Why Does the MacBook Air Still Exist?

The iPad is clearly Apple's vision for the future of ultra-portable computing. You don't have to look any further than Apple's new OS to see that. So why is Apple releasing new MacBook Airs?

The iPad, it's been said, is Apple's netbook. It easily handles most of what people want out of a netbook: It surfs the web, plays YouTube and videos, deals with light email. It's really, really portable with instant on and a crazy-long battery life; and it costs around $500.

The new, smaller MacBook Air is effectively a very nice netbook. Apple even says it took all the things it learned from the iPad to create it. The 11-inch MacBook Air has roughly the same screen size, and weighs a pound more, but it runs OS X and costs $1000. But why build this when the iPad is the perfect go-anywhere machine? I mean, you can't top magic, right?

Well, it turns out that magic isn't quite enough for a certain breed of road warriors: those who create.

You can make stuff on the iPad. It's doable, but not always effective or easy. The iPad is mostly designed for content consumption. It's a fantastic reading device. It's a killer movie player and picture viewer. But try to shoot a photo, drop it onto the device, edit it in Photoshop and throw it up on your blog. It's harder, even if you happen to use systems that are entirely compatible with the apps that are available. The iPad doesn't have an accessible file system. It's difficult to move files around and open them in the correct app sometimes. The apps, like Photoshop, aren't always as powerful or capable. The keyboard solution is a hacky compromise. (And have you seen that iPad keyboard dock? Ugh.)

An ultraportable-but-full-fledged computer is still the only way to do many of these things—or at least do them well. The keyboard very nearly says it all. The MacBook Air isn't going to be any easier to read on, or more portable, but it's going to be much better to tap out a long document, create and tweak a spreadsheet, edit a movie or trim a photo.

Besides, the Air is bringing some of the best parts of the iPad with it—like instant on, and with Lion, a lot of the iOS features that may well one day totally define computing, like modal, full screen views with fast task-switching. While the iPad and iOS might be the future of computing, people who still need to make things right now need to live in the present. Something's gotta bridge the two.

Original image by contributing artist Walter C. Baumann.