THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE
The controversy over the Late 2016 MacBook Pro has reopened old wounds, which is about Apple’s commitment to the professional user. But bear in mind that, once upon a time, Macs weren’t even considered to be proper work machines. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Mac was regarded as a toy, and only the arrival of Windows 95 made it acceptable for people to work on a computer with a graphical user interface. But that also came at a time when Apple was in the doldrums due to poor management and wrongheaded marketing, and the company was considered ready to depart, or be sold off to the highest bidder.
Despite Apple’s huge success in recent years, the Mac is far from the company’s highest money maker. Even though sales of four to five million units a quarter are nothing to sneeze at, particularly with Apple’s profit margins, some feel Apple pays lip service to the Mac’s most prestigious users.
So with that feeling, the changes and possible lost or missing features on the MacBook Pro only seem to confirm the feeling that the company doesn’t care. The lack of a recent upgrade to the Mac Pro — even though it is still faster than any other Mac in multicore processing for high-end apps — is also an area of concern.
Meantime, Apple continues to make it more and more obvious that Macs are to be treated as appliances, not professional machines to be customized by users.
In the meantime, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured Kyle Wiens of iFixit, a company that routinely tears down new tech gear to check for repairability. During this segment, Kyle brought up the recent report about the recall of 2.8 million Samsung washing machines due to a serious defect that can hurt people. He suggested that the quality of such appliances is far lower than it used to be. He also brought you up to date on the recent gear his crew has taken apart, including the iPhone 7, the MacBook Pro with and without Touch Bar, the flawed Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phablet, which had an unusual number of battery failures, and the Pixel, Phone by Google. He explained why iFixit has awarded Apple’s refreshed notebook one of its lowest ratings because it’s near impossible to repair.
You also heard from columnist and podcaster Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy.” Kirk expressed his concerns about the future of AppleScript in light of Apple’s decision to fire long-time automation executive Sal Soghoian for “business reasons.” Does this mean that AppleScript will soon be history? Kirk remains concerned about Apple’s apparent lack of attention to professional users, citing the fact that the Mac Pro hasn’t been updated in three years, and the controversial launch of the late 2016 MacBook Pro. He also explained why calls for Apple to build iPhones in the U.S. don’t recognize reality, and the serious difficulties of building factories and establishing supply chains. Or is it all about politics?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and guest co-host Goggs Mackay welcome Jan Harzan, Executive Director for MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network. Harzan has been interested in UFO for years, the result of a significant sighting when he was a child. He is a retired IBM executive, and previously headed the Orange County, CA MUFON chapter for 18 years as the State Section Director. During this wide-ranging discussion, he’ll provide an overview of the state of UFO research, possible solutions to the mystery that go beyond spaceships from other worlds, the possibilities for disclosure, what a President might or might not know about UFOs, and how secrecy can be kept for decades. (Note: The interview continues on the November 20th episode of After The Paracast, a special feature of The Paracast+.)
THE THINGS THEY WANT APPLE TO DO
It’s perfectly fine to make a company know what you’d like them to do, the products they should make, the products they shouldn’t make, and the changes that should be made. Apple has attracted a particularly loyal user base, so it’s understandable they feel part of a family and free to make suggestions. Compare that to most tech companies that build commodity gear. Are Dell’s customers as concerned about the form and features of that company’s PCs, which largely resemble the PCs made by other companies?
To some, whatever Apple does is wrong. When a product doesn’t seem as successful as it might have been, the anger level increases.
So I recall when Apple released the Power Macintosh G4 Cube in 2000. It was an attractive box, and I wrote at the time, in one or more of my reviews and commentaries, that it struck me as a potential museum piece; I was echoing a piece of dialog from an Indiana Jones movie. It was also flawed, with occasional cracks showing up the plastics at the curves of the case, and it was probably too small, which made installing some internal PCI upgrade cards difficult or just not possible. In short, it struck some as an overpriced indulgence. Perhaps Steve Jobs wanted to duplicate the original NeXT Cube in modern form.
Indeed, during the rollout of Mac OS X in 2001, Jobs was asked about rumors that the Cube would soon be discontinued. Jobs shot back that the reporter didn’t know what he was talking about! But it wasn’t so many weeks later before Jobs succumbed to the reality of presumed poor sales, and that model was discontinued. Now perhaps he was struggling with the decision when he was asked that original question, or simply wouldn’t allow the thought to enter his mind.
It wouldn’t be the first time Jobs appeared to change his tune, although it’s also possible he said things just for the impact, rather than to reflect an actual company policy or his personal opinion.
The Mac Pro has garnered loads of concerns. After rumors arose that it would be discontinued in 2013, Tim Cook let it be known that it would be upgraded. It was a sure thing, and the circular trash can look debuted at that year’s WWDC. It first shipped towards the end of that December, barely meeting its promised delivery date.
To some, the upgrade didn’t make a lick of sense. One of the great things of the original Mac Pro — which was designed in the spirit of the traditional PC tower — was generous space for installing internal drives and PCI expansion cards. Apple even offered a twin-processor version, so it was possible for pros to equip that heavy thing with most of the components that they needed to do high-end work. It was great for math, movie special effects, and a host of scientific tasks.
As you might expect, Apple’s “improvement” was controversial. While you could swap out the processor and other parts, all expansion was meant to be external, with six Thunderbolt 2 ports available. That also meant that your sexy Mac Pro might be surrounded with a mess of cables and various shapes and sizes of expansion gear. Was that the best way to go?
Worse, the Mac Pro hasn’t been upgraded since 2013. The three-year-old Mac Pro costs the same as it did when it was first released. But if you look at the facts, you’ll see that Intel’s costly Xeon processors haven’t become an awful lot faster since then. Intel’s focus has been more about using less power, faster internal graphics on Core processors, and speedier memory busses. Indeed, the 2013 Mac Pro is still faster than any current Mac for multicore processing. For single-core, it’s last year’s 27-inch iMac, when equipped with a 4GHz Intel i7.
What about USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, and the recently launched Kaby Lake processor family?
Well, not all Kaby Lake parts are even shipping yet, so Apple couldn’t install them in the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which traditionally uses a quad-core i5 or i7. The high-end Xeons with more than four cores aren’t out yet either. What this means is that Apple needs to wait for Intel to supply the parts that might be required for the next Mac Pro; so perhaps it’ll happen by spring. So it may well be that Apple could refresh the Mac Pro then with support for the faster peripheral ports, and, of course, the speedier SSD capability, which debuted on the MacBook Pro.
So even if the Mac Pro doesn’t materially change otherwise, Intel’s delays in releasing new processors may, in part, have been responsible for some of the upgrade delay. Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t announced anything, not even to deliver a hint. But it would have been nice to see a price reduction, so people who need a workstation now might feel that Apple cares.
Now as to the MacBook Pro, I’ll accept reports of high demand. Unless you are lucky enough to find the configuration you want at an Apple Store, don’t expect to see one arrive before Christmas. Delivery times are still quoted as four to five weeks.
Meantime, it’s easy to dissect some of the arguments against it. As I said, and this has been confirmed elsewhere, there are no quad-core Kaby Lake processors yet, which is why Apple stuck with Skylake, and it’s not as if they’d offer much in the way of a performance boost. As I said above, Intel hasn’t been moving in that direction. True, Kaby Lake supports 32GB RAM, but at a reduced memory bus speed, which will mean slightly slower performance. The speedier SSDs may help compensate in situations where there may not be enough memory to handle multiple apps doing lots of stuff at the same time.
As you might have seen from the published benchmarks, the new MacBook Pros are only slightly faster in CPU tasks than the 2015 versions, much faster in GPU tasks, which helps for apps that support Apple’s metal technology. The SSD is much speedier. So it’s not as if Apple has somehow crippled the MacBook Pro in a meaningful way.
The focus on USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports is a valid point of contention, since it’ll take time before enough accessories are upgraded so you won’t need lots of adapters. But that’s true with any technology change of this sort when Apple goes all the way. Remember the move from the dock connector to lighting on iOS gear?
My concern about the MacBook Pro at this point is more about the price than any other issue. This, too, shall change if the experience of the past is any indication. The value of the Touch Bar will be demonstrated over time as more apps are updated to support it. Besides, how can a notebook that can drive two 5K displays, each with a single cable, be something unsuited for pros? I see a disconnect here.
Regardless of the decisions Apple makes, some (or many) will feel cheated or betrayed. That’s how it always turns out.
THE FINAL WORD
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