Farhad Manjoo declares it dead:

On paper, the entry-level $999 Air looks subpar. Its processor isn’t nearly as fast as that of a full-size machine, and its screen is too vertically scrunched. The biggest problem, though, seems to be its limited disk space—there’s only 64GB of room for all your files, less than any other computer Apple offers. (The Air uses solid-state flash storage, which is faster and smaller than a traditional mechanical hard drive. It’s also more expensive—for an obscene $200 more, Apple will give you a 128-gigabyte solid state drive.)

But these limitations don’t bother me very much. I was looking for a laptop as a secondary machine, not for getting a lot of daily work done. The Air’s portability and five-hour battery life were more important to me than its screen and speed (which are quite good for most tasks, I’ve found, and certainly better than most netbooks I’ve used). The fact that I can get that portability in a machine with a full-sized trackpad and keyboard—indeed, this is one of the most comfortable keyboards available on a laptop of any size—was a bonus. Still, there was the issue of disk space. How would I make do with a computer that offered less room than some iPods?

When I read the title, and the first paragraph about how this was about an Apple, I figured “Oh, yes. Another example of how if Apple doesn’t offer it you’re better off without it.” But actually, I agree up to a point. SSDs are not really worth the price for the kinds of computers I buy, but if you have a computer with weaker processing power (which may be necessary for something as thin as a Macbook Air) then maybe it is. The Macbook Air doesn’t appeal to me for the same reason that netbooks don’t, but I recognize that both appeal to people who are not me.

Anyway, what I agree with is that by and large having 64GB isn’t that much of an issue. Manjoo goes on to say that we’re going to transition to external drives and the like. A lot of us will. I already do with my pocket drive that I have for the convenience of switching amongst my laptops whether I am home or away. What Manjoo doesn’t really address, though, is that 64GB is enough for most people even without an external drive. It’s a common fault among tech writers to assume that most users are a lot more like them than they are. Which is what Manjoo does.

You would have to spend in the order of $10,000 in order to fill up one of those hard drives with music. Or illegally download 10,000 tracks. Or buy that many tracks off a cheaper service like eMusic (if they’re still cheaper like they used to be). That is not something that most people do. Nor do most people download videos, which is what really takes up the space. If you’re not a music afficionado, which most people aren’t, a hard-core pirate, which most people aren’t, or downloading videos, which most people don’t, there is no reason that you can’t fit everything on to that drive.

Apple, to its credit, understands this. And this corner that they cut is a good one. With hard drive capacities far outstripping need, sideways upgrades make a great deal of sense. Trading processing power for better drives make sense. Not because everyone is going to go out and get a pocket drive, but because most people will never need to. Particularly if the Macbook Air is not their only computer, which it frequently isn’t going to be. They can easily do what I do (with or without the pocket drive) and keep everything on their desktop and move things to their laptop/netbook as required.

Along these lines, I think that Manjoo is right that we’re going to be moving away from singular laptops into something more specialized. Perhaps I am falling into the same trap (thinking everybody will do/want what I do), but with more specialization than ever in computing, it makes sense to have a netbook for light-but-extremely-mobile usage, a desktop for more serious computing, and maybe a laptop for serious computing on the run. And of course a smartphone for extremely-light-and-ridiculously-mobile-but-hard-to-use usage. And an iPad fitting in there somewhere.

Since I was in college there has always been talk about how computers are going to become dumb terminals. Any day now. It still hasn’t happened, but over ten years later I’m finally starting to see it do so. In a fashion. Due largely to the specialization where you have an iPad for some things, a netbook for others, and so on. From experience, it’s going to get harder and harder to keep everything on each computer and easier and easier to use centralized services like GoogleDocs and the like. Particularly when/if you can count on a constant connection to the Internet. That’s the biggest hold-up for me with regard to GoogleDocs. When I have a constant 3G connection with which I do not have to worry about bite usage, it’s going to become a really attractive option. Or at least a good offline editor with good synchronization. Right now a lot of this is under the assumption that you will always have a connection when you need one, but we’re not there yet.


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6 Responses to Dumb Terminals, Realized?

  1. Maria says:

    Since I was in college there has always been talk about how computers are going to become dumb terminals.

    Hah! When I was in college, computers were basically nothing BUT dumb terminals.

  2. Mike Hunt says:

    I think people will always feel queasy about having their sensitive documents in the cloud, such as tax returns.

    Maria: When I was in college, computers were basically nothing BUT dumb terminals.

    When you were in college computer bugs were literally bugs…

  3. no more mr nice guy says:

    When I was in college/university in the 1980s, PCs were not powerful enough, so we were all using terminals connected to a mainframe computer.

  4. David Alexander says:

    From experience, it’s going to get harder and harder to keep everything on each computer and easier and easier to use centralized services like GoogleDocs and the like.

    That’s slowly becoming the problem here with my computing network. I’m stuck with stuff sitting on my desktop and the hard drives that are hooked up to it while my laptop is orphaned from its data. While it’s easy to share information via the network, it still seems silly to fire up the desktop in order to get that data. Ultimately, I’ll probably have to solve this problem by buying a “real” NAS and storing all of my data (along with my brother’s data) there, but that’s currently outside of my budget for right now.

    As for WAN, I’m not inclined to trust Google or any part of the cloud in general, so I’m hesistant to give up personal storage. Mind you, I can see why it’s so popular given that it’s a bit of a bear to be able to access data from most home setups by the average computer user.

  5. David Alexander says:

    And FWIW, 64GB is a decent compromise for a secondary laptop. If it was a bit cheaper and availible as a ThinkPad, I’d consider buying it as a travel laptop and just something to use to get away from sitting at my desk in my room all day. Music and videos can be streamed over my wireless network at home, and 64GB is enough to store my a week’s worth of photography.

  6. Maria says:

    3.When I was in college/university in the 1980s, PCs were not powerful enough, so we were all using terminals connected to a mainframe computer.

    That’s what I meant Mr No More.

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