What Do You Expect from a Mac Upgrade?

December 22nd, 2016

It’s very clear that Mac users are really feeling left out these days by the dearth of product upgrades from Apple. Some of you may have read the Bloomberg piece that claims that the Mac platform is getting short shrift. But CEO Tim Cook now asserts there are great things for desktop computers in Apple’s product roadmap.

Now Cook did write that message to Apple employees in response to media concerns about what was going on with the Mac platform. It wasn’t so many years ago that Macs came first for Apple, but the massive growth of the iPhone, which arrived with modest expectations, sure changed things. But the Mac still represents roughly $22 billion in annual revenue for Apple. There were many years when the company didn’t earn that much for all its products, so it’s very significant and it wouldn’t make sense to led it slide even if we are in the twilight of the PC era.

Besides, and let’s not forget this, iOS apps are developed on Macs. There is no iOS version of Xcode. As we know, iOS was built on the foundation of the macOS. I do suppose it’s possible for Apple to make a version of Xcode for the iPad, and that might lessen reliance on Macs. But not yet.

Despite Cook’s reassurances, though, there is a big disconnect between his promises about the desktop “roadmap” and the claims of that Bloomberg columnist that next year’s Mac upgrades would be limited to minor refreshes for the iMac, MacBook and MacBook Pro. That’s not terribly encouraging.

Now I would expect only minor changes for the MacBook and MacBook Pro, particularly the latter since it’s already had its major redesign. At the same time, I think Apple understands the prices for both are on the high side. That does explain why the now-shipping LG displays and USB-C adaptors from Apple are being discounted by 25% through March 31, 2017. That decision was made to lessen the barrier to buying the new Mac notebooks.

Indeed, I would not be surprised to see those price reductions continue without change. I would not be surprised to see the next MacBook and MacBook Pro refreshes to also come in at lower prices. With the MacBook Air limited to the 13-inch model — which received no changes this year — Apple appears to have crafted the MacBook as its intended replacement. When the price comes down, that is. Using the example of the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display, dropping $300 from the entry-level prices of the MacBook and MacBook Pro make perfect sense. That’s in keeping with the way Macs have prices have been revised in recent years. It would also give Apple the excuse to discontinue the MacBook Air, and keep a simplified notebook lineup.

As to the iMac, I suppose there’s not much reason to change very much, except for adding Intel Kaby Lake CPUs, more powerful graphics, USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. In addition to faster parts, and this is pure speculation on my part, I can foresee a Pro version with an Intel 8-core i7, and perhaps two internal SSDs. Offering such a high-end iMac might, in fact, satisfy at least some Mac Pro users as a very workable and more affordable alternative. It would help if Apple devised a graphics system capable of driving two external 5K displays.

I have no idea of demand for the Mac mini, but a simple component update wouldn’t cost much to produce, and it would keep an entry-level option for new Mac users who find Apple’s usual prices to be way beyond their budgets.

The Mac Pro? Surely Apple’s desktop roadmap isn’t limited to minor refreshes for a single model. Could it be that Apple is waiting for the newest generation Xeons and graphics chips before delivering that long-delayed upgrade? One article erroneously claimed that Apple only uses AMD graphics, and cited some new developments from NVIDIA, such as Pascal architecture, as something Apple has missed. What that critic ignores is that Apple has always moved back and forth between AMD and NVIDIA parts in delivering graphics hardware over the years. So the new Pascal technology could, I suppose, form the basis for updated Mac Pro graphics. Or give power users a choice of the best from AMD and NVIDIA and let them make their own decisions, although that approach is out of Apple’s comfort zone.

Is there room for yet another desktop Mac? I doubt it, because the focus is mostly on notebooks these days. That said — and perhaps I’m reading more into Cook’s statement — I suspect Apple is committed to doing some interesting things for the Mac platform. The introduction of the Touch Bar was a not-trivial addition, and it was obviously not intended for a single model. It’s quite possible that a future MacBook will have it too, and then there’s the possibility of a Magic Keyboard with Touch Bar. It won’t come cheap, and I wonder how Touch ID on a wireless keyboard might integrate with a Mac. Perhaps Bluetooth 5.0 will offer more options, or Apple will pull some Bluetooth integration stunts in the spirit of what was done with the AirPods, using a special chip for instant pairing and tighter integration.

Listen, I’ve used Macs for three decades. I cannot foresee switching to an iPad for the work I do, and I’m confident there are enough people out there to keep the Mac platform going for a while. Sales growth may lie in the past, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be enough revenue to keep it going for quite a while. Maybe not for the next 30 years, but I probably won’t be around to care.

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3 Responses to “What Do You Expect from a Mac Upgrade?”

  1. DaveD says:

    Being a long-time user of Apple’s notebook, I like that there were a major redesign of the MacBooks. I would prefer that Apple didn’t drop the MagSafe power connector and added a second USB-C port on the right side of the MacBook. Apple got it right with the MacBook Air. For the MacBook Pro, Apple should have included in the box, two adapters. USB-C to USB-A and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2.

    For the iMac, besides getting USB-C ports, a Touch Bar keyboard would be nice. On the Mac Pro and mini, Apple should have had internal expandability as a main feature.

    Reading opinions and commentaries from the many sites about Apple losing its mojo or blaming Mr. Tim Cook and Sir Jonathan Ive, I go back to thinking about what Mr. Steve Jobs would have done. Or thought about like a computer should be an appliance, milking the Mac and moving on to the next big thing, and a post-PC world.

    There are many who like to see a touchscreen Mac or one with an Apple processor instead of Intel. Hard for me to see it on Apple’s roadmap.

  2. Eric V says:

    I’d also like to point out that for years Apple has been continuously receiving patents for various types of AR and 3D user interfaces. While I know some patents are to throw competitors off track, Apple appears to be still forward thinking for all of it’s hardware.

  3. David says:

    What I expect is more of the same: design trumping function, thinness where it provides absolutely no end user benefit but looks pretty in marketing materials.
    What I want is for someone influential at Apple to start putting user experience ahead of what the devices look like when they’re not being used. And pro level machines should allow pro level users to alter the configuration at least a bit. Having everything soldered and glued into place makes computers into appliances without the long service life one expects from an appliance. A 20 year old fridge is normal, a 20 year old computer is a museum piece. Additionally computer components can stop working and need replacement, and they can be outgrown before they wear out. Being forced to replace the entire machine when one part needs an upgrade is very expensive and very environmentally wasteful.

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