16 Years Ago, Apple Changed Laptops With an Envelope
The introduction of the ultra-thin and lightweight MacBook Air in 2008 shifted expectations for laptops, and computers in general.
The MacBook Air is Apple’s most affordable laptop and one of its most popular computers alongside the MacBook Pro. Paired with the company’s custom silicon chips and a more dramatic reinvention in 2022, it’s arguably only become more beloved as the years have gone on.
But that combination of thin and light design and an almost total lack of ports wasn’t always such a surefire success. Apple introduced the MacBook Air a little over 16 years ago as a counter to both the thin and light laptops of the day, and a growing breed of ultra-portable netbooks. But it also saddled the Air with strange omissions of its own that seemed highly risky at the time. It was a bet that ultimately paid off, largely shaping what we want and expect from computers today, but it wasn’t without its quirks.
An Ultraportable Without Compromises
The introduction of the MacBook Air will go down in the history of Apple product keynotes because of one key visual. Steve Jobs, then CEO of the company, introduced a new laptop called the MacBook Air, that, per a keynote slide, was thin enough to fit in a manila envelope you might find in any office building. The idea itself is amusing; who wouldn’t want a laptop as thin and light as a stack of memos? But could it really be that thin? Jobs then grabbed a manila envelope that had been sitting on the table next to him the entire keynote and pulled the MacBook Air out of it, proving that it, in fact, could.
In retrospect, the MacBook Air of 2008 looks positively chunky in comparison to the laptops Apple and its competitors would release in the years following, but it was built around a pitch that would end up really working for Apple. According to Jobs, “notebooks” at the time were thin, and relatively light at three pounds, but compromised on their display quality, keyboard size, and processor performance to stay light. The MacBook Air, on the other hand, was able to offer a full-sized screen, full-sized keyboard, and a more powerful (and custom) Intel Core 2 Duo chip in a body that was thinner than all of its competitors.
The original Air measured 0.16 inches at its thinnest point, according to Apple, while its maximum height of 0.76 inches was “less than the thinnest point on competing notebooks.” A large part of that reduced size was thanks to the work Intel was able to do, reducing its Merom CPU by 40 percent (in 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz varieties) so that it could fit on a laptop motherboard the length of a pencil. Paired with a 13-inch LCD display, a full-sized keyboard, and Apple’s first multi-touch trackpad, it was hard to not see the charm. Sure, Apple’s changes to the aluminum housing of the Air, tapering the edges to create the illusion that the laptop was even thinner than it was, certainly helped sell the appeal, but there was something there.
A Computer with Strange Omissions
The MacBook Air makes sense on paper compared to laptops at the time, less so to computers in general. For one, it didn’t have a disc drive at all. Apple’s anti-physical media stance is old hat in 2024, but it was more than a little scandalous to launch a full-sized laptop in 2008 without a disc drive, especially when software sales, and even the culture of music archiving and CD burning Apple built around iTunes, depended on it.
The company’s answer at the time was to sell a portable disc drive for when you did need to install Microsoft Office, or let you remotely access the optical drive of another computer if you both had the correct software installed. The real bet was that the MacBook Air would be the first truly wireless computer. More and more things were being downloaded from the internet anyway, and most people browsed the web first and foremost, so the argument made a certain amount of sense.
The real bet was that the MacBook Air would be the first truly wireless computer.
That thinking explained other missing pieces, too. The MacBook Air didn’t have a FireWire port (this used to be the main way iPods connected to computers) or an Ethernet port, and it also only had one USB-A for connecting and charging an iPod or iPhone. That radically limited what you were able to connect to the MacBook Air, and also what you could theoretically use the laptop for without dongles and additional adapters.
Wilder still, the Air didn’t have a removable battery, meaning you had to charge it if you ran out of power, and eventually replace it entirely when the battery died. It also used the smaller, slower hard drives that Apple originally used for the iPod with a solid-state drive as an alternative at an additional cost — something Apple would rectify in later models.
These limitations did spur later innovations, of course. The broad adoption of SSDs in computers was one major benefit, along with the development of USB Type-C or USB-C. The smaller reversible connector was based on contributions from Apple and other computer makers and it satisfied Apple’s desire for a smaller connector that could charge and transfer data quickly. USB-C would later be used across its computers as they got thinner, then iPads, and now finally iPhones.
Everyone Wants a Thinner Laptop
For however strange it was at the time, the MacBook Air changed what people want out of a personal computer, or at the very least, it identified a desire that was already there. People want laptops that are thinner and lighter, and that feel truly personal, and they’re willing to accept a device that’s technically less capable to get that.
Whether the MacBook Air spurred the shift towards computer use that was mostly based around consumption, rather than creation, or just rode a wave that was already coming, it put Apple in the right place at the right time. Most modern laptops look more like MacBook Airs than they do basically anything else that came before, and that’s as much the cause of Apple’s engineering as it was one immensely sticky marketing idea that no one has been able to shake since.