The MacBook Air was significant because it wasn't just about being very thin - it was also about omitting legacy features to improve the user experience

The MacBook Air was significant because it wasn’t just about being very thin – it was also about omitting legacy features to improve the user experiencePhoto: Apple

You may see Intel’s Ultrabook concept as marketing guff, but the idea of laptops that put the user experience first is a triumph for Apple’s ethos, says Seb Janecek.

Apple’s presence looms large at the Consumer Electronics Show even though it never actually attends. In 2011, the CES show was dominated by a range of tablets of various shapes, sizes and hues – coming less than a year after the iPad was launched. So far, they’ve largely failed to make an impact on iPad sales.

This year it was the turn of the Ultrabook, an Intel-patented buzzword for a notebook that looks an awful lot like a MacBook Air. And that’s a good thing.

The term Ultrabook is widely derided as meaningless marketing guff. Rather like the time Google came up with the term superphone to differentiate its 2010 Nexus One phone from its more humble smartphone competition. Which makes you wonder what the future has instore for the tablet market? A megapad, perhaps?

The MacBook Air and the resulting wave of Ultrabooks represent a triumph for Apple’s ethos of putting the user at the centre of its products.

Thinner and sleeker notebooks

The long-time trend in notebooks has been to make them thinner and sleeker without sacrificing power but the MacBook Air was a significant leap forward. It wasn’t just about being very thin. It was also about what it left out – the legacy features that Apple felt it should sacrifice to improve the user experience.

As with the original iMac, Apple led the industry in moving the game along. With the Bondi blue iMac, Apple eliminated the ubiquitous floppy drive. With the MacBook Air the omnipresent optical drive vanished, although a separate plugin CD-DVD drive is available for diehards.

The large-capacity hard drive was also retired. By opting for smaller capacity SSD storage, Apple could make the MacBook Air even slimmer and pack in extra batteries for good measure. The result was a fast notebook with excellent battery life that Steve Jobs famously slid out of a manila envelope on stage in 2008.

After a couple of speed bumps the product went for a long while without an upgrade – from June 2009 until October 2010. I wondered whether the game was up for the device in the same year that the iPad began its ascendancy.

Like the G4 Cube before it, was the MacBook Air doomed to be…

…one of Apple’s most beautiful failures? Thankfully not. Apple rejuvenated the line, adding the smaller, ultraportable 11-inch model to the range.

In relaunching the MacBook Air, Apple gave a preview at some of the design principles it would later deliver with Mac OS X Lion. Lion took some inspiration from some of the best innovations of the iOS with its theme of Back to the Mac – in other words taking some of the key software and hardware features of the iPad and iPhone and applying them to the Mac.

At the relaunch of the MacBook Air, Steve Jobs noted: “We think that this is the future of notebooks. In the future we think all notebooks will be made this way.”

That this prediction is coming to pass is good news for a couple of reasons.

First, because first and foremost I am a Mac user. My first Apple product was a PowerBook, bought long before the iPod and iOS devices were glints in the eye of Jobs. My loft contains six Macs in various states of disassembly. My wife despairs.

In Apple’s recent stellar quarterly results, the 37 million iPhones and 15 million iPad sales were the figures that caught the eye but the five million Macs sold was the most pleasing number. As global PC sales decline so the Mac continues not just to endure but shine – the MacBook Air has assured the platform of a bright future.

Secondly, while the Ultrabook name is clearly marketing nonsense, no doubt thought up by men in suits to appeal to other men in suits, the computing paradigm it represents is exciting, melding form and function, power and portability. In other words, adopting the design principles of the MacBook Air.

Who would have thought that other PC manufacturers would end up prizing form as much as function? At last, the industry beyond Apple and a few other companies has realised that the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. Another Jobs legacy?

The MacBook Air-Ultrabook model is inspiring other computer manufacturers to take a punt at a time when traditional PC product lines are struggling and injecting new life into the notebook segment.

It’s a compelling model and if the end result is that we all end up using better kit then, personally, I’m happy to tolerate a bit of guff.