Bloviations of an
Opinionated Programmer

The New MacBook is Deliberately Ahead of its Time

I'm over a week late on this, but I thought I would wait to hear what all the biggest names in blogging had to say about it first.

Apple launched a new MacBook last Monday. It's the thinnest notebook they've ever built, and it's got some cool new stuff. The force-touch trackpad looks genuinely cool, the retina display is a nice addition, and USB Type C is an important advancement, but none of those things are what I find most interesting about the machine. The thing that I find most interesting about this device is its name.

When Marc Gurman caught wind of this machine back in January, he called it a MacBook Air. That name makes a lot of sense, considering that it's thinner than the current MacBook Air, and just as light. It's perhaps more "Airy" than the current models. Yet for some reason, Apple did not call this product a MacBook Air when they launched it — they just called it "MacBook". That strikes me as a touch peculiar.

On the latest episode of John Gruber's podcast, he speculated that Apple didn't name the product "MacBook Air" because they wanted to price it out of the MacBook Air's price range (MacBook air currently starts at $899). I disagree with him for two reasons:

  1. When the "MacBook" (sans qualifier) has been part of the lineup, it has always been the lowest-cost option. Choosing the plain "MacBook" name for a notebook specifically because it's more expensive than the current MacBook Airs is backwards.
  2. If price was truly the issue, surely Apple would have named it "MacBook Air with Retina Display" to justify the higher price, a la "MacBook Pro with Retina Display" and "iMac with Retina Display"

My theory: Apple's choice to name this product "MacBook" has nothing to do with its price. I think it's far more likely that Apple is working on an even thinner computer which will eventually become the new MacBook Air (to be available in silver, space gray, and gold), and this current MacBook model will come down in price once the new MacBook Air launches, probably in Spring 2016. The problem is that the current MacBook is about as thin as it can get without sacrificing ports. Would Apple really release a notebook with zero ports?

John Siracusa thinks they should. On episode 108 of the Accidental Tech Podcast (appropriately titled "Zero is Better Than One"), he points out that it's extremely odd that Apple would use only one USB Type-C port instead of either zero or two. Indeed, this does seem like an odd choice if you only look at the computer in the context of its current lineup, but this decision makes a lot of sense if you imagine where this product would fit a year from now in a hypothetical next-generation lineup of MacBooks. I think the honor of being Apple's first zero-port MacBook is being reserved for an ultra-thin MacBook Air, a machine so thin that they couldn't fit any ports on it even if they wanted to (and a computer that's exclusively wireless would certainly give the "Air" branding new meaning). But as Siracusa points out, they could have probably tweaked the design of the current MacBook ever-so-slightly to make room for a second port. So why not?

The lack of a second USB port supports the perception that the usefulness of Apple's notebooks is trending downward, which is something that Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin grumbled about during episode 212 of the Back to Work podcast. In particular, Merlin highlights the apparent untimely death of the Thunderbolt connector as a point of irritation. These frustrations wouldn't be misplaced if you consider the MacBook lineup as it currently is. The Thunderbolt connector in particular has only been around for 3-or-so years, and when it was introduced, it was promised to be the one-size-fits-all solution for all of your needs. Yet, we now have a brand new MacBook that curiously left it out (even the current MacBook Airs support Thunderbolt).

But the new MacBook is supposed to be a computer for the masses, and I don't think that description ever befit Thunderbolt. I sincerely doubt many people use the Thunderbolt connector in a non-professional context, which is why I think the future next-generation MacBook Pro (to be available in silver, space gray, and gold) will keep the Thunderbolt connector alive, along with 2-3 USB Type-C ports in an all-around slimmer package. I think the reason the current MacBook only has one USB Type-C port is because the number of ports will serve as a point of differentiation between models, just as it always has.

All of these guys are trying to make sense of the new MacBook in the context of the current lineup, which is a mistake. This MacBook doesn't actually belong in the current lineup, which is why it didn't displace any of the existing models. This is just the first leg of Apple's all-new lineup of next-generation notebooks, which will all be available in 3 different finishes, are retina-by-default (note: this MacBook is Apple's first retina display computer not to include "with Retina Display" in its official name), and include a dramatically simplified port arrangement. The way I see it, this product will only make sense a year from now, once the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air tiers fall into place. This was just a signal of what's to come. The New MacBook is deliberately ahead of its time.