How Apple is Changing Expectations: No, It’s Not a Secret!

February 18th, 2006

As the first MacBook Pros begin to ship, there is no mystery why Apple continues to trump its rivals. Back in January, when the Intel-based laptop was first introduced, two versions were described and a February delivery date was promised. And you know about promises from computer companies.

Microsoft, for example, hasn’t done very well getting its operating systems out when originally promised, with all features intact. Windows Vista may be a notorious example, because it’s supposed to be such a major change from previous versions. Sure, it will probably ship before the end of 2006, no doubt just in time to be preloaded on holiday PC boxes. But it won’t quite be the product that was originally announced. At this point, it’ll probably ship even if more features have to be discarded along the way, simply because Microsoft has invested too much of its time and reputation in getting it out.

It’s not that Apple hasn’t had its own problems fulfilling promises over the years. Take Copland, the operating system that never was, which was supposed to be out nearly a decade ago. In the end, we’re probably all better off that it never survived the early beta stage, and Mac OS X replaced it. To be sure, Mac OS X didn’t quite ship when originally promised either, but Apple has since more than made up for those delays.

These days, except for that promise of a 3GHz G5, which wasn’t Apple’s fault, you can almost take its projected shipping dates to the bank and then some. Back in June, did you think that the first MacIntels would ship in January, months ahead of projections? Sure, the rumor mills ratcheted up in the weeks prior to the Macworld Expo with speculation as to just what form the new models would take, but how could you take them seriously?

With the immediate introduction of a new iMac and promised near-term shipment of the MacBook Pro, things looked very promising. Of course, saying you will ship something in the near future and actually delivering it on time is not always so simple. The versions of Apple’s new laptop on display at Macworld were prototypes, and unanticipated production problems could have upset things considerably. Yes, the MacBook Pro looked very much like its predecessors, but moving to a new processor architecture was no mean achievement, and having it occur so quickly seemed almost miraculous.

Not only is the new model starting to ship, but did you expect Apple would boost the processor speed? How did that come about? Did they know all along, or did Steve Jobs get a call one day from Intel CEO Paul Otellini that yields of the new chip were better than anticipated, and he could produce faster chips in quantity? Is Apple really paying extra for its supplies of Core Duos, or just taking advantage of being able to incorporate the same versions it uses in the iMac, except for that extra-cost upgrade to a faster chip?

Before I go on, I know you might have read stories about what it probably costs Apple to buy those chips, but remember the prices you read are usually in quantities of 1,000. Apple is no doubt ordering them in much larger lots, such as 50,000 or 100,000, and is getting appropriate discounts. And don’t dismiss the possibility that Intel granted an even better price just to get Apple’s business. Yes, there are claims that the Intel Core Duo costs a lot more than today’s G5, but don’t assume a thing, because you don’t know the specifics of the contracts Apple signed with its chip suppliers.

In any case, shipping a computer on schedule with a faster processor at the same price came out of left field. You didn’t see it coming. No doubt other PC makers didn’t either, although the Dell Inspiron 9400 is being offered with the same processor choices. And, it too charges $300 extra for the upgrade from 2GHz to 2.16GHz.

Of course, this is only the beginning. There are still several models to update, and there’s no telling when those updates might arrive. All Apple is saying is that it’ll be this year, so the company ends up looking good no matter when they arrive during that timeframe. So even if you don’t see a Mac mini and iBook replacement by April 1st, Apple’s 30th anniversary, you can’t criticize the company for failing to make it’s deadlines, because that isn’t one of them.

The big question is whether beating deadlines is a fluke, or something you should expect throughout the rest of the year. It’s very possible, for example, that MacIntel versions of the Power Mac and Xserve will be announced at the 2006 WWDC and appear by August or shortly thereafter. But if they didn’t show up until the end of the year, how could you possibly complain?

What about Mac OS 10.5? Again, all we hear is that it’ll happen by early 2007 at the latest, so if it is announced in June and ships in October or November, Apple is way ahead of the game. The big secret is to lower expectations, just as its financial people did for sales this quarter. Admit there’s a probable slowdown because buyers are waiting on the sidelines until the Intel transition is further along. If things are better than represented, who is going to complain?

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