Did Apple Copy the HP Sojourn with the MacBook Air?

Rob Enderle

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 18, 2008 9:34 AM Manfred Manfred  says:
Finally an analyst who doesn't fall into the Apple craze - but you forgot one more thing that the Macbook Air does not have: an ethernet connection.I wonder: How does Steve Jobs manage to convince everybody about his products? It's not just his personality, not the product ideas alone , and not just the marketing.Maybe at CeBIT in March in Hanover, I will interview a psychology professor about those secrets of Jobs.You also see with iMac and iPhone: things like that existed before, but only Jobs could sell the idea. Reply
Jan 18, 2008 7:04 PM Greg Lorriman Greg Lorriman  says:
"How does Steve Jobs manage to convince everybody about his products?"Don't be silly: it's obvious he's sold his soul to the devil for a bit of worldly glory. You unbelievers! tsk Reply
Jan 19, 2008 5:44 PM Nitin Nitin  says:
I have been reading your blogs for sometime . And I want to " Thank You " for sharing your thoughts with us . Its more like sharing your wisdom which is perhaps a result of clear thinking ( making things simple , seeing things as they are not overwhelmed by them ) I recall how well you have articulated about Mark Hurd among other things . Some thing which I refer often http://www.itbusinessedge.com/blogs/rob/?p=167"Founders, on the other hand, appear more interested in ensuring the long-term survival of the company and are more willing to sacrifice the short term for long-term market leadership; their interests are more closely tied to the survival of the company" " Thank You " once again for sharing with us ....... Reply
Jan 20, 2008 12:18 PM Michael Horowitz Michael Horowitz  says:
For some not-immediately obvious problems with non-removable batteries in laptop computers, see A defensive look at the MacBook Air batteryhttp://blogs.cnet.com/8301-13554_1-9854399-33.html Reply

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