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The Mac is Really Back at Apple

Let’s not forget that Apple Inc. used to be known as Apple Computer Inc. But in 2007, with the launch of the iPhone, the word “Computer” vanished. What changed?

It’s not that Apple suddenly stopped making Macs, or didn’t built other products over the years. Don’t forget that the original PostScript printer, the Apple LaserWriter, along with Aldus PageMaker, upended an industry. But, beginning in 2001, a brand new gadget sort of snuck in and began to demonstrate Apple’s future direction.

The iPod at first appeared to be little more than a costly indulgence on the part of Steve Jobs. The promise of 1,000 songs in your pocket was certainly a neat idea, but its $399 price tag seemed a bit much. Sure, there were other MP3 players then, but they had awful user interfaces, and transferring tracks to those devices was a slow process.

The iPod — which used iTunes to manage the downloads and your playlists — caught on. But it really soared when Apple decided to share the joy with Windows users and offer a PC version of iTunes.

Over the years, Apple beat back all comers, even Microsoft.

But the best iPod arrived in 2007 as part of a tiny personal computer known as the iPhone. It didn’t take too many years before a smartphone became Apple’s most successful product. While Mac sales by and large continued to increase, to some it became little more than a legacy product, receiving mostly modest updates to keep up.

It got really bad in late 2016 when, after only one other Mac got an update — a simple MacBook refresh that spring — a controversial refresh of the MacBook Pro arrived. I suppose a basic update of the existing model with new parts might have been less polarizing. But the upgraded model was slimmer and lighter, with a short-travel keyboard in the spirit of the MacBook and the Magic Keyboard. But it had a controversial feature, the Touch Bar. A single OLED touch strip replaced the traditional function keys. Apple opened up the technology to third parties, so they could build their own custom keys. It should have been a good thing, too, but…

For some reason, customers decided that the MacBook Pro should have supported 32GB of RAM, even though previous models — and the Microsoft Surface notebooks — topped out at 16GB. Apple’s worst transgression was not using the latest Intel silicon, code-named Kaby Lake. Ignored was the fact that the quad-core chips that Apple uses in its high-end notebooks hadn’t shipped yet. And did I mention that the new models cost several hundred dollars more?

Some Mac users felt Apple was paying lip service to the platform, despite the fact that developing the Touch Bar couldn’t have been an easy thing to do. Indeed, it meant there was a second OS and processor onboard, derived from iOS with an ARM-based system-on-a-chip based on the one on the Apple Watch.

Despite the complaints, Mac sales, which had been flagging through much of the year, increased slightly. But it wasn’t just pent-up demand for the MacBook Pro, because sales continued to grow during the March quarter. At the same time, sales of the Microsoft Surface — which the critics continue to demand that Apple imitate — fell by 26%.

But what about the Mac Pro, which hadn’t received any updates since 2013?

Half-hearted assurances that Apple loved pros didn’t help. In early April, they summoned a handful of carefully selected tech reporters to its Cupertino headquarters for a roundtable. Yes, Apple planned to release a brand new modular Mac Pro, but not this year. It would also be joined by a new display. This year, there would be an iMac with pro options, and even the tiny Mac mini appeared to have the love.

Ahead of the WWDC, rumors appeared that the MacBook Pro would receive an update months ahead of the usual timetable. There would also be updates for the MacBook and perhaps the MacBook Air.

But that wasn’t the half of it.

During the WWDC, the volume Macs got plenty of love. As predicted, the MacBook Pro and its brethren received the expected upgrades. Kaby Lake CPUs were also added to the MacBook; the MacBook Air got a minor update of the Broadwell processor it was already using. Even more interesting, early reports of benchmarks indicate that the newest 15-inch MacBook Pro may be up to 20% faster in multicore tasks than its predecessor.

The real surprise was the announcement of brand new iMacs, with the expected processor upgrades. The model with pro features ended up being a whole new line, dubbed iMac Pro, in which the guts of what you’d expect to see in a Mac Pro workstation were stuffed inside. Apple had to build an upgraded thermal system with 80% greater capacity to support an 18-core Xeon, AMD Radeon Pro Vega graphics, and up to 128GB of costly ECC RAM.

As you  might expect, the iMac Pro, expected in December, will be an expensive beast. The entry-level model will start at $4,999, although Apple claims that PC workstations with similar capabilities would generally cost over $7,000. Optioned to the hilt with those 18 core Xeons, maxed out RAM and graphics, plus 4TB of SSD storage, an iMac Pro will cost well over $10,000.

And, Apple is still promising an even more powerful Mac Pro for next year.

The next macOS, code-named High Sierra, will offer beefed up support for Metal graphics and other features, along with a modern file system sporting higher performance and enhanced security. The better to serve the needs of Mac professionals.

The Mac mini? Well, maybe later in the year, maybe not. There was hope in Apple’s brief statements about it during that April roundtable.

Even more interesting, iOS 11 will offer enhanced multitasking for iPads. It will feature a Mac-like dock and a Files app that appears to be the equivalent of putting a macOS Finder on Apple’s tablet. What this means is that Apple now realizes that, to make an iPad more productive, it needs to adapt some Mac features.

But does an iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard combine to become Apple’s answer to the 2-in-1 PC? Is it a true merger of a toaster oven and a refrigerator that actually makes sense?

So the Mac is getting the love, and the iPad is being influenced by the Mac. Long-time Mac users must be smiling from ear to ear.