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  • Apple and Update Frequency

    December 29th, 2016

    Of late, Apple has been dinged for not being devoted to delivering frequent updates to Mac hardware. That’s now. But once upon a time, the critics claimed that Apple rushed to make older gear obsolete so you’d buy something new more often. It sure seemed that way because almost every OS release seemed slower than the previous release, making it less usable on older hardware.

    One of the most blatant examples in Apple’s early history was Mac OS 7, released in 1991. It was a pretty major release for its time, with a modernized interface, embedded MultiFinder for automatic cooperative multitasking, and it was 32-bit clean. That meant that, if you had the proper hardware, you could use more than 8MB of RAM, and that was a good thing.

    Indeed, Apple didn’t begin to migrate to 64-bit computing until the Power Mac G5 arrived in 2004. The earliest Intel-based Macs didn’t even support 64-bit for a year or two.

    In any case, System 7 worked well enough on the faster Macs, but if you had an entry-level machine, such as the Macintosh Classic, it was very much about trudging through quicksand. I recall using one of these machines at the office; management bought a few to manage the task of sending files to the CompuGraphic high-resolution output device. But for doing real work in QuarkXPress or one of the other high-power apps we used, forget about it.

    Of course, as hardware became more powerful, the shortcomings of the OS weren’t so clear-cut, until Mac OS X arrived. But you still wanted to stay reasonably current to get acceptable performance from your apps; in those days we called them “applications,” by the way. Even then, the Unix-based industrial strength operating system was dead slow at the beginning. The Mac that would run the Classic Mac OS with great performance seemed barely able to cope with what is now macOS.

    Funny thing, though: As Macs became more powerful, even older models could run the latest OS with decent performance. The late 2009 27-inch iMac that I used as my main work machine did just fine with macOS Sierra. To be fair, it was upgraded with an SSD. But Apple continues to extend support for computers built six or seven years ago, and most should be able to get acceptable performance. Indeed, this is a key reason why people aren’t as apt to upgrade. As I have written before, year-to-year performance improvements are very modest nowadays due to Intel’s emphasis on power efficiency over maximizing number crunching power.

    I still have a 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro. I like large screens, but Apple discontinued this form favor in 2011. The following year, when the MacBook Pro with Retina display arrived, they topped out at 15 inches. In any case, I have performed two upgrades in the last couple of years. The one that delivered the most improvement was replacing the 500GB hard drive with an equivalent SSD. I also doubled RAM to 8GB. My son, Grayson, has been working on that computer since he came home from Madrid for his annual two-week visit. He says it seems to run about as fast as the new 13-inch MacBook Air that he purchased earlier this year.

    Sure, we’re comparing a high-end Mac notebook from six years ago to a 2015 entry-level machine. What it means is that there is not a whole lot of incentive for you to buy a new Mac. Grayson will probably keep his computer until it drops, same as he did with its predecessor, a 2008 MacBook. Other than professional users who need every ounce of performance, many Mac users will probably agree with him.

    The situation is probably similar on the Windows platform. Any decently equipped PC built in the last few years should deliver acceptable performance with Windows 10 and most of the apps they need. The incentive to rush out and buy a new PC isn’t there. Indeed, many businesses stick with old hardware — and older operating systems — until the machines are essentially worn out. I cannot tell you how many companies I’ve visited in recent months that are still using aging hardware with Windows 7, released in 2009, or even Windows XP, which arrived in 2001.

    In short, the suggestion that Apple — and Microsoft for that matter — have been doing things to make computers obsolete after two or three years is just plain absurd. PC sales are down overall. Many customers rely on smartphones and tablets, and where they need the power and flexibility of a traditional PC, they hang on to what they have for as long as they can.

    Then there’s the claim that Apple isn’t really that interested in Macs anymore, because they earn so much more from iPhones. But why would they drop a business that delivers $22 billion in revenue every year? Tim Cook claims the roadmap is positive for Mac desktops. This despite the fact that far more notebooks are sold. There’s an unconfirmed report that only the iMac will merit a refresh in 2017, but he did not say, “desktop.” He said, “desktops.” Other than implying a multiyear roadmap, it would seem Apple has more in mind than a minor refresh for a single model.

    Then again, aside from using faster parts, just what do you expect Apple to do? Indeed, what sort of improvements would you expect for the iPad or the iPhone going forward? Would having an iPhone 8 with an edge-to-edge OLED display really make it a must-have? Or would that be just a frill that you’d consider when it’s time to buy something new? For me, I’d say the latter.

    Now when it comes to the Apple Watch, since it’s early in the game, each iteration will probably change considerably. In the next year or two, it’ll have a cellular radio. Assuming it’s really successful — and we only have an unproven claim from Tim Cook that independent analysts would find difficult to verify — you expect that it will take a few years for it to reach maturity. Then the changes will be minor, same as the rest of Apple’s products.



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    4 Responses to “Apple and Update Frequency”

    1. DaveD says:

      I have three Macs and an iPad currently in use. While reading the hands-on reviews on the new MacBook Pros, I would like to have the top-of-the-line 15-inch beauty. Of course, there is a difference between a need and a want.

      The oldest Mac is a 2008 MacBook, a successor to the 2001 titanium PowerBook G4 that have gotten a lot of usage going from Mac OS X 10.1 to 10.4. The MacBook came with OS X 10.5 and later upgraded to Snow Leopard. It could have been upgraded to the last one for this Mac, OS X Lion, but Snow Leopard was preferable. While later Macs picked up the work from the MacBook, it was repurposed as my central iTunes library. I added a 2014 iPad mini and the syncing is handled by iTunes 11 on the MacBook. With iTunes 12, Apple raised the minimum OS requirement to Lion and rapidly to Mavericks today. For the iPad, iOS 9 required iTunes 12. I downgraded it back to IOS 8 because it was what I needed where it all just work between a useful MacBook and the iPad.

    2. City Dog says:

      Apple makes its money selling hardware. And it’s here, it seems to me, that there has been a sea change that renders the hardware as the focal point for forced upgrades. With everything now soldered and sealed, just one small failure, even just a worn out battery, can mean a repair that’s so expensive that you may as well buy a new one. The pain is not yet apparent as so many have been able to repair and upgrade those older Macs. But wait until the newest generation, the “sealed appliances,” start to age. Old Mac veterans are in for some rude shocks.

      Luckily, Macs seems still to be pretty reliable, but only time will tell if this current generation of Macs will age as gracefully as previous generations.

      • The original Mac was essentially sealed.

        In saying that, you can have Apple replace batteries for far less than the cost of a new computer. It’s $199 for the MacBook Pro with Retina display and the 12-inch MacBook. The price is $129 for the MacBook Air. I’m not sure if this price carries through to this year’s MacBook Pro, but Apple doesn’t make a distinction at the site — at least not yet.

        Peace,
        Gene

    3. Peter says:

      As a wise man once said, “Never ascribe to malice what can be ascribed to stupidity.”

      No, I don’t think that there are cackling Apple executives sitting in a boardroom saying, “Hey, if people can upgrade their machines, they won’t buy new ones! Let’s cut that out! Then they’ll buy new laptops more often! Muahaha!” I think its more likely that Apple has decided that people would rather have a thin non-expandable 4 pound laptop than a thick expandable 5.5 pound laptop.

      Whether that’s true for “Pro” customers is debatable, certainly. I know I’d put up with an extra pound or two if I could swap out components. I don’t really care how “thin” my MacBook Pro is. I’d rather have a high-speed transportable workhorse than a thin-and-light pony, no matter how cute it was.

      That said, the success of the MacBook Air shows there is definitely a market for thin-and-light laptops that are not expandable.

      The part that worries me about what Apple is doing has to do with Apple’s ability to upgrade their machines.

      The thin-and-light designs leave little tolerance. Consider the fact that Apple’s MacBook Pro currently tops out at 16GB. The reason has to do with a technical limitation that, as I understand it, Intel should solve next year. So will we see 32GB MacBook Pros next year? Or will the heat produced by 32GB of memory mean that Apple would have to redesign the case, making it unlikely that they will refresh the device next year.

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