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Is Apple Losing the Mac Advantage?

Over the years, Macs have taken on the image of the superior personal computer. Sure, Windows may be close, but no cigar. Apple’s integration between software and hardware is tight, almost seamless, thus ensuring a wonderful user experience. When it comes to getting real work done, the Mac is the computer that mostly gets out of the way and lets you focus on your apps and your tasks.

However, some Mac users — and tech pundits — clearly believe that Apple doesn’t care so much about Macs anymore. In 2007, the company switched its name to Apple Inc. from Apple Computer Inc., thus emphasizing the change in the company’s focus from personal computers to a much wider range of electronic devices.

While major macOS releases have become predictably annual — and the branding change does indicate a positive push by Apple — hardware upgrades are less frequent. For the most part, those upgrades are very minor, consisting of a processor replacement, maybe better graphics, and perhaps a speedier drive. Prices are the same or a little lower, but the perceived changes from one year to the next aren’t significant. So it’s true that any MacBook Pro of 2015 is notably faster than my 2010 MacBook Pro, but the fact that I added an SSD blurs the distinction considerably. All right, I’d love to have a Retina display.

In 2016 so far, there has been only one Mac refresh, faster parts for the MacBook. That’s it. So it’s reasonable to conclude Apple has other priorities. But it’s not a matter of just packing in newer chips in essentially the same box. That’s been done on the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro for several years. At the same time, people are keeping their computers for longer periods of time. macOS Sierra supports Macs built six or seven years ago, so if you want to run the latest operating system, it’s not that you are suddenly behind the curve. Well, maybe for some features, but not for most and not for the apps most of you run.

The problem is that Microsoft is making a huge push with the Surface Pro tablet, and other PC makers, including HP, are intent on grabbing sales from Mac users or would-be Mac users in the absence of new gear from Apple. The Mac Pro, untouched since 2013, is a huge target, since PC makers earn the lion’s share of profits from high-end workstations.

Now the loyal Mac user would probably not be so readily tempted. If their existing Apple gear is working all right, there’s no rush. Or there shouldn’t be. But if it’s time for something new, the lack of recent compelling upgrades from Apple has to raise concerns.

But there may be solace for Mac users come this fall. There have been published reports that Apple is busy working on a new generation MacBook Pro with a slightly thinner, lighter case. A major new feature is an OLED touch-based set of context-sensitive function keys. Seems gimmicky to me, but I’ll grant Apple’s priorities, particularly in the ability to display changing labels to reflect different functions. There may even be a Touch ID-based power switch, and it’s about time.

Add that to the usual parts upgrades, and perhaps this will be a compelling refresh. If Apple knocks $100 off the price, that would be the icing on the cake. Even better, Apple needs to charge less for SSD and RAM upgrades. Without the ability to do easy upgrades — or any upgrades — Apple is holding Mac users hostage. I still think that, despite the minor design consequences, Apple needs to make it possible to easily upgrade RAM and storage, especially on a professional notebook. Maybe not the MacBook Air, but even that model ought to be easy to upgrade.

And what about the MacBook Air, which has existed in its present form for several years with only minor refreshes? The most obvious change would be the addition of a Retina display, but that might reflect the MacBook. Unfortunately, at $1,299, it’s priced out of the range of those seeking a reasonably affordable portable computer.

Now I suppose Apple could knock off a couple of hundred from that price, while retaining modified MacBook Airs at the lower end of the spectrum, or leave the MacBook in its present form as a single device that caters to people who want a light notebook with a great display and few frills.

I wouldn’t presume to guess Apple’s intentions, but I do not believe the MacBook was created as a dead end unto itself. Clearly there’s ongoing investment in the platform, and it may just be a matter of circumstances, development time, arrival of parts from Intel, and so forth, which has delayed the new models. Or maybe they aren’t delayed at all, and are arriving just as Apple expects.

Meantime, the fate of the Mac Pro remains uncertain. The same is true for the Mac mini, which had its last update in 2014.

It would be helpful, though, if Tim Cook says something about great new Mac hardware coming soon during next week’s iPhone event. He’s not likely to say which new models are forthcoming, but it would be reason for Mac users to fill just a tad optimistic.