Apple can’t win. After a drought of new Macs for so long, Apple unleashed a major revision to the MacBook Pro. Smaller, thinner and lighter, you’d think Mac users would have gone wild over it. Add to that the Touch Bar, a clever way to replace the seldom-used function keys with something that might actually improve productivity for some apps, and it was a sure winner.
Or at least that’s what you might have expected.
Well, until the critics decided that the Touch Bar was not a professional tool, despite the fact that Apple featured demonstrations using Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro X that highlighted improved productivity. And why didn’t Apple produce a version with 32GB of RAM, even though no previous MacBook Pro has ever offered more than 16GB? Whatever Apple doesn’t do, it should do, and forget about the excuses and the tradeoffs. It can’t be professional because there are more powerful — and often more expensive — Windows notebooks to be had.
So on last weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured long-time author Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, who focused the conversation to some degree on the controversial Late 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. He also mentioned a few of his favorite gadgets for the holiday season. But perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion occurred when Gene and Bob spoke of the time they almost met a member of the Beatles. There was also a short discussion about the reported resurgence of vinyl records, and Gene’s curious problem with his AT&T wireless account, where voices on the other end of the connection sounded as if they had slowed down to half speed.
Now about almost meeting a Beatle. Well, it happened in t1969, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a “bed-in” for peace. For a time, they were at a hotel in Toronto. I got word of it from a colleague from one of the wire services. and called the hotel to see if I could arrange an interview; I would have gone there if it could be arranged, though a phone call would have been nice. Alas the tip was a day late, and Lennon had already departed. That’s as close as I came. All right, I met and interviewed some “lesser” artists that year, but that would have been a real coup.
Back to the show: You also heard from from commentator Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer. The interview began with a semi-technical discussion of time travel, based on the concepts from sci-fi and comic books. So what might happen if one travels back through time, and makes a very minor change that can foul up the timeline in the future? The discussion moved on to several topics, including the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. Is Apple falling behind the technology curve with its new notebook, which some claim is not really a “pro” machine? Jeff also offered an update on the latest scuttlebutt about the Apple Car, which appears to be focusing more and more on self-driving technology rather than a motor vehicle with an Apple logo on it.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present noted Ufologist Philip Mantle. His interest in UFO research began in 1979 when he joined the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA), and Yorkshire UFO Society (YUFOS), and he is considered one of the UK’s top experts. Philip is well known for doggedly tackling the “Alien Autopsy” controversy, quickly becoming the top investigator into this strangely-curious affair that took place in the late summer of 1995. He has written the definitive book on the subject, Alien Autopsy Inquest, along with a number of other books. In addition, Philip and his colleague, Paul Stonehill, are considered to be the top researchers of Russian UFO cases.
Shortly before I began to write this column, I saw a TV ad for the new MacBook Pro. The only memorable part was the flashy deomonstration of the joys of the Touch Bar, and it is the tentpole feature of the new notebooks. The rest isn’t quite so important. It doesn’t matter that it’s thinner and lighter, but promises the same battery life as the last version. Well, except for those who claim it doesn’t. It’s also a tad faster and the SSD is much quicker.
Forget about the argument about whether the Touch Bar is really a feature that can appeal to professionals. I’ll just accept that it can be, based on the demonstrations at the Apple media event that focused on Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro X. The fact that developers are busy adding support to their own apps indicates they have confidence that Apple is pointing the way to a useful addition in personal computing.
Sure, Apple sells far more notebooks than desktops these days. I am sure only the iMac yields decent sales in the latter category. When it comes to portables, a decent proportion of sales will go to the MacBook Pro, but lots of people have purchased MacBook Airs in recent years. My son acquired one earlier this year, and no doubt for the same reasons others buy the cheaper models — price.
Indeed I wonder just what’s going to happen now that the MacBook Air is reduced to a single model that’s smacks of a closeout. I suppose that the MacBook might come down in price as a replacement, but what about expanding Touch Bar support?
Granted, it’s not cheap to add. It’s more than just a touchscreen on a strip. Apple is using a slimmed down version of the Apple Watch system-on-a-chip and OS to power it. In short, the MacBook Pro is a unique personal computer with two different processors and two different operating systems. There’s a cost, and that no doubt explains, in part, why the new models are several hundred dollars more expensive than the models they replace.
So if Apple were to put a Touch Bar on a future MacBook, would the price increase from $1,299 to $1,499 or higher? That would seriously hurt sales. I actually hope the price will soon be reduced by $200-$300, and that a future model will offer a Touch Bar for no increase in price. Not that I’d buy one, since the display would still be too small for my tastes.
But Apple didn’t invent the Touch Bar with the plan to restrict it to a single model. There’s a long-range plan, and adding it to a MacBook or some future Mac notebook is only part of the picture.
I’ve talked about this on the radio show, but I expect that a future keyboard, perhaps a Magic Keyboard 2 with Touch Bar, will deliver the feature for Mac desktops. But it won’t come cheap. My guests and I have suggested a $199 purchase price; the regular Magic Keyboard is $99. And that price is still regarded by many as too expensive, but since it comes free with a new iMac, it doesn’t matter so much.
But the circuitry on a keyboard with Touch Bar would be a lot more expensive to manufacture, so I’d doubt that Apple would offer it, even on a new iMac, without a price premium. At least for now. I also wonder whether it would be well suited to putting all of the components in a wireless keyboard. Maybe some of that circuitry, the extra processor, would have to be embedded in an iMac. The display would still have a cost in battery life, though Apple could put a larger rechargeable battery in the keyboard to compensate.
But I’m really shooting from the hip here. If there’s a way to accomplish this efficiently, Apple has already done it in their test labs, and merely has to wait for the right time to introduce such a standalone keyboard.
Of course, such decisions might depend on the sales of the MacBook Pro. Although Apple claims high demand, the numbers for the March 2017 quarter ought to serve as a measure of its potential. If Mac sales recover from recent negative numbers, it will encourage Apple to continue to put a reasonable amount of resources into supporting the platform. Otherwise. it might fall into more of a maintenance mode, with product refreshes mostly confined to installing new generation CPU and graphics chips.
Of course, it’s not as if PC makers are doing much to advance the platform either. Well, I suppose the Microsoft Surface Studio is an example of extending the 2-in-1 touchscreen concept in a way that demonstrates additional possibilities. But wouldn’t a notebook be a more flexible alternative than constantly manipulating a touchscreen on a base to the position you want? Sure it’s a 28-inch display, but is the pivoting mechanism robust enough to survive constant use? I suppose time will tell.
I suppose the Studio is the ultimate implementation of the possibilities of a desktop computer with a movable touchscreen. At the price, it’ll mostly attract a specialized audience; if it takes off, that is. It may be more of a technology demonstration anyway.
Apple clearly believes the Touch Bar is the best and most user-friendly touchscreen implementation for a traditional PC. If it takes off, it seems certain the joy will spread to other Macs even if a costly wireless keyboard with Touch Bar is required.
THE FINAL WORD
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