Why No One Can Match the MacBook Air

Peter Bright at Ars Technica has a feature about his frustrating search for a Windows notebook that can match the MacBook Air–and how difficult it will be for Intel to pull off its quest for Air-like Ultrabooks. The big questions is why it is so hard for PC makers to compete.

ThinkPad X1 photo
ThinkPad X1 (Lenovo)

The answer clearly has nothing to do with technology. Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, Sony, and Toshiba, along with smaller players, have all the skills required to design just about anything. Everyone is building their systems using the same components and, for the most part, the same manufacturing partners.

I think the real problem lies in the  marketing DNA of the computer makers, which has evolved to meet the demands of corporate  customers and the retail sales channel. While their  requirements  are entirely different, both drive design away from the clean and simple designs and low-cost, high-quality manufacturing that are Apple hallmarks.

Corporate sales are the lifeblood for many PC makers. Consumers buy a lot more units, but enterprises buy higher-end products and typically provide better margins. But corporations are very picky buyers. Their bid sheets generally include lengthy lists of specifications, often specific classes of processors, specific graphics systems, even specific Wi-Fi radios. They often require legacy ports to be included long after their usefulness has ended. And in most cases, supplying every item on the bid sheet is a minimum requirement to compete.

The result of this need to meet very fine-grained requirements is great complexity. The buyer of a 13″Mac Book Air has one choice to make: a 128- or 256-gigabyte solid-state storage device. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1, one of the most Air-like products, offers three different processors, optional Bluetooth, two flavors of mobile broadband, four Wi-Fi radios, 4 or 8 GB or RAM, and a choice of a conventional hard drive or two different SSDs, making 432 total hardware combinations.

This much variety complicates every stage of the supply chain, from buying components to stocking finished inventory. It raises costs. It also prevents optimizing the design around a set of component choices. (One consequence of the Air’s sleek, monolithic design–a big part of its esthetic appeal–is that what you buy is what you get; there are no field-upgradeable components.

In the consumer market, the problem is different but the result the same. Retailers (including Dell’s mostly online operation) want to have a product, or perhaps a choice of products, at every conceivable price point. This leads to a profusion of overlapping and very similar models and a product line that makes no sense even to very sophisticated buyers. When I asked Dell.com to show me 11″ to 14″ consumer notebooks, the site produced a page offering 12 different versions of two 14″ Inspiron notebooks, the 14R-2nd Gen and 14z (even the names are messy.)

Apple, by contrast, need not satisfy anyone but the ultimate user–and judging by the results, the lack of choice isn’t much of a problem. Even corporations, many of which are reluctantly buying Macs to meet the demands of their internal users, are learning to live with taking what Apple gives. This Apple-knows-best attitude strikes some people as paternalistic, even fascistic. But it produces great products that well-heeled buyers seem to love.



Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

21 thoughts on “Why No One Can Match the MacBook Air”

  1. As we have discussed Steve (on Twitter 🙂 ), Apple is taking a consumerist-focused strategy approach while the others are taking a channel strategy approach to the consumer market. Only thing I’d differ on is “no one can match” headline in that forever is a long time and I see people come and go every 5 years. Someone will step up. It’s only a matter of time.

    1. Yeah, someone will step up and kill the iPod one day. What’s it been a decade?

      Is that how long we’ll have to wait for someone to kill iTunes?

      Is that how long we’ll have to wait for someone to kill the iPad?

      Is that how long we’ll have to wait for someone to kill the AppStore?

      While iPhone volumes continue to grow despite Android while retaining 2/3rd of all handset profits world-wide, up from 1/2 last quarter.

      Android may have more marketshare but it’s turning out to be a razor-thin profit maker for handset manufactures. Nokia, RIM, Sony- Ericsson and some others are are rapid downward spirals, some HP sought to avoid by getting out while the getting is good.

      Apple has turn the commodity (horizontal) market on it’s head, with a vertical market approach that everyone thought had be proven inferior.

      If you include the iPad, Apple is the world’s 2nd largest computer manufacturer after HP, err, I mean world’s largest computer maker.

      The WINTEL invicnability myth destroyed.

  2. I think representing Apple’s attitude as “Apple knows best” is unfair and inappropriate. The company’s reps have said quite clearly “this is what we can offer you”. No reasonable person believes Apple or Jobs believes their product is perfect for every person’s need — perhaps the company’s greatest contribution is demonstrating that deciding NOT to compete in areas where you can’t shine is an important strategy.

    1. Apple’s attitude has created a very efficient high volume supply chain that bring costs down while insuring quality, which is why PC and consumer electronics manufactures are having trouble meeting Apple’s price point for their newest ultra-sleek products like the iPad and MacBook Air.

      These ultra-sleek products just can’t be slapped together using parts from a commoditized supply chain. Apple has a custom case sculpted from a solid block of Aluminum (not many factories can to this), custom batteries to fit the case, custom SDD drives to fit the case and a customized motherboard among many other components. With so few models and versions to build Apple gets high volumes, volumes PC manufactures can’t get having to piece together 100’s of custom versions.

      Only sales will tell if Apple knows best and right now they seem to know an awful lot others will be forced to learn or die fighting the tide.

    2. Apple’s believes that it knows more about what consumers want than the consumers themselves do. This is a strength, not a weakness. Designs based on focus groups and consensus are almost inevitably mediocre. Apple doesn’t try to please everyone, but it has great instincts and the sales numbers tell the story.

  3. Excellent observation. I spent a bunch of years selling to the education/government market. I can’t count the number of times a clearly superior product couldn’t be bid because it didn’t meet one trivial detail of a lengthy specification list. Further, I was amazed at the hostility that greeted any suggestion that they change that detail. IMHO, this was a lack of imagination when preparing the bid request, but it could also have been just ego. The upshot is, these customers rarely actually got what was best for their needs.

    1. Isn’t this amazing. Selling to customers who are looking for a good product is so much easier than trying to meet a bid spec.

  4. One other big difference between the MacBook Air and competing products, aside from the construction of the hardware, is the software. All other companies run their boxes on some flavor of Windows (and possibly, but rarely, Linux). The MacBook Air uses Apple’s own software, Mac OS X. This allows a level of integration and harmony that is IMPOSSIBLE for other companies to attain. This is another significant reason why people are flocking to Apple, and its worth mentioning.

    1. I was focusing just on the hardware because, frankly, there’s nothing anyone can do about the software. In a sense, Microsoft is the victim of the same forces that affect the Windows PC OEMs. Windows has to keep the corporate customers happy, meaning it keep dragging those legacy chains.

  5. Should have left this statement out. It is dead wrong.

    “Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, Sony, and Toshiba, along with smaller players, have all the skills required to design just about anything”

  6. “The buyer of a 13″Mac Book Air has one choice to make: a 128- or 256-gigabyte solid-state storage device.” That’s incorrect. If you stick with the 13″, you have the choice of storage, and the choice of 1.7 i5 or 1.8 i7 processors. With other models, you usually have a choice of memory size. And of course you have the choice of 11″ or 13″.

    But I do understand and agree with your point.

  7. Apple targets a certain user. I haven’t used a serial port in at least a decade, and I find it bizarre to still see new laptops with them. Ditto for VGA ports, and even DVD drives. Why schlepp around such a drive *all* the time when you might use it a couple of times a year? It makes more sense to have the drive as an add-on, if you need it, or to have adapters for VGA ports and the like.

    This is the Apple philosophy, and it makes for an optimized mobile computer for 99.9% of the time.

  8. The MacBook Air is technologically different – it is built from a block of aluminium. The competition don’t have access to the manufacturing facilities yet to do the same, so their ultrabooks are not as solidly built.

    1. There’s no particular magic to CNC machining of aluminum. One reason that other manufacturers can’t match the Air design is their perceived need to maintain removable batteries and field-serviceable components, which require access hatches.

  9. Well heeled? The 11 inch Air cost $999. I don’t consider this outrageous for that hardware config + OS Lion seems really straight forward. I was told I could install a partition with Windows but I found that my needs don’t justify the added expense for installing Windows too.

  10. I don’t doubt that in a couple of months the Dells, Asus’s, Toshibas et al will match the latest MacBook on price and specs, if not on ease of purchase/use/warranty/support. What seems equally obvious is that Apple will have come up with some new must-have feature, whether total iCloud backup, new form factor, whatever. Macs have a nice moat so that Apple can afford to decree a theme that consumers can understand, and Operations can tune for a 5-year run, while the dwarfs have to fight spec-by-spec with each other, hoping to sell a few tens of thousands more units—totally missing the forest or where Apple will be in 6 months or a year.

    So I dispute the contention that the named competitors have the tech cojones to compete. They are missing the ability to design for 5 years into the future because they’re paranoid about the next 5 day’s sales.

    1. Good thoughts Walt. I too am thinking competing with Apple at every level will be quite a challenge if not impossible. There is the technical ability to compete and a realistic ability as well.

      I have been trying to think who if anyone could get their stuff together could compete and the only one I think is Sony? If they had a software platform perhaps? I am thinking about writing an editorial analysis on whether Sony could be the one who had a chance. What do you think?

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