Apple has quietly laid the MacBook to rest following its July refresh of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. I don’t think this is goodbye to the MacBook, however. Just farewell for now. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see it again before too long.
The MacBook’s History
I can’t talk about the MacBook without first mentioning the iBook. Apple introduced the iBook in 1999, building on the runaway success of the iMac. It was Apple’s first laptop designed from the start for consumer use. Apple had been building laptops for 10 years. But PowerBooks – and really all laptops – were squarely the domain of mobile professionals.
The iBook was a laptop for everyone else, which was a quintessentially Apple thing to do. Innovations in the iBook abounded, including wireless networking – 802.11b Wi-Fi, still so new it was a draft standard. People bought lots of them, and Apple iterated the design constantly for the next six years.
Apple first introduced the MacBook in 2006 to replace the iBook, discontinued by Apple’s foundational change from PowerPC to Intel processors. Squarely Apple’s option for price-sensitive consumers, students, and others, the MacBook was Apple’s “budget” laptop until 2010, when it discontinued the MacBook.
The Modern MacBook
It’d be five years before Apple introduced a new MacBook. A lot changed in that time. SSDs and Retina displays became the norm for MacBook Pros. The MacBook Air assumed the MacBook’s low-cost mantle, appealing to consumer, pros, and students alike. So when the new MacBook appeared in 2015, Apple’s vision for it was fundamentally different than as a mass-market laptop. This MacBook would be a more boutique device, a bellwether for Apple’s future design plans.
It had no expansion ports save a single connector unfamiliar to Mac users up to that point: USB-C. The single port, used both for power and any necessary external connectivity, made a bold statement: That the MacBook was intended primarily for wireless use over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, not for tethering to a desk with lots of external cables.
The 2015 MacBook was also the first Mac laptop in years to be offered in a choice of colors, though not the first MacBook to do so. Apple offered the earlier MacBook model briefly in black or white. The MacBook’s direct predecessor, the iBook, was available in bright colors during the early years of Apple’s renaissance.
The redesigned MacBook was – and remained, throughout its model life – the smallest and lightest Mac laptop. It weighed scarcely more than an iPad but sported a beautiful display and copious battery life. While the design is elegant, that first model was also desperately underpowered compared to other Mac laptops. The MacBook’s thin design also required a new keyboard mechanism. This was the first Mac to get much-maligned “butterfly” keyboard afflicting all models produced in recent years. And yes, those first MacBooks were prone to keyboard failures, with some keys falling off and others not working right. Despite some early flaws, Apple continued to iterate the MacBook but last made any significant change to the model line in 2017, with a mild refresh to processors and other internal components.
The Future MacBook
Apple created the MacBook to show what the future held, then executed the same design concepts in the rest of the product line. The oversized Force Touch trackpad, low-profile keyboard, and Retina display are standard-issue throughout the product line. You can even order other Mac laptops in colors too. So it’s little wonder that consumers were largely confused about the MacBook and why to consider it. The MacBook Air offers better bang for the buck and it’s small and light enough for most users.
After I posted this, Daniel Eran Dilger pointed out on Twitter that “MacBook” continues to be part of the Mac laptop name, and he’s absolutely right. “MacBook” subsumed Apple’s laptop identification, with “Air” and “Pro” as the differentiator.
But “MacBook” is a good foundational name, and I expect it won’t be too long before we see another MacBook. Already people are taking guesses that the next MacBook might sport an ARM processor instead of an Intel, and that’s a good guess. I don’t know when it will happen. All I know for sure is that as a brand and a concept, “MacBook” is too important for Apple to kill altogether. We’ll see it again.