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Apple and Update Frequency

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.