MacBook “Helium”

Two rumors: Apple building a carbon fiber MacBook Air, and Apple building (or needing to build) a NetBook (i.e. an ultralight and ultracheap MacBook that is net-centric). Well, Apple isn’t going to sell a $400 notebook any time soon, but it might sell a $600-800 notebook similar to, but smaller than, the Air, and to keep costs down it might use plastics — I mean Carbon Fiber — and such a notebook would be smaller and lighter than the MacBook Air, so it might be called the “MacBook Helium”.

I’ll laugh out loud if I’m right. I was right about Apple releasing its NeXT-based OS as OS X way back when — I predicted they’d release a stopgap OS 9 which would make them a ton of money and keep people satisfied while they polished Rhapsody which they could then call OS X. Of course, I also wanted them to call the Mac “se/30” the Mac “sex” for similar reasons.

If Apple does release a $400 micro-notebook, I hope it’s basically a super iPhone and not a crippled Mac (or that it dissolves the distinction between the two).

Black is the new white

 

Dark buttons for new models. Light buttons for legacy.
Dark buttons for new models. Light buttons for legacy.

If you visit the Apple’s online store you’ll find there are two different kinds of buttons used to make a purchase. Light colored buttons for purchasing stuff that’s old and boring, and dark colored buttons for purchasing stuff that’s new and exciting.

OK, it’s not quite like that. Some new products, such as the new iPod Nano, get light buttons while some not-quite-so-shiny products (e.g. the black iPod Classic) get a spiffy dark button. But, if you look at Macs, it’s very consistent. The plastic MacBook, MacBook Air, 17″ MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and Mac Pro have light buttons, while iMacs and new MacBooks have dark buttons. (The new 24″ display is an “accessory” and thus gets a green button.)

I choose to take this as an endorsement of Barack Obama.

Apple’s Accidental Game Strategy

When Apple released the Macintosh its primary focus was on competing with the IBM PC as a “serious” computer. The Apple II was widely seen as being a “games machine”. It shipped with game paddles, and pretty much every classic computer game started out as an Apple II game. Ultima I-IV, Wizardry, Sierra’s first titles, EA’s first titles, Broderbund’s first titles… all started life on the Apple II.

Macs are not games machines, dammit

For computer games enthusiasts, the Mac was extremely frustrating. It had excellent graphics, but its CPU really wasn’t up to updating all those pixels really fast. And on top of that there were no decent native development tools for the first couple of years. Worst of all, Apple refused to provide standardized game controller specifications or even to allow games to go full screen without using evil hacks.

Apple’s anti-game bias was probably a result of Steve Jobs’s desire to have Macs taken seriously by business, but after he was forced out, this policy was continued mindlessly for over a decade. It’s highly unlikely that Jobs would have persisted with such a self-destructive policy had he remained in charge of Apple. (There are persistent rumors that Jobs hates games. Maybe so… even though he and Woz created games together. But he’s enough of a businessman not to piss in the hand that feeds him.)

But if we pretend really hard…

Since about 1993, Apple has periodically tried to recapture its lost opportunity in games, notably by employing games “evangelists” who tried to convince developers that Apple was serious about games and convince Apple to be serious about games, the introduction of “Game Sprockets” (libraries of code to make life easier for game developers, something Microsoft arguably imitated with DirectX, and which Apple spectacularly failed to follow through on, eventually abandoning the whole concept in the switchover to MacOS X), the ill-fated and underpowered Pippin games console, and, more recently, the highlighting of games in Mac marketing events and literature (starting with Steve Jobs bringing the Bungie folks on stage to show off early alpha code of HALO, shortly before they were bought by Microsoft and HALO was turned into a flagship launch title for the X-Box).

Accidental Victory

I don’t know if it’s an accident or not, but the iPhone turns out to be a very nice piece of game hardware with a very odd game control interface. Fortunately for Apple, the Nintendo Wii and DS have whetted people’s appetites for games which use weird control interfaces. As for the raw specifications, compared to the Sony PSP, it has more memory, a far better CPU, and a somewhat inferior GPU. Compared to the Nintendo DS it is grotesquely superior in every way except battery life. Unlike the original Mac, it can push pixels as fast as needed for games, and it has excellent developer tools that Apple gives away to anyone interested. Anyone complaining about the iPhone being a closed platform should try to get a PSP or DS dev kit.

So, suddenly, Apple has a game platform that is dominant in its obvious category (smart phones) and a serious contender in its less obvious category (handheld games consoles). Certainly in terms of available titles, the iPhone has more games available for it now than the PSP, DS, and all earlier Gameboys combined. Most iPhone games suck ass, but guess what, so do most PSP, DS, and Gameboy titles, and they’re way cheaper. What’s more, Apple can sell a $5 or $10 title direct to a consumer, collect 30% and pass on 70% — no middlemen involved. The developer of a $10 iPhone game probably gets more money per sale than the developer of a $29 DS title. (Last I heard, the developer of a AAA $40 PC game title nets about $14 per game sold at full price, but consoles take more money off the top, especially titles that ship on cartridges.)

This is all pretty cool, but there’s more: 

 

  • There’s no reason why iPhone games can’t run with a simple recompile on a Mac. Possibly without a recompile (via CPU emulation). iPhones are, after all, Macs running on an ARM CPU. We should start to see games developed for both platforms simply because it’s easy to do.
  • There’s no reason why iPhone games can’t run with a simple recompile on an AppleTV. AppleTV’s are, after all, Macs. It follows that Apple could reposition the AppleTV as a games platform with a system update.
  • The Unity game development system is going to be able to target iPhones as of this month. (It’s currently in beta.) The development process isn’t quite seamless with Windows/Web/Mac/Wii development, but there’s no reason not to expect to be able to target Windows/Web/Mac/Wii/iPhone from a single codebase in Unity within six months.

 

So, Apple could be in the process of becoming a serious contender in the game platform wars almost accidentally as a result of its success with the iPhone. And Apple has done this without flushing a ton of money down the toilet the way Microsoft has with both the XBox and XBox 360. And, unlike Sony, it doesn’t need to offset hardware losses with software profits — it made money from the iPhone from day one.

New MacBooks, Old Prices

Apple’s “failure” to deliver the rumored $899 MacBook (turns out the new $899 part was a new 24″ display) is the latest meme. I guess roughlydrafted.com will soon (if it doesn’t already) have an enormously long-winded “explanation” of why this is genius. I don’t think it’s genius or stupidity. It’s Apple.

Chances are that supplies of the new MacBooks will be a little slow to ramp up, so why not make some money off early adopters while getting the kinks out of the supply chain (and probably out of the product itself). Once everything is good to go, Apple drops the plastic MacBook altogether, speed-bumps the line, drops prices by $100, and releases a new low-end MacBook for $899 with crappy onboard graphics, and a new high-end 17″ MacBook Pro with the new chassis.

I just hope that at some point soon we see Nvidia chipsets in the Mac Mini.

Microsoft Declares War

Microsoft has launched ads specifically mocking Apple’s ads (which themselves mocked Microsoft) and Ballmer has been quoted bad-mouthing Apple more and more often of late (most recently and somewhat bizarrely, denigrating Microsoft’s own Office for Mac).

For a long time, Microsoft made more money on each Mac sold than on each PC sold. This is probably because most Mac users bought a rather expensive copy of Microsoft Office whereas most PC users got theirs bundled or used copies from work (which Microsoft allows, indeed probably encourages to prevent competitors from having any chance of selling anything to anyone). I doubt this is still the case since many Mac users get by just fine with the cheaper, more pleasant, and for many purposes superior iWork.

It’s sad for Microsoft that it’s attacking Apple just as Apple gets to the point where it really doesn’t need Microsoft for anything. If Microsoft, for example, threatened to stop developing Office for Mac today, Apple would probably just laugh at them. OpenOffice.org provides a workable replacement for Office if you desperately need an ugly but serviceable Office suite, and if Apple wanted to, it could throw its UI prettification team at OOo, or it could simply add a few features to Pages and Numbers (Keynote is already, effectively, on par with Powerpoint).

Meanwhile, iPhone has been making WinCE … oh wait I mean Mobile Windows or whatever it’s called today … look silly, and Apple has stolen a huge share of the “PC market that actually makes money” leaving Microsoft’s cohorts to fight over the 2% margin Walmart market. If Apple makes a couple of fairly obvious moves with the App store and iPhone/iPod Touch games market, it could make Microsoft’s money-losing foray into the console games market look pretty sad too.

Declaring war was probably stupid at any time, but declaring war when you’ve already lost is really stupid.