The future of the Mac has become fodder for discussions by a major financial publication that is getting lots of circulation at the same time Tim Cook, in a message to Apple employees, has reasserted the company’s commitment to the Mac. You’d think it’s either one or the other, or perhaps there are elements of truth in both.
The theory goes that Apple really no longer cares so much about the Mac. Despite selling four to five million units a month, and delivering the industry’s highest share of profits, many are concerned over the fact that product refreshes have been late, and there has to be a reason.
So we have that story in the financial publication, Bloomberg, suggesting that Apple has reorganized its design team and the Mac division is getting short shrift. Supposedly Jonathan Ive is spending less time looking over future Mac designs and paying more attention to the iPhone and the iPad, with the implications that these two products are far more significant to Apple. But that’s only half true! Apple is earning more from the sale of Macs than from the sale of iPads. In the fiscal 4th quarter for 2016, ending September, Apple sold 4,886,000 Macs with a total revenue of $5.7 billion. Some 9,267,000 iPads were sold, but revenue was lower, since the list prices are lower. It came to $4.2 billion.
Those results come across to me as a possible reason to deemphasize the iPad, except, of course, it’s still the most popular tablet on the planet.
So why pay more attention to a product that delivers lower revenue? The answer is that this isn’t the only example of where the article is assuming facts without evidence. After all, it’s not as if Apple is going to admit to the private interactions among its design and engineering teams. It’s almost as if an outsider has, without doing the requisite research, decided to make assumptions for a sensational article about the future of the Mac.
The writer goes on to explain that future Mac updates are apt to be extremely minor with a tiny iMac refresh and the usual refreshes for the MacBook and MacBook Pro. The release of keyboards with Touch Bar support will depend on the success of the new MacBook Pros.
Now just to be clear about all this, Apple’s approach to Macs in recent years has been to introduce a major redesign and then, for several years, refresh that design with faster parts. The iMac is somewhat of an exception with a mid-cycle update that included the 5K Retina display. The real question marks concern the Mac mini, last upgraded in 2014, and the Mac Pro, which had an overhaul in 2013 but hasn’t been touched since. As you count the days, you have to wonder what’s going on.
True, the Late 2016 MacBook Pro has been controversial. But it’s hardly a rush job, or an example of inattention even if you disagree with the priorities. Jonathan Ive claims that Apple spent two years developing the Touch Bar, and the thinner, lighter case and other changes required more investment than the usual Mac refresh. So why would Apple do such a thing if they are losing interest in the Mac? Is this a last-ditch effort to restore its luster. Or did the writer assume that the MacBook Pro isn’t doing well based on all the pro and con discussion, even though Apple claims record demand for the new models?
Now some facts ought to be considered before I deliver the counter argument. First is that the lack of significant progress in Macs may, in large part, be attributed to the limitations in Intel’s processor upgrades. With the greater emphasis on power efficiency, actual year-to-year performance boosts are slight. Some attribute it to the supposed fact that “Moore’s Law,” about the doubling of the number of transistors in an integrated circuit each year, has hit a wall.
Regardless, the benchmark improvements from one year to the next tend to be minor. So even though the Mac mini may seem long in the tooth, newer parts wouldn’t yield a significant performance boost. Power efficiency isn’t an issue for a computer that is designed to function strictly with the power cord.
The Mac Pro is a more difficult issue, since there are speedier CPUs and graphics chips that would make a noticeable improvement. Indeed, it makes sense that some wonder whether this long-in-the-tooth workstation has a future, and it would be helpful for Apple to provide more direct reassurance.
On the other hand, some comments culled from a message posted to Apple employees the other day does appear to indicate that the Mac shouldn’t be counted out, despite the dire picture painted in that article.
The main part of the message is the assurance of the importance of desktop Macs to Apple, with Cook writing, “Some folks in the media have raised the question about whether we’re committed to desktops. If there’s any doubt about that with our teams, let me be very clear: we have great desktops in our roadmap. Nobody should worry about that.”
Notice he said, “great desktops,” which clearly implies more than a single model. If that’s the case the changes wouldn’t be restricted to the iMac. It may even be that a more significant Mac Pro upgrade is in the cards, but it would have been nice for Cook to be a little more detailed in his reassurances.
Perhaps those comments were written in anticipation of the Bloomberg piece, or just as a general response to all the concerns about the future of the Mac. Regardless, Cook appears to be promising more than a minor refresh. Let’s wait and see how it all turns out.