Ordinarily, the release of a single ultraportable Mac should not be reason for Redmond to quake in its boots, but yesterday's announcements by Apple should give the Windows team plenty of reason to fear.
It's not that the product itself will put that much of a further dent in Microsoft's still-massive share of the PC market. However, the product demonstrates some capabilities that the Mac now can offer that Microsoft would seem to have a tough time matching.
The biggest is the fact that the Mac, like the iPhone and iPad before it, now boasts the ability to instantly resume with the touch of a button. Although Apple touts this as "instant on," it's really instant resume. But because the product can stay asleep for weeks at a time, it is essentially the same thing.
Windows 7, which turned one year old this week, represents a vast improvement in resume time, but even the best Windows PCs can't match this new Mac feature--at least from my initial use of the new MacBook Air.
Part of the Air's speed is due simply to the fact that it has flash storage, but perhaps more of it can be attributed to the fact that Apple built the new Air knowing there wouldn't be a traditional hard drive. As a result, it can design the system accordingly, allowing it to speed up tasks further. And Steve Jobs said a number of times that the design of the Air represents the future of the MacBook, suggesting that flash storage could be the future for all of Cupertino's portables. In a brief chat after the event, Jobs emphasized that point to me again.
Microsoft, in supporting Windows, has to make sure the operating system works on everything that meets its minimum specifications. In short, it's the typical challenge for Windows. Because Microsoft works with a variety of hardware partners--as well as supporting years-old machines--Windows often has to sacrifice the ultimate in performance for the sake of compatibility.
Mac vs. PC: The battle for 'instant on'
That said, it is an area that Microsoft continues to work on with hardware makers. Already, there are some pretty zippy machines with solid-state storage (including the ultrathin Vaio X, which weighs even less than the MacBook Air). Developments on the chip front should help speed things further. Microsoft also should have another advantage on the price front--flash storage continues to be far pricier than traditional hard drives, and any move to standardize on solid-state storage ensures Windows laptops plenty of room to compete on price.
But it's not just the MacBook Air that should worry those in Redmond. Apple is talking about building more of the iPad's consumer electronics-like feel into the Mac with Lion, the new version of OS X due next summer.
Even before that, Apple is bringing an app store to the Mac, which may reinvigorate Apple's computers as a place for software development. The opportunity is particularly strong for the kinds of small, inexpensive programs that have taken off on the iPhone and iPad. It's hard to distribute a $2 program in the traditional software world, but quite easy in a world of app stores. That mechanism of software distribution also makes the Air's lack of an optical drive more palatable.
For its part, Microsoft appears to be planning an app store of its own for Windows 8, though the company refuses to say when we might see that OS or what will be in it.
Finally, Apple introduced a new version of iLife. Microsoft's big push for the holidays is around the power of the Windows Live apps when combined with a Windows 7 PC. The company put a lot of effort into redoing its movie-making and photo-editing programs to better match up against Apple's and plans to make those programs a centerpiece of its holiday ad push.
The Windows Live Essentials suite does have some things that Apple doesn't match--including the fact that it is free to all users, not just those buying a new computer. Also, Microsoft has Windows Live Mesh--software that syncs data among multiple PCs (and even Macs).
So, Microsoft, Apple's thrown down the flash-based gauntlet. What's your next move?