Apple, Auto Makers, and Regular Updates

April 29th, 2011

There is a fairly standard routine for product refresh cycles in the auto industry. After a major model upgrade, in which the sheet metal and inner workings are extensively redesigned, the manufacturers take a breather (or start work on the next major revision). Annual updates for the next few years will tend to be incremental. Maybe the sheet metal will have fewer curves, or extra curves. The engine lineup may be fine-tuned, perhaps fuel economy figures will improve, and there will be more electronic gizmos to check off on the option list.

Such product cycles are normal. It can cost upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars for a major redesign, and doing that every single year will quickly eat into the profits of even the largest auto makers in the industry.

But if sales take a nosedive because of a poor design, you can bet that changes will be afoot, and an improved model will be rushed into production just as soon as possible. Even then, it might take a year or two to get the revised product into the showrooms. It’s surely a whole lot easier in the PC industry.

In a sense, Apple tends to follow the auto industry product update template. A major redesign of a specific model, such as the MacBook Pro and the unibody case, is followed by very minor speed bumps. Processors and graphics chips are swapped out and replaced with the latest and greatest from the parts bins of Apple’s component suppliers. Hard drives may have larger capacity, more solid state drives will appear in the lineup, and perhaps you’ll get a brand new feature to chew over. In the case of the most recent MacBook Pro refresh, it signaled the arrival of the super-speed peripheral port known as Thunderbolt.

In fact, if you took my 2010 MacBook Pro and put it side-by-side with the 2011 version, you probably would be hard pressed to find any visual difference. Aside from a different icon, the Thunderbolt port matches last year’s tiny monitor port. In fact, they are pin-for-pin compatible and both can be used to add an external display, although Thunderbolt can also support such high-end peripherals as RAID drives.

The rumor mills are now rampant with speculation that a major case redesign is in the offing for the MacBook Pro family in 2012 (or later this year), perhaps resembling the MacBook Air, with its tapered underside. Of course, that raises a more significant question, which is how Apple will squeeze such internal parts as optical drives in a slimmer, trimmer case. The expectation is that Apple will ditch them, simply because they are seldom used nowadays, that people who need them can do just as well with a USB-based drive on a small dongle intended for occasional use. Maybe that works all right, till you’re on a plane, and you want to watch a DVD from your personal collection. Suddenly you’re reaching for an extra appliance to view that special content.

Then again, maybe Apple will figure out how to retain the optical drive in a slimmer form factor, perhaps by coaxing one of their component makers to build a trimmer mechanism. Apple has the sort of buying power that’s sufficient to induce the companies with which they contract to build custom parts. Sure, maybe the same parts will ultimately be available for other PC makers to use, but few of them really have a sense of exquisite design and functionality anyway.

Moving along, there’s that aging tower design for the Mac Pro, which began in a somewhat different form with the Power Mac G5. Yes, the internals were simplified, since they didn’t need a gazillion cooling fans to keep your Mac from frying eggs. But the current iteration shows little sign of the miniaturization that’s become part and parcel of Apple’s other products. There is, for example, a published report of a somewhat thinner version that will be installable in racks. No, I’m not taking about the 1U pancake design of the late — and, to some, lamented — Xserve. I’m speaking more of what’s called a 3U design, which will still be thinner and lighter than the current back-breaking version, yet contain all of its expandability.

But if Apple is pouring a ton of cash into redesigning various Macs, you just know they intend for those new form factors to last out a few refreshes. For otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. But at least Apple is trying. If you examine mobile and desktop PCs from Dell and other major box assemblers, you might easily mistake the 2011 model, at least on the surface, for the 2001 version. With minor changes in the face plate, they continue to look nearly the same, since they are just commodity products that most customers buy for utility, rather than consider a superior, elegant face and an empowering user interface.

After all, sex appeal doesn’t always make it into the enterprise. Then again, since more and more Macs are being embraced by the business world, maybe, just maybe, the PC makers who still fail to grok elegant industrial design, will begin to change their ways. Maybe they’ll even follow the Apple and auto industry refresh cycle, but I doubt it.

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4 Responses to “Apple, Auto Makers, and Regular Updates”

  1. DaveD says:

    I can recall Steve Jobs made a remark about another company of having no artistic taste which seemed like eons ago.

    One can see that Apple build things for people to enjoy using and having around.

  2. SteveP says:

    I really doubt (but can’t say with certainty) that too many people travel by plane with a large selection of DVDs in their carry on just to have in-flight movie choices. I suspect that most would narrow their choices to around 5 before they left. Those could easily be loaded onto the computer obviating the need for dongle while flying.
    However, even if that were not the case, I think the need for ‘regular’ use of an optical drive has lessened to the point where almost anyone would prefer to have a slightly slimmer and 1 pound lighter laptop with a “dongle drive” than built in drive. I know I sure would – as long as power, heat, video etc. was not compromised.

  3. Andrew says:

    I gave up built-in optical for my travel machine in 2008 when I bought a Rev B MacBook Air, and never looked back.

  4. Richard says:

    The tower is, perhaps, the least important product line to be concerned about “style”. After all, a tower is about function and most of them do not sit on the desktop to be seen anyway, notwithstanding the old Apple habit of doing so. It is out of date. Why put the source of noise, however small, next to you when you do not need to and it takes up valuable desktop space without any particular benefit. How often do you need to access the optical drive anyway?

    It is like the old tuna fish commercial…xxx wants tuna that tastes good, not tuna with good taste.

    If more attention were paid to the internals of the towers the users would benefit. For example, just who was it that told Intel that a mother board with an odd number of ram slots would be OK when everyone knew that filling them actually slowed the machine down? Oh, and what about Grand Central Dispatch? It was supposed to help spread things out over multiple cores, but there are still more apps than people probably care to admit which do not make use of the multiple core processors much less off loading certain tasks to the GPU effectively. Apple could stand to work with the software vendors to encourage better development of their products to take advantage of Apple’s hardware. This would benefit everyone.

    Sadly, there are some applications which actually perform better with some cores disabled.

    How hard is it for Apple to provide better access to the drives & etc of the iMac? What about some extra drive space in there? How many people look at their iMac from the side to admire its slimness and so on? Not many is my guess. A little more function would be welcome and not difficult to provide in my opinion, particularly as it appears the only way Apple will ever produce a “mid-tower” is after Steve has left the building.

    In any event, the second TB port on the iMac announced today is welcome. It should help with a number of the drive issues. Now, if Apple would only take the optical drive out of the iMac and use the existing space for more “stuff”….


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