Apple pulled the plug on the standard MacBook last week. For the past half-decade, it was the cheapest Apple computer on the market, the lowest barrier of entry to the Macintosh operating system. It cost twice as much as comparable PCs, but the MacBook’s white, plastic shell could still be found in any coffee shop or college classroom here and abroad.
Weep as we might, just know that Apple killed this thing without remorse. Personal computing is seeing the most significant innovation in over a decade, and the MacBook is a casualty of progress. Let's check out the driving forces that murdered our friend.
We’ve said it before -- the average user can get everything they need out of a tablet computer. They’re in the same price range as low-end notebooks, and way cooler. PC sales are already dropping, and tablet sales have beaten expectations. Although the iPad is still the only tablet really worth buying, some of the higher-end Android and WebOS tablets on the market are helping to drive competition, and some better alternatives shouldn't be too far down the pipeline. The age of notebook dominance is over. Laptops will be viable for a long time to come, especially in professional settings, but their salad days are gone.
Then there’s the push to the cloud. All the major players in tech -- Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, to name a few -- want to move file storage away from DVDs and hard disks and into their gigantic server farms. High-speed wireless internet is available just about anywhere these days, too. Both of those factors make it convenient for users to access their songs, photos, and documents from anywhere, with just a smartphone or tablet. The concept of owning media is quaint these days, too, with millions of users signed up for subscription streaming services like Netflix or Spotify.
Notebooks are self-contained devices. They have a hard disk and usually a DVD drive, no internet connection required. But that hardware adds bulk. The traditional notebook form factor has persevered out of necessity as much as it has out of convenience. But now that streaming everything is a viable way to consume media, the laptop design is no longer the only one that makes sense.
And finally, there’s the matter of Apple’s operating-system convergence. Apple not only iced the MacBook last week, but they also launched Lion, the latest version of OS X. It’s like a souped-up version of iOS, the platform on the iPhone and iPad. The update itself is available exclusively as a download from the Mac App store, like Angry Birds or Instagram. Apple wants their entire ecosystem to run like it currently does on their mobile devices.
The Bigger Picture
Apple’s basic computer is now the $500 iPad. It already feels like a stripped-down Mac rather than an oversized iPod. The barrier of entry to the most basic Mac is half of what it used to be. Casual users win.
Apple still sells an entry-level laptop, too, in the (newly refreshed) 11-inch MacBook Air ($999). It fits Apple’s new paradigm: slightly bigger than the iPad but still exceptionally sleek, and aside from a few ports and an optional external optical drive ($79), it’s also designed to work best in a web-connected environment.
And then there are even more serious machines, best for professional users, including the 13-inch MacBook Air, and 15- and 17-inch configurations of the MacBook Pro, which are still some very, very impressive machines.
The MacBook had become an awkward anachronism, a thousand-dollar plastic notebook in the sleek tablet age. Rest now, sweet machine.