It's hard to open a Web browser right now without running across one or more stories about Steve Jobs and his departure as the CEO of Apple, and rightfully so. Jobs is a hugely influential figure, and his products have had an unmeasurable impact on mobile phones, personal computers, and media players. One of the most influential Apple/Steve Jobs product designs is actually one of the most traditional, at least on the surface: the MacBook laptop.
The MacBook line of laptops has managed to be both contrarian and influential at the same time. Its first appearance was in 2006, with the MacBook Pro announced in January of that year. This product replaced the older non-Intel PowerBook G4 and was followed several months later by the familiar (and recently discontinued) white polycarbonate MacBook, which was intended to replace the consumer-targeted iBook.
Steve Jobs resigns from Apple (roundup)
MacBook Air (Summer 2011) review
MacBook Pro (2011) review
Let's remember what was happening around that time. Laptops were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today, and the personal computer product mix included a lot more desktops, which still offered a very compelling price to performance value proposition (laptops would not eclipse desktops in global sales until 2008). It's hard to imagine now, but half a decade ago, a $1,000 laptop was almost considered a budget system, and we regularly saw and reviewed ultraportable systems that sold for $2,000 and up without batting an eye.
The following year, we started to see a huge shift in laptop prices, influenced by small, low-cost, low-power systems such as the Intel Classmate and the first Asus Eee PC (Linux-powered, with a 7-inch screen for $399). The trend moved beyond Netbooks, and soon PC makers were focused on undercutting each other with $500 plastic laptops for price-sensitive shoppers. As a contrarian move, Apple refused to move into the lower-price strata, and even doubled down on high-cost premium laptops with 2008's original MacBook Air, fighting the industry's natural urge to engage in a race to the bottom, price-wise, which has turned many laptops into commodity items--essentially, undifferentiated products you buy primarily on price.
Today, you see other laptop makers continue to focus on value products, but also pushing out systems clearly inspired by the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, such as Dell's Adamo and XPS 15z, HP's Envy line, Samsung's Series 9, and Lenovo's ThinkPad X1. Most of these were worthy products in their own right, but the need to tell consumers, "Hey, we've got our own version of a MacBook" was clear.
Beyond issues of design and price, the biggest long-term influence of the MacBook family is certainly its gesture controls. By moving from a traditional touch pad to a larger buttonless design, and embracing a larger vocabulary of multifinger gestures for navigation and control, Apple removed the almost universal need to pair a laptop with a separate mouse for serious tasks. This idea of touch as the ultimate control method has expanded across different product categories, from the original iPod to the iPhone and iPad. As I pointed out last year, we're already living in the post-mouse world, we just don't fully realize it yet.
That desire to emulate the ease of use of Apple's excellent multitouch controls has been evident in laptops from Dell, HP, and others with their own clickpad-style touch pads and gesture controls, although no one has come close to Apple's functionality (sources tell us the difficulty in matching Apple is because of the proprietary manner in which the MacBook prioritizes finger input data). Even tiny Netbooks added basic two-finger scrolling and pinching gestures, again to limited success.
There are other examples. Apple did not invent the island-style keyboard, with its flat-topped, widely spaced keys (Sony, for example, has used that style for many years), but the popularity of MacBooks has no doubt been behind that island-style keyboard's trend toward being the industry standard (we've seen maybe two laptops this year with traditional tapered keys). Likewise, the Mac software dock wasn't the first time anyone laid a strip of quick-launch icons along the edge of a screen (most credit IBM and Stardock in the early '90s), but very similar-looking docks from Dell and others are clearly modeled on Apple's version, although some unfortunately choose to pack their docks with annoying advertising and product sales links. Another example: optical drives in laptops aren't exactly an endangered species yet, but that will eventually happen, and when it does, the MacBook Air will get a big part of the credit or blame.
There are still things about MacBook laptops that drive people absolutely crazy: the prices that never dip below $999, the lack of common ports such as HDMI and (in some cases) SD card readers, the shift to nonremovable batteries, and more. But it's hard to argue, especially after Netbooks turned out to be more of the fad than a trend, that there's been a more influential personal computer line in the past half-decade than the MacBook.