MacBook sets the pace as the watch lags behind

15 March 2015 - 02:04 By Arthur Goldstuck

The hype around the launch of the Apple Watch this week was laden with unintentional irony.

Touted as the first completely new product from Apple since the iPad, it is nevertheless also the first major new Apple product of the past 15 years that did not address a gap, need or glaring opportunity in the market.

Yet it single-handedly, so to speak, almost overshadowed the year's biggest mobile event, the Mobile World Congress, which had attracted 2000 exhibitors and 93000 delegates to Barcelona the week before.

Almost every function on the watch is already performed by the smartphones its target customers already own. Almost anything it can do is also possible on a range of other smartwatches or fitness bands; according to the Statista research portal, it is going up against no fewer than 89 existing smartwatch makers. And its 18-hour battery life means recharging at least once a day - putting it behind many of its competitors.

Starting at $349 (about R4300) for the bottom-of-the-range version, it is hard to see it racking up the 10million unit sales per quarter forecast by some analysts.

However, Apple has a habit of exceeding expectations on most of its new devices, so it would not be advisable to bet against the brand. The margins on the Apple Watch are also expected to be mouth-watering - well above 40% - so that even modest sales will pump up the company's bottom line.

The second irony of the device is that it was launched on the same night as the latest versions of Apple's market-leading laptops, the MacBook Air and Pro. Unlike the "so what?" features of the Apple Watch, the Air sets the pace for every other laptop maker in the world, as they try to compete with its incredibly thin and light form factor, and its ease, speed and convenience of operation.

The previous editions of the MacBook Air already represent the peak of laptop aspirations for most users of notebook computers. So the announcement that the new 13-inch model would offer faster flash storage, almost doubling the speed of the current edition, should have made headlines.

Even bigger headlines would have been justified by the announcement of a new notebook, simply called the MacBook, possibly destined to replace the Air.

It offers a 12-inch Retina display screen, making it a great blend of the existing Air devices, but going a few steps further. It retains a full-sized keyboard, thanks to using more of the chassis space for shallower keys. It also adds haptic feedback and more multitouch gesture support with a Force Touch trackpad, meaning it becomes a more interactive and tactile device.

Weighing around 0.93kg and measuring 13.1mm thin, it is one of the most convincing compromises between portability and power in the laptop world.

Possibly the biggest surprise of all - and again worthy of headlines in its own right - is the fact that Apple dumped its proprietary MagSafe power connector and Thunderbolt connectivity port. Instead, the MacBook features a single USB-C port, a new industry standard for smaller USB connectors that can both transfer data and power-up a device. It will eventually become the way all smartphones are powered. An Apple device was the last place it was expected.

The new laptop will once again have competitors scrambling to keep up. It is unlikely that the Apple Watch will spark the same kind of panic.

Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.