For the first time since I bought my first and only Apple computer, an Apple II in 1981, I'm thinking
about buying an Apple laptop. I probably would prefer a Windows 7 laptop. I'm thinking about the future of laptops, and IT directors should, too.
As science fiction writer William Gibson is supposed to have said, "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed." The future -- at least one version of it -- is Apple's MacBook Air, which is notable for what it doesn't have. It doesn't have a physical hard disk, DVD drive, many ports, or much weight. It also doesn't have a low price; it costs from $999 to $1,599. That's expensive for a mainstream laptop, which the Air isn't.
A significant part of the expense is that the Air uses only solid state memory -- 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB. That's a major reason it's fast. It wakes up from sleep in a few seconds, and opening applications is often faster than when using a traditional hard disk. Also, it's one of the lightest laptops available: 2.38 pounds for the 11.6-inch screen, and 2.96 pounds for the 13-inch screen. The light weight is the main reason I'm considering the Air, along with its pretty good performance.
The Air points to the future because of its solid state memory and light weight. The battery life of up to five hours for the 11.6-inch models and up to seven hours is good. Many other laptops offer as good or better battery life, but they're typically heavier or poorer performing netbooks.
The Air's design is sexy because it's oh-so-shiny aluminum and it's really thin, a maximum of 0.68 inches. That's nice, but it's also a problem for me. Because it's so thin, the 11.6-inch Air doesn't include an SD card slot, although the 13-inch does. Also, although the Air's keyboard is about a wide as a mainstream laptop, the key travel is shallow. That's a major disadvantage for me because I'm really picky about keyboards, and when I push down on a key, I want to feel it travel about 3.5mm, like the best keyboards.
So one reason I'm looking forward to the new generation of non-Apple laptops is, I hope, better keyboards. Unfortunately, some Apple competitors might be infected with the Air's design anorexia. Intel is spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting its Ultrabook concept to manufacturers, offering incentives to those who use its chipsets and follow its requirements. One requirement is that laptops may not be thicker than 0.8 inches.
Aaaarrgghh! When I'm traipsing through miles of convention exhibits and running down airport corridors to catch a plane, I don't think "if only my laptop was thinner." I think, "if only my laptop was lighter!"
A slightly thicker -- but not heavier -- laptop would allow for better key travel as well as additional useful features. Those features could include an SD card slot and an Ethernet port. Apple soaks you for $29 for a USB Ethernet adapter. Hey Apple, WiFi isn't everywhere, and Ethernet is usually faster!
Also, laptop manufacturers could use cases that aren't aluminum, but are strong and light, and not as expensive as the Air's to reduce the retail price. Speaking of cost, although Intel is pushing its chipsets for Ultrabooks, why couldn't Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. offer microprocessors that perform well, but cost less, such as its upcoming Trinity line?
I want a lightweight Windows 8 laptop that's fast, is lightweight, and has solid-state storage, a great keyboard, an SD card slot, an Ethernet port, and excellent performance that costs the same or less than the Air. A few of these are just being introduced, but more are on the way. For example, Dell Inc. might introduce such a laptop at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
Not every employee will want this sort of laptop. Some might need 1TB drives and the absolute fastest microprocessors. But many employees -- running through airports -- will lust after lighter machines with good or good enough capabilities. IT departments need to take a close look at the advantages for employees who will be asking for them.