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Apple, Auto Makers, and Regular Updates

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.