Windows laptop makers can’t catch up to the MacBook Air

Laptop manufacturers are struggling to compete with the MacBook Air

The PC world is buzzing lately about how laptop manufacturers are struggling to compete with Apple’s MacBook Air, which has exploded in popularity since the introduction of the third-gen model in 2010. This year’s fourth-gen update is proving to be the must-have laptop of the year. For every laptop manufacturer not named “Apple”, the race is on to make new super-thin and super-light laptops. Intel calls them Ultrabooks, and the name is catching on, despite being sort of silly.Here’s a question for you: why didn’t HP, Dell, Acer, Samsung, or some other huge PC manufacturer build the Air before Apple? The answer is: they did.

Sony’s X505 was a razor-thin laptop weighing less than 2 pounds, and it came out in 2003! More recently, Dell introduced the Adamo in 2009, and later that year the even thinner Adamo XPS. These laptops didn’t sell. Sony’s cost over three grand. Dell’s were also too expensive, and the battery life was pitiful.

Instead of fixing those problems, Dell killed the Adamo line. Sony and Dell built nearly-great products with critical flaws and instead of challenging their engineers and designers to find ways to address those flaws, they concluded that nobody really wanted these systems. Apple didn’t give up, though. Drive too thick and too slow? Apple commissioned a special case-less SSD that could fit in its slim design. It worked to make the motherboard smaller, the components cheaper, and crammed as much lithium polymer battery as it could fit in the case.

By 2010, the Air had evolved from an overpriced, underpowered status toy to the must-have computer of our day. My point here is not simply that PC manufacturers are quitters. It’s that they have the entirely wrong mindset to build must-have products. Several times a year, I have meetings with major PC manufacturers about their upcoming product lines, and the tenor is always the same: “Our customers told us this is what they want, and our market research says this is what people are buying, so we made this great product to address that market!” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you’ll never set any trends that way.

If you want to make the product that everyone else compares their product to, you have to go outside the envelope. You have to take a risk to build something nobody has told you they want, because they don’t know they want it yet, and then you have to invest in it and stick with it until you get it right. The real irony here is that their marketing departments are constantly striving to find differentiators: ways to set their products apart from the pack. If every company is building products to address the same set of market research data, you’re not going to get differentiated products.

Building a better Air -- or even just a cheaper one -- is proving to be difficult. Those unibody aluminum chassis on MacBooks make them really rigid despite the thin design, and Apple has booked solid all the lathes capable of carving a laptop body out of a single block of metal. Challengers like the Samsung Series 9 have metal bodies, but without the satisfying stiff feel and seamless edges of one carved from a single chuck of alloy. Of course, the Series 9 is also quite expensive. When one of the main reasons people don’t buy a Mac these days is because they can’t buy one for less than $1,000, pricing your Mac alternative well above that price doesn’t do you any favors.

There are other pretenders to the ultrabook throne coming this fall. There’s the Asus UX51, and the Acer Aspire 3951. Rumor has it HP will unveil an ultrabook soon. What do all these systems have in common? They’re too late.

Yes, the ultra-thin form factor made popular by the Air is rising in popularity, and if priced right some of these systems will sell pretty well. Sales numbers notwithstanding, they’ll suffer the ignominious fate of being labeled also-rans. They’ll be “MacBook Air-like.” The problem with PC manufacturers is not that they can’t build a computer as good as the hottest Apple thing, it’s that they’re constantly trying to. Apple is in the driver’s seat. If you aim at a fast-moving target, you’re sure to hit behind it. While HP, Acer, Asus, and others are worrying about how to make a MacBook Air killer, Apple is busy redefining the rest of its laptop line.

Intel is kicking in $300M to drive the ultrabook category with new inventions and new, cheaper SSDs will help drive costs down. By the time all the PC manufacturers figure out how to make a cheaper laptop that is as thin, light, and long-lived as a MacBook Air, everyone will be drooling over the new MacBook Apple will have just introduced.

I suppose we can’t expect a lot of creativity and focus from companies that think a random string of letters and numbers make for appropriate product names.Here’s a bit of free advice for the PC manufacturers: lose the optical drive. No, not just in your upcoming ultrabooks, in everything. I’ve asked four PC makers this year why they’re still putting DVD drives in their 13-to-15 inch laptops while struggling to make them thinner and lighter. They all said the same thing: “our customers say they aren’t ready for that yet.” Well of course they’re not! If you wait until the world tells you an optical drive isn’t worth the tradeoff in thickness, weight, and space for a bigger battery, you’ll be marketing laptops just like everyone else’s. I’d make a million dollar bet Apple’s next generation of MacBook Pro won’t have optical drives in its 13 and 15 inch models, and they’ll be so slim and sleek and light everyone will want one. Then Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, Samsung, Sony, and the others will follow suit six months later, looking like they can’t come up with an idea until after Apple does.

Here’s another free idea: make netbooks half as thick as they are today. Intel has advanced the Atom platform over the years, AMD has that tiny Fusion E-series chip, there’s no optical drive, and the rest of the internals are minimal at best. Yet netbooks still basically look like they did four years ago when the genre was new. There’s no good reason a system that small, that cheap, with that little horsepower, should be more than two-thirds of an inch thick.

Consider the story of Hewlett-Packard’s invention of the first pocket calculator, the HP 35, back in 1972. HP’s market research said they shouldn’t make and release it - it was going to cost at least $350. At twenty times the cost of a slide rule, nobody was going to buy it! Bill Hewlett said, “I don’t care, I want one of these things” and pushed the project through. It was so revolutionary, so visionary and transformative, that even at a cost of $350+ (that’s 1972 dollars!) the orders were over 10,000 a month. HP didn’t project sales of 10,000 a year.

I don’t know if HP or other laptop manufacturers still feel as though they operate with this sort of audacious drive to build gotta-have-it products, and “damn the torpedoes,” but it’s certainly not evident in the products we see on the market today.

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Jason Cross

PC World (US online)
Topics: Apple, Dell, hardware systems, ultraportable laptop, laptops, acer, intel, sony
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