One of the advantages of having done this for awhile is the ability to recall things that other folks have clearly forgotten. For example, while the MacBook Air is a really great new laptop, it is far from the first that went down this path. And there was at least one feature in the earlier product that this later product lacks, even though it came nearly a decade earlier. This means Apple probably didn't copy HP really, but maybe it should have in at least one regard. It might have resulted in a better product.
(By the way, it is interesting to note that Philips, at about the same time, was showing iPhone-like prototypes but they never made it to market. Often it's not who is first, it's who gets it right first that defines market success.)
The HP Sojourn: The First Apple Air
Back in early 1998, HP brought to market an amazing notebook computer, the Sojourn. Paper thin and sexy, wherever it went, it drew crowds. This was the notebook everyone wanted, but its disadvantages made it impractical to use. The biggest was probably the keyboard, which, to get the thin profile, was a membrane. It was really painful to use. It had no battery life really; it too had a built-in Lithium Polymer battery, but laptops a decade ago used reconfigured desktop processors and screens that were anything but efficient. The end result was battery life that was around an hour, with the core battery making the product impractical at its advertised three pound carry weight.
It was very fragile. Being thin, it was very easy to bend; you needed to be extra careful with it or you would likely break something that was incredibly expensive and time consuming to fix.
It was very expensive and performance out of the 233MHz Pentium processor and 2.1 Gigabyte hard drive was probably below what you'd get in an iPhone today, so it was far from stellar. (As a side comment, it is kind of amazing that some folks are saying 64 Gigabytes isn't enough when this product shipped with 2 a decade ago.) In today's dollars, this puppy sold in excess of $7,000, which means HP didn't sell a lot of them.
But it did ship with two slices, one that provided an optical drive, standard ports and speakers; the other was basically a big battery, adding a much needed three hours of extra battery life.
The Apple Air: Clearly Better on All Fronts but One
Big surprise that a decade later someone could do it better. The Apple Air doesn't have the sacrifices the HP machine had. While it is still expensive, in the most expensive configuration it is significantly less than half the price of the Sojourn. It has none of the performance shortfalls and, with the flash drive, should be faster than many mainstream notebooks for some tasks (like initial boot for the OS, applications, and loading large documents and pictures). While some complain that the storage capacity isn't enough, I'm not so convinced. I think that more than 64 Gigabytes on a laptop just creates a bigger backup problem and theft exposure. The base battery life at five hours looks good, but given that everyone uplifts these numbers I'm actually expecting more like three. I think that, given that the battery is built in, not having a battery slice as an option is a mistake for folks who want to use this without a plug for longer periods of time.
This is the only thing I think Apple should have taken from the HP Sojourn. Apple seems to have a blind spot when it comes to fully addressing the user's need for flexible power solutions. I wonder if that isn't because Steve's personal jet has a power jack most of us that fly commercial can't rely on yet.
I don't think you need the CD slice anymore, and there are plenty of USB-based offerings, like the small StarTech Info Safe, and USB port replicators like the Kensington sd200v that can be used instead (Mac support for the sd200v is expected shortly).
Wrapping Up: The Future Is Now
In many ways, the HP Sojourn was an attempt to look 10 years into the future of the laptop and, even with all its faults, it actually did that. The Apple Air is only looking ahead about a year. It is vastly more practical as a result and yet another indicator of the very thin and light products we will likely see from a variety of vendors by year's end.
If Apple is right, thin is in and optical on notebooks is out and, while it followed HP, it is leading most of the market down this path this year. Apple's earlier calls with regard to media played out nicely.
There is a good chance it is right.