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Mac Upgrades: Finding Innovative Things to Do

Over the past week or two, I’ve read a number of articles suggesting what Apple may or may not do with the Mac platform this year. Most take a lean approach, that several models will get minor processor/graphics/drive refreshes, and that’s about it. There have been scattered mentions of a price adjustment for the MacBook and MacBook Pro, but question marks remain about Apple’s commitment to the platform.

Now one recent story from a major financial publication claimed that Apple is giving short shrift to the Mac division, particularly when it comes to the frequency of meetings with design chef Sir Jonathan Ive. Of course, the insider corporate maneuvering within Apple is usually a secret, and the facts, assuming they are facts, usually come from former employees. Even then, if the news isn’t favorable, you may worry whether it’s a case of sour grapes.

Clearly CEO Tim Cook took such reports seriously enough to reaffirm the company’s commitment to Mac desktops in a message to Apple employees. But he talked about the future roadmap in vague terms without specifically promising that any particular model would receive an upgrade.

I think it would have gone better if Cook said something during the October media event. Just leaving Mac users hanging was bad form, and it only helped fuel speculation that it was the last gasp for some models.

But the wish lists I’ve seen are predictable and not terribly exciting. Or it may just be that there are only so many things Apple can do to keep the Mac platform current. The entire PC universe is too mature after all these years, and save for eccentric configurations, such as the Microsoft Surface Studio, these machines very much follow similar playbooks.

Sure, you may read rabid proclamations from avid Windows fans that Microsoft is doing just wonderful things by entering a segment of the market where prices are as high or higher than Apple’s. All that’s doing, assuming there’s any sales volume at all, is cannibalizing PC sales from Windows licensees in the few areas where they can earn decent profits.

But this behavior also puts Microsoft in the same place as Google with Pixel smartphones. Licensees may just groan and bear it. Of course, the limited distribution of the Pixel may seem less threatening, but I’m not altogether convinced it represents more than an expensive Nexus with extra fluff and new branding. Here, the company is following Microsoft’s knack of renaming failed products and pretending they’re something altogether new. They aren’t.

So what should we expect from Apple in the desktop space? Obviously you won’t see iMacs with displays that can be contorted into different positions. I think that practice went away when the model with articulated arms — the iMac G4 — was discontinued.

Aside from eccentric designs, just what should Apple do to make Macs more compelling? It’s an important question, and not readily answered. In large part, Apple is constrained by Intel’s processor roadmap, which has focused more on power efficiency than number crunching in recent years.

I do not expect to see much change in design excesses. So the iMac, super thin at the edges, bulbous in the back, and near-impossible to fix, probably won’t be changed for a while. Well, except to make it less bulbous as parts become smaller. Since you can consider the 5K model to be a major change, I wouldn’t expect to see much in the near term. Faster, and probably outfitted with those USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports that debuted on the MacBook Pro. There is some hope for a conventional port or two, but once Apple makes a move, they rarely backtrack. So maybe Apple’s sale on dongles will continue for a while.

Other than minor refreshes and possible price cuts, there’s no reason to expect much change in the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air might still sit at the bottom of the lineup — unchanged — for a while before it goes away.

But what about the Mac mini or the Mac Pro? Jason Snell had some good ideas in his recent Macworld piece. I was particularly interested in how the Mac mini might morph into a somewhat beefier computer with different performance levels depending on the options you check off on the configuration page. This is not dissimilar to an approach taken with the HP Z2, where a small and cheap PC can grow to become a mini workstation depending on how it’s outfitted. That would serve the needs of both entry-level users and those for whom a Mac Pro is a bit much.

Speaking of the Mac Pro, it makes little sense to keep a three-year-old model in the lineup unless there are plans to refresh or modify it in some fashion. Maybe a little movement towards those who’d like to see more internal expansion, with capacity for two SSDs and perhaps two Xeon processors and more RAM slots. How much larger would it have to be anyway?

Jason’s suggestion about optimizing the macOS for more efficient network management when piggybacked onto a cellular network might make sense. But anything iOS does that is matched in macOS ought to be comparable, and that includes Messages.

None of these suggestions, however, truly advances the state of the art in any new way that I can see. It’s just playing around some with existing form factors. And, oh yes, I do expect to see a new Magic Keyboard 2 with Touch Bar later this year. I’ll be disappointed if I’m proven wrong.