Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 27, 2008
I don’t usually indulge in pure speculation, but I am going to break my own rule to wonder about what seems to me the strangest decision apple made in designing the MacBook Air, its almost complete reliance on Wi-Fi for communications. Besides, since Apple officials won;t actually discuss their design decisions, there isn’t much alternative to speculation.
My guess is that at the time Apple was making the critical design decisions, probably a year or so ago, it bet that public Wi-Fi was going to be a great deal more ubiquitous than has turned out to be the case. In early 2007, many U.S. cities were rushing ahead with plans for municipal Wi-Fi networks. Most of those now have been drastically scaled back or abandoned altogether because of economic and technical issues.
At the same time, wireless broadband over mobile phone networks was just starting to take off and might have seemed a shaky technology bet. And building for an internal wireless connection is something that has to be engineered into a laptop from the beginning, not added at the last moment. Especially in a package as tiny as the Air, isolating radios from the processor and from each other is challenging, as is finding a place for another antenna in an all-metal case (aluminum is thoroughly opaque to microwaves.)Furthermore, giving buyers flexibility in the choice of carriers and wireless technology requires placing the radio in a field-serviceable slot, no easy trick with the Air's design.
Alas, it's hard to think of a laptop that would profit more from wireless broadband than the Air. It's thinness and lightness encourages a carry-me everywhere attitude that should be matched by the ability to connect anywhere--not just in the scattered locations where public Wi-Fi happens to be available.
As long as we are speculating, maybe WiMax technology will come to the Air's rescue. Both Sprint and ClearWire are building WiMax networks in the U.S., though it's not clear how badly Sprint's financial and managerial woes will affect the rollout. Intel has announced that its "Montevina" chipsets, which are likely to show up in an Air refresh in the second half of the year, will support WiMax the same way its Centrino chips handle Wi-Fi. So there's hope that before the end of the year, we may see a WiMax-based connect-anywhere Air.