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Still Waiting for Mac Updates

One reason often mentioned for the 11% drop in Mac sales was the lack of new Macs in recent months. Other than a modest refresh for the MacBook earlier this year, Apple has been silent about what Maca will be upgraded next, and two models are getting old in the scheme of things. The Mac mini hasn’t been updated since 2014, although faster parts are available. The Mac Pro received a major upgrade — or at least changeover — in 2013, and it’s been crickets since then.

Some critics suggest that Apple doesn’t care about Macs anymore. It’s all about iPhones, and, to a lesser extent, iPads and services. Well, perhaps the Apple Watch, although it hasn’t exactly been a barn burner, though I suppose its potential will be more apparent after another revision or two.

In recent days, Apple has enhanced promotion for the iPad Pro, offering an ad with elements reminiscent of the Microsoft Surface. In short, it’s a pitch for using the high-end iPads as substitutes for notebook computers. Indeed, for many users, this is a perfectly reasonable move. Years back, Steve Jobs described the Mac as the pickup truck, suggesting that the needs of many users could be satisfied with a tablet. Perhaps that’s come to pass to some extent.

But it doesn’t mean Apple will or should set the Mac aside. There are tens of millions of Mac users — including yours truly — who cannot use any iPad as a substitute for the work they do. Indeed, simply upgrading processors, graphics chips and other hardware shouldn’t involve any great R&D expenditure. So what’s going on here?

Now it may well be that Apple is planning on more substantial upgrades to the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. It’s possible the former will gain a Retina display, and the open question would be whether the price will increase any, or a non-Retina version will remain in the lineup. For the professional Mac notebook, will it retain the same form factor, or something thinner, lighter, borrowing technology from the MacBook? That would mean moving towards USB-C, but one hopes with more ports, and Thunderbolt 3 is a must. Some suggest a special OLED-based touch bar above the keyboard for one reason or another.

While some rumors about new Macs are based, at least in part, on loose lips in the supply chain, or deliberate background leaks from Apple, it’s hard to say if the MacBook Pro upgrade report has any basis in fact. However, if Apple merely wanted to do a simple component upgrade, where is it? Perhaps Mac sales would not have dropped as much, but even that’s not at all certain. After all, the people who are most apt to buy new Macs have computers that are several years old, and the current hardware would represent a huge improvement. Still, with a new model perceived as late, some potential buyers are apt to remain on the sidelines.

But what about the older models?

Well, the Mac mini might also be earmarked for a more substantial upgrade. Or maybe Apple plans to discontinue that model, although it would seem that there is a market for a relatively inexpensive Mac. Indeed, the Mac mini has also found a place in datacenters or the back office, where it makes for a powerful server. Indeed, I ran all my sites on one for several months, and I dare say nobody could tell the difference. When it came to managing my sites, I couldn’t see any difference either, but there is one major issue if you depend on 24/7 reliability. The Mac mini doesn’t have redundant power supplies and other components that are part of a full-blown server. Should it fail, it would require moving the storage devices to another mini rather than just swapping out a few failing components. That’s why I returned to a traditional blade server.

Still, I do think you’ll see a Mac mini update, maybe by fall.

I’m more concerned about the future of Apple’s workstation, the Mac Pro. The 2013 model launch came with a lot of pomp and circumstance, earning a special presentation at that year’s WWDC. It barely shipped by the end of the year, so for most, it was a 2014 model.

But where’s the upgrade? Was it not as successful as Apple expected? Is Apple planning on a different sort of upgrade, perhaps a middle path from a small, round form factor and the original tower form factor? One of the big problems with the current Mac Pro is the fact that it wasn’t designed for internal expansion. Other than replacing RAM, a single internal SSD and the single processor, everything is external. While there are RAID drives and expansion card boxes that extend what a Mac Pro can do, what about the wiring nightmare they create? With the original Mac Pro, you could put enough parts inside to operate perfectly fine with wireless input devices, wireless printers, and a single display cable.

Apple clearly is making a reasonable investment for macOS Sierra, and the rebranding does appear to indicate a genuine commitment to the platform. But it would be nice if Tim Cook offered some new and encouraging hints about the state of the hardware.