Beautiful laptop; stupid idea

Apple's new MacBook Air looks like a dream, and fits into an IT nightmare

There is a problem with Apple's new MacBook Air, an 11.6-inch ultraslim, ultralight, ultragorgeous new Mac laptop.

It's not that the tiny 11.6-inch thing is too netbooky.

The new Air is full-powered and if it has quality problems, they're not as bad as those of netbooks -- whose ultracheap components aren't suited for portable computing and keep shaking loose or breaking off even with light use. And the keyboard is apparently easier to use than netbooks, which are a challenge for anyone, but especially those of us who can fat-finger a full-sized keyboard.

The problem -- other than the IT porn commercials in which it is featured as an object of lust for geeks everywhere -- is that no matter how fast or beautiful, it is still a Mac and is therefore subject to limitations defended as "design elements" by fanboys and that would be derided as simple stupidity from any other PC maker.

In this case that means a solid state drive rather than a hard disk drive, and no option to switch to anything but a larger SSD.

Apple was the first to ship a PC without a floppy drive; everyone (including me) thought that was stupid. Within a couple of years, everyone quit using floppy drives. Apple also (reportedly) killed the CD (though some are still carrying the torch), may have killed Java, at least on its own platform, has made attacks with intent to murder on Flash,

Apple also pulled Firewire and ExpressCard support from the MacBook in 2008, which cut a huge swathe out of the devices it could talk to. Apple didn't replace those commonly used ports with anything, just eliminated them.

Nice.

This around it killed so many technologies (most of them its own) even pro-Mac partisans had to collect them in a list rather than discuss them individually.

In the MacBook Air, Apple jumped wholeheartedly into solid-state memory for laptops, rather than hard drives. Good call if you're looking for improved performance, lower power use and quicker on/off.

Bad news if you want to be able to add more storage space later, or spend a few dollars less by choosing for yourself between hard-disk and flash drives.

That might not be a big deal to a lot of people, but I get suspicious when companies are able to dramatically increase the margins on their top-end products by limiting the technologies their customers are able to use. In this case, in addition to its performance and design concerns, it looks an awful lot like Apple is using flash as a way to drive profitability as well as good benchmarks.

Between that kind of gouging and a Draconian tendency to limit the hardware and software that can run on Mac platforms, though especially the iPod, I remain way too suspicious of Apple and its motives to buy into its hardware plan.

I'm not the gauge of how well Apple is going to do in the enterprise, but I can't see many of the IT people or execs I've talked to over the years going with a laptop that's really, really pretty, but restricts a lot of the other technology decisions they make when they're trying to support their end users most effectively.

I see them going with something whose storage technology they can control and choose on a cost-benefit basis and, where it's really necessary, running MacOS X in a virtual machine on an employee's laptop, but only for those who really do need access to a Mac.

Otherwise, in a market where prices are dropping, PC sales to businesses are thin, even Unisys can't sex up your service operation, you keep prices high and make arbitrary judgments about which popular technologies to throw under the bus, I just don't see the MacBook Air as anything an IT person responsible to a base of users can afford to accept. That leaves it, in practical terms, as a really, really pretty desk decoration for someone whose real work is done on another machine.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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