive. Apple has avoided Blu-ray, and it doesn’t seem that a whole lot of customers are complaining, even though you can get one on a PC, or from a third party to install on your Mac. As you no doubt recall, Steve Jobs referred to Blu-ray as a “bag of hurt,” because of the complicated licensing scheme. Apple’s direction is to move everything online, so you won’t need an optical drive. On the MacBook Air, the OS comes on a tiny USB stick. An external optical drive is optional, but I wonder how many need it beyond requiring a crutch?

Although the discovery surprised me, I have probably used my MacBook Pro’s optical drive maybe once or twice since it was purchased. I do make CD copies of music I’ve purchased from iTunes on my iMac, but once my wife becomes accustomed to accessing the same tunes streamed from my Mac on our Apple TV, I expect my need for burning CDs or DVDs will be lessened severely.

I do, however, feel that Apple made a big mistake not including gigabit Ethernet on the MacBook Air. You get a slower 100 megabit USB dongle as an optional accessory. I understand Apple’s desire to simplify the ports, but that’s too simple. Wi-Fi is still far slower than wired, though that, too, is apt to change as faster standards come on line.

The next generation MacBooks and MacBook Pros will likely be slimmer and lighter too, a consequence of adapting some of the MacBook Air’s design tricks. Beyond that, I don’t expect to see touch support spread beyond the touch pad. That’s just not Apple’s way, at least until they devise a better way.