By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 5:30 am
Among the umpteen things that makes Apple different from other technology companies is this: it makes news by discontinuing products as well as introducing them. Today’s big announcements involve the arrival of OS X 10.7 Lion and updated MacBook Airs. But it’s also decided to stop producing the $999 white MacBook, a machine that had an uncommonly long life as the cheapest general-purpose Mac portable.
As recently as a week ago, the reliably unreliable Apple rumor mill said that an upgraded white MacBook was on its way. Then it decided that no update was imminent. And the truth turns out to be there won’t be an update because the machine is leaving the market.
The final white MacBook was a direct descendant of the one that Apple released in May 2006 (along with a black model which I mourned when it was discontinued in 2009), and it shared largely similar aesthetics with iBook models going back to, I believe, 2001.
May 2006 was a decidedly different era in Apple history than the present day: for one thing, there were no iPhones and no iPads. For another, an awful lot of the company’s products still came in plastic cases–between the iPod, the iMac, and the MacBook, white plastic was probably the case material most identified with Apple products.
Specwise, the current white MacBook is a modern computer: it offers better specs than older versions, a unibody case, and other improvements. But it still feels a bit like the Mac that time forgot. I can’t imagine that Steve Jobs, a man famously allergic to nostalgia, is a huge fan.
The machine’s disappearance doesn’t do anything to the starting price for Mac portables: it remains $999. But that buys you the new 11″ MacBook Air, a computer that’s strikingly unlike the MacBook. It’s vastly sleeker. It has a smaller screen, but with higher resolution. It weighs less than half as much. It’s battery life is shorter. It has a quarter the storage, but it’s solid-state. It has fewer ports and no optical drive. It has a slicker case made of aluminum. It has a more current processor, but at a slower clock speed. It’s just a beast born of an entirely different set of tradeoffs.
(The 13″ MacBook Pro is a closer cousin of the white MacBook, albeit one that’s a lot slicker; it starts at $1199, which is presumably too steep for some of the folks who would have bought a white MacBook in the past.)
Why did Apple ax the white MacBook? Presumably, it wasn’t because sales were terrible or because it was unable to turn a profit on the thing. But the new MacBook Airs represent the company’s thinking as of mid-2011 about what a laptop in this price range should be like. And a majority of consumers seem to agree: the 11″ Air was already outselling its older white counterpart. Apple being Apple, it didn’t wait until the white MacBook was truly obsolete before it pulled the plug.
Me, I never owned one. But it reminds me of the black MacBooks which I did have, and knowing it was still around made me feel good. Even though I’d opt for the Air myself if I was buying a Mac on budget. I’m curious to see whether the 11″ MacBook Air becomes anywhere near as pervasive as the old standby which it’s kinda-sorta replacing.