Revolution, Then Evolution: The Titanium PowerBook G4 and the MacBook Air 

The Apple II was a revolution. It took the computer out of the hands of the corporations and the goverment and gave it to the people.

The Macintosh was a revolution. It turned computers from mysterious boxes waiting on text-based commands to GUI-powered appliances.

The iPod was a revolution. It made portable music easy and fun.

But what about the Apple IIc? The Macintosh SE? The iPod mini? All of these devices — while important in their own ways — aren’t considered as important to the history of computing as the revolutionary products from which they evolved.

Apple loves the pattern of revolution, then evolution. It brings something game-changing to the market, then spend years tweaking and improving it. Since the company began, that’s been the template. And for over 30 years, it’s continued to be effective.

The Titanium PowerBook G4

My first Mac was the 1GHz Titanium PowerBook G4. With 1GB of RAM, a SuperDrive and a 60GB hard drive, it was the best notebook money could buy in 2003. It’s 15-inch widescreen display was stunning, and it’s razor-thin case boggled the mind. With all the ports in the back, it even played nice on a desk.

Compared to the black, chunky plastic PowerBook G3 line before it, the Titanium PowerBook was a piece of art wrapped around some killer engineering. It had a slot-loading optical drive, tons of ports and was just an inch thin. It was the first time anyone had managed to pack a G4 into a notebook. By the time my 1GHz model rolled around, it was the fastest notebook on the planet.

At Macworld 2003, Apple announced the new aluminum PowerBooks. For months, the TiBook existed next to 12-inch and 17-inch aluminum models, until the new 15-inch was released in September of that year. With ports down either side, a larger screen bezel and an all-metal enclosure, it seemed that the Titanium PowerBook’s design was a thing of the past.

The aluminum PowerBook design language lasted all the way through the Early 2008 MacBook Pros. In summer of 2008, Apple announced the unibody MacBook Pro. But more on that in a minute.

The MacBook Air

Leading into Macworld 2008, it was rumored Apple had a new notebook in the works to sit beside the plastic MacBook and the MacBook Pro. When Jobs pulled a unbelievably thin, 13-inch notebook out of a manilla envelope, he reminded the world Apple could still ship ground-breaking new notebooks.

The Air had lots of firsts. It shipped with a Multi-Touch trackpad, based on the technology found in the iPhone. Apple and Intel partnered on creating a Core2Duo that was much smaller than the processor packages found in other notebooks. It the first notebook from Apple in a decade to ship without a built-in optical drive.

The MacBook Air has been through a couple of revisions, but the basic recipe of “less is better than more” hasn’t changed. It’s a recipe that works for only a select segment of Apple’s customers, as the Air doesn’t seem to sell well.

Today, the entire notebook line (sans the MacBook, which continues to feel more and more out of place) is built like the MacBook Air. Remember when Jobs and Ives brought out the unibody enclosure a few years ago? That started with the Air.

Evolution

Usually, Apple’s revolution into evolution philosophy is fairly linear. The iBook G4 was an evolution of the iBook G3, based on the revolution that was the Clamshell iBook.

However, these two machines are exceptions to this rule.

While the unibody evolution took place after the MacBook Air’s launch, it had far more to do with the revolutionary Titanium PowerBook than the Air itself.

The TiBook and unibody MacBook Pros both have black keys, thin displays and large trackpads. They both enjoy premium display panels. More importantly, however, the machines are very closely related structurally. The unibody design allows all the internal components to built into the top case, with a thin metal plate forming the bottom plate. This makes the machine very rigid and strong, just like the TiBook. They both run warm and unfortunately, the first generations of both machines suffer from nasty hinge breaks. It is no accident the hinge system on the unibody machines is similar to what debuted on the aluminum PowerBooks.

The unibody is an evolution of the Titanium PowerBook. The TiBook had painted sections, that ended up looking shabby after a few years, and suffered from stress fractures around the edges of the case. The unibody, being one slab of aluminum, has no such issues. It’s a superior iteration of an existing idea, which is what evolution is all about.

Bonus Material

Be sure to check out some photos of a TiBook I got my hands on last year. While this particular machine wasn’t my first Mac, that notebook was still running last time I talked to its current owner.