Five years ago, Apple was selling the iBook G4, a popular entry level notebook that had evolved from the original iMac-inspired iBook from six years prior. The final iBook model was released mid 2005 with 1.33 or 1.42 GHz PowerPC G4 processors.
It came in both 12.1 inch and 14.1 inch versions, with the smaller weighing in at 4.9 lbs (2.2 kg) and the larger version being 5.9 lbs (2.7 kg). Both supplied the same 1024x768 screen resolution. Both models were also 1.35 inches (3.4 cm) thick.
Fast forward to today, and Apple's latest offering is the similarly priced 11.6 inch MacBook Air, which delivers a 1.4 or 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, weighs just 2.3 lbs (1.04 kg) and is only 0.68 inches (1.7 cm) at its thickest, tapering down to 0.11 inches (2.8 mm).
Apple's style of innovation
The entire PC industry has always rapidly adopted new technologies to make computers faster, smaller, and more useful. In some cases, competitors have brought to market technologies that Apple hasn't, ranging from newer or cheaper CPUs to integrated mobile 3G WWAN to fingerprint scanners to SD card readers to BluRay playback; Apple's latest MacBook Air models drop the option of an integrated optical drive completely.
At the same time, Apple has frequently set the model for other PC makers to copy, starting with the original front palm rest notebook design that Apple introduced with the PowerBook back in 1991.
Apple has since led the market with integrated trackballs, trackpads and the latest multitouch trackpads used across its current MacBook lineup, as well as with features like backlit keyboards, sudden motion sensors to protect the hard drive and ambient light sensors to adjust the display.
Apple was also an early adopter of Lithium Ion batteries, USB, Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11 wireless networking, optical digital audio input and outputs, integrated batteries, and standardized Mini DisplayPort video output. This year, the company became a leading proponent of flash storage as a replacement for conventional hard disk drives, integrating a solid state drive as the only option on its latest MacBook Air models.
The company has often bucked convention, adding FireWire and keeping it while the industry largely rejected the fast, flexible, smart interface in favor of the slower, simpler, and less functional (but cheaper) USB 2.0, although it has recently removed FireWire from its cheapest models, including the MacBook Air.
Apple also dropped separate buttons from its trackpads, making the entire surface a tactile button and supporting the configuration of virtual right and left button clicks in software, while also supporting a variety of multitouch gestures.
Despite its long history of introducing innovative notebook technologies, between 2000 to 2005 Apple's notebook advances largely just mirrored those of PC makers: mostly cosmetic changes with regular updates of faster, newer chips.
When ignoring the 2001 leap from the previous clamshell iBook G3 design to the more conventional iBook design, Apple's entry level iBook made no advancements in size or weight across nearly five years, and continued stuck at the same 1024x768 screen resolution. Then something big happened: the MacBook.
On page 2 of 3: New MacBook technologies of the last five years.
New MacBook technologies of the last five years
While the dramatically thinner and lighter body of the unibody MacBook Air is impressive, Apple's leap from PowerPC to the Intel architecture, initiated in 2006, is also a feat few other platforms have managed to accomplish so smoothly, achieving both backward compatibility with existing software and taking full, unrestricted advantage of the new processor architecture Intel offered.
Thanks to that leap, Apple's latest MacBook Air can also, notably, run Microsoft's Windows 7 natively (in either its 32-bit or 64-bit editions) as well as running 64-bit Mac OS X software.
Beginning with the original MacBook Air in 2008, Apple pioneered an entirely new construction method for notebooks using precision water-etched aluminum unibody frames, which set a high new bar in delivering a strong and rigid yet lightweight shell that was ideal for wicking away heat.
More subtle advancements over the past five years include the addition of an integrated FaceTime (nee iSight) camera, as well as Apple's use of the new DisplayPort standard, which currently supports an external video output resolution of 2560x1600 on the entry level MacBook Air, via either DisplayPort, DIV/HDMI, or VGA. The 2005 iBook could only officially support 1024x768 output using a VGA cable. A variety of new low end PC notebooks (including Google's new netbooks designed for testing Chrome OS) continue to use VGA output.
On page 3 of 3: The incredible shrinking 'book, Learning from iOS devices.
The incredible shrinking 'book
Other components of the 2005 iBook that contributed to its thickness have also been slimmed down or eliminated, including its optical drive (which has had its usefulness erased through a series of measures, from wireless Disc Sharing to solid state reinstall media to digital media downloads and cloud storage, and in the near future, software downloads through the Mac App Store), its hard drive mechanism (eliminated on the Air in favor of solid state storage), and a variety of electronics that have have been replaced by fewer integrated chips.
Apple's integrated batteries also eliminated the need for space hogging battery pack housing and release mechanisms.
Learning from iOS devices
Apple has also brought inventions from its iOS product line into MacBook designs, including support for iPhone-style headphones with an integrated mic and remote controls. Display construction technologies related to the iPhone and iPad allow the new MacBook Air screen lid to be extremely thin, reducing the girth of the hinge and making the physical catch release button of the iBook unnecessary.
Like all recent MacBook models, the latest MacBook Air models use the integrated batteries that critics originally assailed as limiting; that integrated design has enabled the entire line of MacBooks to set new records in battery life while also delivering long life battery performance that requires fewer dead batteries to end up in landfills.
While greatly improving the conventional notebook across the last five years, Apple has also replaced it in many applications with the even more mobile iPad, which costs half as much as lasts twice as long on a battery charge.
The pace of Apple's technological progress over last five years is particularly impressive when compared to the previous five year period from 2000-2005. This suggests the potential for even faster development in the future, as Apple shares more technologies between the Mac and iPod and iOS devices and as the volume of computers Apple ships continues to grow.