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The iMac and the Timing Dilemma

Last October, Apple introduced a major refresh for the iMac. The 2012 version was thinner, at least at the edges, promised a better quality picture, and, oh yes, didn’t have an optical drive. Apple made a huge deal touting the fact that the iMac was a mere 5mm thick at the edges, although it fattened considerably in the middle. Whether this is something anyone really cared about is another question, but Apple has this thing about cutting-edge industrial design.

No doubt lots of Mac users were ready to buy one of these beasts, especially since the existing iMac, dating back to 2011, was decidedly long in the tooth as personal computers go. No doubt sales had fallen considerably, and a new model is always certain to reboot sales. Yes, Apple certainly introduced lots of new gear in the last few months of 2012 — maybe too many products.

Well, in the December quarter, Apple had a shortfall of some 700,000 Macs, which made sales tank worse than the rest of the PC industry. And that’s a huge change. The main reason is that the assembly process for the new iMac is extremely sophisticated, as usual with Apple, and thus they fell way behind in building enough product. A friend, for example, bought the 21.5-inch model, due to ship in November, some time in the middle of December. It was a stock configuration, but it didn’t arrive until early February, although delivery times no doubt depended on the dealer (it wasn’t Apple in this case). Those who ordered the powerful 27-inch model were even worse off.

Now Apple probably shipped so few iMacs in 2012, it probably doesn’t account for much in the scheme of things. They could have waited and taken more time to ramp production, while perhaps cutting prices on the 2011 models to keep Macs moving. Sure, the 2012 version is prettier and faster, but not so much faster as to make the previous model look slow by comparison. And being able to get one with a built-in optical drive has its attractions.

So basically, the 2012 iMac is essentially a 2013 iMac, except for the official model designation. Surely supply chain wiz Tim Cook must have realized how it would all turn out. That’s the skill he’s mastered, and surely he understood that Apple might have been better off to just leave well enough alone and introduce the iMac as a 2013 model, say, in January. He could then promise delivery within a reasonable amount of time and not leave customers disappointed. Apple’s revenue for the December quarter would have been higher, profits higher, and maybe Wall Street would not have freaked as easily as it did over unfounded rumors of lack of demand for the iPhone 5. And remember that claim has yet to be proven.

As it stands, there have been no media invites from Apple so far in 2013. Few expect any until April, so Apple hasn’t had a chance to do what they do best, which is to launch and promote amazing new products and services. So the media echo chamber and financial analysts remain consumed with the company’s perceived problems, without recognizing that the reality may be very different. Besides, it’s not as if those who were so wrong in the first place will admit that fact should Apple deliver credible sales numbers for the current quarter.

Now it’s very possible Apple didn’t anticipate that iMac production problems would be so bad, or threw the dice hoping to come out ahead. It was as much a marketing miss as a production miss. Consider the plight of Mac users (or those wanting to switch to the platform) who might have bought an iMac in the December quarter had one been available for near-immediate shipment.

True, Apple also had problems building enough iPhones and iPad minis. But few credit them for having more demand than supplies.

Now this doesn’t mean Apple shouldn’t use exotic production schemes to separate Macs and mobile gear from the rest of the pack. That’s what makes Apple special, and few tech companies take the same approach. One that might, HTC, has encountered production delays in getting the latest version of the One smartphone to market.

At the end of the day, however, the iMac is a really great computer, though again I don’t consider the lack of an optical drive to make much sense, nor the ultra-slim edges. If you look at the thing from the front, what difference does it make? I also question the decision to make it essentially impossible to upgrade RAM on the 21.5-inch model. Sure, Apple is into computing appliances, but this approach doesn’t seem to make very much sense. But I don’t think it makes sense on the MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro with Retina display either. It’s almost as if Apple is channeling the approach Steve Jobs took with the very first Macintosh in 1984, and where’s the logic in that? Or in announcing a product refresh weeks before it can be delivered, while gutting sales of the existing model.