Two highly curious objects which arrived in my office recently provoked many hours of blank stares and idle speculation: a tube of sunblock and a Google Chromebook.

A piece of mail that arrived later in the week revealed that the sunblock was a gimmick to promote a backup service. So: one mystery was solved. I’m still stymied about the Chromebook.

The basic concept is simple enough. The idea is to have a whole class of computers that act as nothing more than host organisms for the Google Chrome browser. Everything else – apps, documents, media, and even the set of scratches that the buckle of your watchband makes on the palmrest of an old-fashioned and obsolete notebook, I suppose, exist solely on Google’s servers.

It’s entirely possible that you’ve sensed my scepticism for the whole Chromebook concept. I admit that I keep getting stuck on the fact that this $499 Chromebook costs as much as a nice name-brand Windows notebook. The Windows machine can literally do everything the Chromebook can do (once you’ve installed the Chrome browser). It also runs hundreds of thousands of Windows apps and games and according to this sticker on the box, it has an exciting feature called ‘can actually function as a computer even when there’s no WiFi present’.

Perfect, elegant sense

Well, I’ll give Google credit for something: it has hit on an exciting basic idea. As Apple users, we’ve long been aware of the profound benefits of hardware that’s been designed specifically to take advantage of a specific OS and library of software. A Chromebook takes that idea one step further: it’s designed to take advantage of a specific OS, specific software... and the network.

“Assume that the user will typically have internet access” has many implications and “if you don’t have access, you’re screwed” is only one of them. When you design a PC and an OS with that basic assumption, you’re free to throw away things that would ordinarily be considered sacrosanct. I started to wonder what sort of notebook Apple would have made if it had come up with this “assume the user has access to the internet and a cloud service” idea. I quickly realised that I didn’t need to wonder. I’d used it. It’s the 11in MacBook Air. Apple just couldn’t call it the iCloudBook when it was released last year because the service that caused the machine to suddenly make perfect, elegant sense was still eight months away from its public unveiling.

And the 11in Air made only slightly more sense to me when it was released last year than the Chromebook does to me today. Why would Apple even bother making a machine with just 64GB of storage? Today, I can belatedly identify the 11in Air as Apple’s first sleeper salvo in its cloud strategy. Let’s do the maths on the storage. Apple has said that iCloud’s 5GB of free cloud storage will be plenty for most people, if photos and media don’t factor in. So let’s figure on less than 5GB of user documents. The official final footprint for Mac OS X 10.7 Lion hasn’t been established, but Mac OS X 10.6 requires 9GB, according to Apple. Your iCloudBook will need local copies of all of your apps. My MacBook Pro has a 10GB Apps folder and that includes Photoshop, XCode, and Final Cut Pro X, so let’s consider that to be a more than adequate amount of space for apps.

iTunes in the Cloud is a sync service, not a streaming service. You won’t need to keep your entire media library on your iCloudBook, but you’ll still want to store enough music and videos on it to keep you entertained. I’ve got about 16GB of that stuff on my iPhone. I’m also going to want to offload any photos or videos I shoot when I travel. An 8GB memory card is usually ample for several days of aggressive tourism.

Lessee... that adds up to 48GB of storage, leaving a nice round 16GB for any disk-hungry iMovie or GarageBand projects, or for any unexpected storage demands. A 64GB boot drive is pretty damned teeny if you intend to use the 11in Air as a MacBook but it seems to be the perfect size for an iCloudBook.

It’s so very clear to me now that the 11in Air is the tangible ideal of iCloud. You grab it when you leave the office and that’s it. Thanks to iCloud, it automatically has the latest versions of all of the projects on your iMac or your MacBook Pro. As it’s a Mac OS device, you won’t need to import your projects back and forth, as you must with an iPad. Instead, you can use the same apps you’ve got on your office machine. If you’re going to be away from your ‘real’ Mac for a while, no worries: all of the documents you create and edit will be on your desk when you get back, and there’s enough space on the Air to buffer whatever new media you happen to acquire.

Solving the puzzle

It’s easy to convince myself that the 11in Air is a true signature product for Apple. It’s certainly the most significant Apple’s produced in the past quarter of a century whose name isn’t preceded by a lower-case ‘i’. Apple seems to have been building up to the iCloudBook for years. It suspiciously shaved a few GB from the System Folder despite the crazy-stupid-low price of disk storage and emphatically promoted full-screen app user interfaces at the API level, which makes the iCloudBook’s weird little 11in display way more practical.

I suppose I should be pleased about all of this. But as Apple giveth, it must surely taketh away. I realise that all of the puzzle pieces of the scoop of the year – Apple’s focus for the next five years – were right there in the open for more than half a year. And neither I nor any other Mac pundit managed to fit them together.