MacBook Err

Why I’m disappointed in Apple’s ultraslim new laptop.

Also in Slate, Harry McCracken explains why Apple’s Macworld Expo is a better place to see the future of electronics than the massive Consumer Electronics Show.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs displays the new MacBook Air

Apple’s new super-extra-ultraslim MacBook Air laptop is undeniably sexy. As shown in Apple’s TV spot, the new laptop slides effortlessly into a manila envelope. Its fat end is slimmer than the skinny end of Sony’s thinnest Vaio notebook. (The specs: 0.76 inches thick at the back, tapering down to 0.16 inches at the front.) This is a major technical and aesthetic breakthrough, and a killer feature for those vexed by the fact that you can’t send laptops via interoffice mail. But as I watched Steve Jobs demo his new products onstage at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, I was struck by all the things you can’t do with the MacBook Air. That’s because the balance of power at Apple, and in the tech world generally, has tipped. In many ways, phones are now more powerful than laptops.

Before unveiling the Air, Jobs showed off an upgraded iPhone. New software created through a partnership with Google and another company enables the phone to figure out where its user is located on a map without using GPS. How? The iPhone detects what cell phone towers it’s near and what Wi-Fi hotspots it can sense. It looks these up in a database of known networks at specific map points. Since every block in downtown San Francisco has at least one Starbucks with a Wi-Fi network, and the Moscone has several hotspots of its own, the demo was a no-brainer. Jobs’ iPhone confidently placed him at the corner of Howard and Fourth streets. You can’t do that with a MacBook Air.

The iPhone has another, even bigger advantage: Its AT&T cellular modem lets it hop online from almost anywhere in America, without the owner needing to log in, type a network password, or fumble with wireless settings. It just works. “After using my iPhone for a few months, it started feeling weird that my PowerBook doesn’t have ubiquitous wireless networking,” respected Apple-watcher Jon Gruber blogged Monday. “It just feels crippled.”  Gruber said he’d pay a premium for such a feature to be included in a laptop. So would a lot of other people.

You can buy an add-on cellular card for your Mac, or for your Windows laptop for that matter. As I first discovered in 2003, a cellular modem makes Wi-Fi seem lame. Good luck finding a Wi-Fi hotspot at the beach, at a nursing home, or while rolling down the freeway at 70 mph. In all these situations, I’ve used a cellular-equipped laptop to file articles, to hit Quicken for Mom, or to book hotel reservations from the passenger seat. You can’t do that with Wi-Fi.

As ridiculous as this might have sounded a few years ago, the Sprint add-on dongle I use to get on the Web is thicker than Apple’s laptop. The clumsy add-on widget, which some Sprint store clerks falsely told me wouldn’t work with a Mac, doesn’t integrate that well with the computer—in particular, it drops its network connection frequently, a problem that tech pundits have complained about. At least I can get it to work most of the time. For people who don’t consider themselves tech-savvy, my Sprint cellular card is hard enough to figure out that it’s not worth the trouble.

Phone and laptop technology is converging. The iPhone and other smartphones have as much processing power as the desktop workstations of five years ago, and laptops are getting smaller and more portable. It’s only natural to expect that the advances seen in laptops would come to phones, and vice versa. So, why has Apple failed to make foolproof, always-on Internet access—the iPhone’s killer feature—a standard component of its next generation of computers?

It’s not like Apple is hesitant about getting its suppliers to engineer new parts—after all, the company coerced Intel to build a special, extra-small version of its Core 2 Duo processor that would fit inside the MacBook Air. It’s possible that putting a cell phone inside the Air would mean lots of regulatory hurdles before the device could come to market. But it isn’t a new idea. Lenovo, for one, has offered the option for years. And Apple has stuffed AT&T wireless access into 5 million iPhones, all of which are slimmer than the new MacBook. Would it really have been that hard to put a cell card inside the Air?

After kicking around all of these possibilities, it’s hard to get away from the notion that Apple simply chose form over function. More than any other technology maker, Apple walks the line between sexy and practical. On the one hand, the company promotes the idea that its products are both more advanced and easier to use than Windows PCs and BlackBerry phones. Effortless data backups, touch-screen photo surfing, an automatic location finder—all of these are pragmatic advantages the company touts in its ads. But Apple’s real appeal is looks. No one would buy an ugly iPod, no matter how functionally superior to Microsoft’s Zune.

I’m a sucker for products that look good, but there need to be some guts beneath the shiny skin. I don’t care about having the world’s skinniest laptop. Rather, I need to be able to blog breaking news when I’m not near a Wi-Fi hotspot. I look forward to fawning over my friends’ new MacBooks. But when they desperately need to e-mail the boss, I’ll just savor the triumph of whipping out my phone.