• Apple Product Updates: The Pace Lags

    February 12th, 2005

    Do you remember when you could depend on a updated PowerBook, Power Mac and so on every six months? Like clockwork, you knew pretty much when the existing models would reach end of life status, with newer versions in the wings. Well, it took nine months for today’s PowerBooks to receive a minor update. Power Macs? Still not on the radar, but you hear rumors that one may be imminent, or maybe not. And what about the eMac? Has its time passed—did it ever realize its potential?

    Of course, in the Wintel world, you really can’t tell one model from another, so if one is replaced, it doesn’t matter. You can barely remember the model names anyway. On the other hand, the auto industry has moved in the opposition direction. At one time, next year’s models would arrive in the fall of the previous year, give or take a month or two. Then came the one-half model revision, such as a 2001-1/2 Volkswagen Passat. These days, you can depend on some 2006 models arriving next month. Go figure.

    When it comes to consumer electronics, today’s TV will be out of production in about six months, if that.

    But Apple seems to be moving in the other direction. Oh yes, I suppose it’s true the PowerBook hasn’t sold all that well, and it’s quite possible last week’s revision was designed simply to goose sales while folks hope for a G5 version that may or may not arrive this year. The reason we don’t see a Power Mac revision is probably because faster chips aren’t available in sufficient quantities to justify a speed bump. Of course, I could click on Apple’s Web site today or tomorrow and find these comments obsolete. But I rather doubt it.

    The iBook? Well, it was updated in April and October last year, so if it’s on schedule, maybe we’ll see something different in two months. Now that PowerBook prices have come down, perhaps we’ll see a corresponding change in the iBook. Does that mean an $899 version, with the top-of-the-line moving up to 1.5GHz? That would be the typical hand-me-down scenario from the PowerBook.

    In each case, of course, Apple is depending on the availability of speedier processors, and there’s the rub. Development of both the G4 and G5 have slowed considerably, as the manufacturers struggle to speed up the chips. Updates to the Pentium 4 line have also been quite incremental, so are we seeing, after 40 years, an end to what has become known as Moore’s Law?

    Just to keep the historical perspective, Moore’s Law is based on the observations of Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, back in 1965, that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits would double every year. Since then the pace first slowed down to every 18 months, and Intel these days defines it as “the doubling of transistors every couple of years.”

    Talk about spin. Will it be a three-year cycle soon? Can chip designers keep up?

    Without faster chips coming in a rush, there’s less incentive for Apple to deliver updates. Of course, that doesn’t mean existing products can’t get some speed bumps in the near future. If Power Macs and PowerBooks are now out of the picture, there is, as I said, the iBook. The eMac? Well, up till the iMac G5 came out, it would mirror the innards of the iMac to a large extent. Does that mean an eMac G5 is forthcoming? There’s plenty of room in that big case to contain the G5 and appropriate cooling hardware, so why not?

    The Mac mini essentially leverages existing hardware from the eMac and iBook, but don’t expect a G5 version until the chip can be tamed for laptop use. With the units flying off the shelves, there’s really no incentive to deliver a faster version anyway. Besides, speed isn’t what the mini is all about. Apple could improve the product without making more than tiny modifications to the processor. The wish list? Well, perhaps an easier way to open the case? Why not four screws fitted to the bottom of the case? The current clunky method of putty knives and clips doesn’t make very much sense, unless Apple somehow hoped to discourage customers from taking it apart themselves. Fat chance! In addition, a speedier hard drive and perhaps more standard memory wouldn’t hurt. Beyond that, this may just be the perfect home and small office computer.

    I suppose there isn’t much incentive to update the iPods either. The shuffle won’t change until Flash memory gets a lot cheaper. A year after the Mac mini was introduced, it remains a constant, although a bigger hard drive might be forthcoming. As for the rest of the line, the major changes at this point would also appear to be drive related. Why mess with overwhelming success? If the iPod lacks a feature, a third party will simply step in and deliver it.

    Do you miss the rapid pace of product updates? I really don’t, although I have a little less to write about. In the Steinberg household, we have both the 1.33GHz and 1.5GHz versions of the 17-inch PowerBook. My son, Grayson, and I have used them interchangeably over the past few months, and for the life of me they perform pretty much the same. Without looking at the About This Mac window, it would be extremely hard to pick one from the other, although you can easily measure the slight performance advantage of the speedier model. Oh yes, the graphics chips and optical drives are also speedier in the 1.5GHz version, but the change isn’t drastic. What about the new 1.67GHz version? Again an incremental improvement, though I expect it’ll be a lot more significant when pitted against the 1.33GHz model that came out in September 2003.

    Now if Apple slowed the pace to one update to each of its product lines a year, would you care? At least the Mac you have wouldn’t be obsolete so fast. Also bear in mind that we won’t be seeing Mac OS upgrades nearly as fast as in the past. Assuming Tiger arrives between March and June of this year, when might we expect 1.5? Two years from now? Three? Besides, who are they competing with? Microsoft probably won’t have a successor to Longhorn till the end of the decade.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check out a new 2006 car.

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