Apple launches ultra-thin laptop

Apple has already made waves with its iPod, iPhone and trendy desktop computers, but today the company threw out a new challenge to its competitors, unveiling the world’s thinnest laptop and a new movie download system that it hopes will allow it to dominate the TV and movie business.

The secretive Silicon Valley company confirmed the launch of a new lightweight laptop, the $1799 Macbook Air, which measures just three quarters of an inch deep – thin enough to fit inside an envelope.

Also in his speech at Macworld in San Francisco, chief executive Steve Jobs said Apple would push to take control of the video industry with movie rentals and launch a revamped Apple TV product to stream films direct to television screens.

“On iTunes we’ve sold 125 million TV shows, and we’ve sold 7 million movies – it’s more than everyone else put together, but it didn’t meet our expectations,” said Jobs. “I think we’ve got it right this time.”

“Significant shift” in the film industry

Until now iTunes customers have only been able to buy movies outright, a business that has not been as successful as Apple’s entry into music. Apple TV, which allows video to be streamed from a computer to a television screen, has struggled to make an impact – but Jobs predicted that a relaunch of the device would mark a significant shift in the film industry.

“We’ve all tried to figure out how to get movies over the internet and onto the TV – but we’ve all missed, no one has succeeded yet,” he said.

“We tried with Apple TV, but it’s not what people wanted. So we’re back with Apple TV take two – no computer is required. You can rent movies directly on your widescreen TV and you can rent them at DVD quality or you can rent then at high-definition quality.”

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Costing $229, the system links into the company’s plans to offer films to rent over the internet through its iTunes store, also confirmed today. Rumours of the plans had been widely reported in the past week, and the company said it would join with film studios including 20th Century Fox and Sony to allow iTunes users to stream movies live, direct to their computer or TV, for a one-off payment of between $3 and $5.

A thousand new titles

The system will launch with support from every major Hollywood studio, with a thousand new titles and back-catalogue films available by the end of February. The service will be launched immediately in the US, and is set to arrive around the world latest this year. “We’re dying to get this international as well,” he added.

It is similar in concept to the TV download services offered by British broadcasters, including the BBC’s iPlayer and Channel 4’s on-demand service, but using Apple’s systems will make downloads watchable on TV, iPods and iPhones.

The excitement surrounding the secretive Silicon Valley company reached a high watermark last year as Jobs unveiled the iPhone, Apple’s entry into the lucrative high-end mobile phone market. Since it launched in the US and Europe, the touchscreen handset has spawned a minor industry of competitors and copycats.

Jobs said that the iPhone had sold 4 million units already, meaning that it was well on course to hit its target of selling 10 million units by the end of 2008 and had already captured 20% of the US smartphone market.

Fevered anticipation

The excitement surrounding the iPhone had further increased expectations about today’s announcements, with some Apple fans queuing up overnight to get a place at the event.

Since the success of its trendy iMac and iPod, conceived as fashion items by British designer Jonathan Ive, Apple has been resurgent. The company’s share price broke through the $200 barrier for the first time this week as speculation cranked up ahead of the announcements, and this week’s Macworld show in San Francisco is expected to draw its largest ever number of visitors.

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