• Newsletter Issue #889

    December 12th, 2016


    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 Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
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    15 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #889”

    1. jfutral says:

      I get real tired of this “Apple can’t win for losing” line of defending against people who were disappointed in the Macbook Pro. Especially this line of “Apple has never offered a MBP with more than 16 gigs of ram.” They also never offered one with more than 2 gigs… until they did. Or more than 8 gigs… until they did. I had the Mac that maxed at 6 gigs, but the only way to get there was by adding two 4 gig cards.

      It’s not that they haven’t before, it is that they could have now and the reasons chosen not to are not important enough to many pro users. In an era when laptops continue to replace desktops for many people (especially pros, like me, who do a lot of traveling), and as such unless you can get battery life to be substantially greater such as more than one day of heavy duty use, a few minutes or even an hour of battery life is a non-issue.

      If this had been the new Macbook/old Macbook Air I doubt anyone would have complained. That is the point of that model—highest portability. People chose Macbook Pro because it did not have the limitations of the Macbook/Macbook Air. The extra half-pound of weight providing the greatest possibilities was more important.

      Jan Dawson called this the mainstreaming of the Macbook Pro. I think that is too generous. This is the iPhoning of the Macbook Pro to a market that doesn’t need (nor want) it to be iPhoned.

      I’ll be more interested in the Touch Bar when it is available on external keyboards. It seems interesting and no more or less ergonomic than the F-Keys it replaces. Of course it will only have meaning when the software developers add real support. At my office (at home) I keep my laptop closed and connected to devices through a hub (except audio devices, since no dock out there can seem to eliminate additional audio latency. Audio has to be connected directly to the laptop ports).

      Are the pros being picky? Sure. But that’s why they bought the Macbook PRO. Do they want Apple to be innovative and future facing? Absolutely. Why else would they have invested their professional lives in Apple’s hardware? But they need Apple to also be innovative in areas that matter now. I am a little put off by the Apple evangelist crowd griping about other Mac users needing certain things from their Apple devices. These aren’t the typical Windows fans or writers who have never used a Mac or maybe only used it in the high school computer lab or because they _have_ to. These are people who actually have no qualms in dropping money for Apple hardware. A $2000 laptop is usually a small but critical part of the total outlay in work related computer devices. I would expect a little more respect, if not understanding, from their fellow Mac users.


      • gene says:

        Apple explained the reasoning why the Late 2016 MacBook Pro doesn’t support 16GB. Everything is a trade-off, and you can accept it or not. But you cannot change it.


    2. jfutral says:

      Everything has always been a trade off, everywhere. This is not news. That doesn’t mean people should shut up and just accept it. And it doesn’t mean people won’t buy it. It is ridiculous to think that people who have invested many thousands of dollars into a workflow that incorporates a Mac will either just ditch it (which is why the new MBP selling as well as it has is not really a surprise to me anyway, because we ARE Mac users) or that those same people won’t have and express their thoughts on the matter. Why wouldn’t they? And why wouldn’t Apple be interested in hearing what they best customers (based on how much they are willing to spend on a computer) have to say? This “shut up and accept it” mantra is no more becoming in tech than in politics.


      • gene says:

        Obviously Apple is interested and they have gone further towards explaining the reasoning behind a product decision than they usually do. But you can no doubt expect that the 2017 MacBook Pro will probably support 32GB if Intel delivers the right chips in time.


    3. jfutral says:

      Sure. We’ll see. Hopefully it won’t be too late. Intel has chips that support 32 gigs now. It was Apple’s choice to not utilize them. People who need more ram, just plain need more ram (I am not one of them, although I would love to be able to upgrade to 16 gigs now, except I can’t). That plus the Phoneing of the MBP may be just enough to make at least marginal users reconsider their Apple choice. Apple was obviously not the best choice for them.


      • gene says:

        Again Apple would have to use a memory controller with slower RAM, and sacrifice a great deal of battery life, plus standby power. Future Intel chips won’t have that limitation evidently.

        Since you don’t need 32GB RAM, why worry about it?


    4. jfutral says:

      I’m not _worried_ about it. I think the response from fellow Mac users to other MBP users’ concerns has been ridiculous. And I am concerned about the iPhoneing of the MBP. If this is the future of Apple, then I need to seriously start considering my other options and what it takes to switch. I don’t need 32 gigs now. That doesn’t mean I won’t in the future. And as my recent experience is demonstrating, not being able to upgrade my current ram or change out a bad internal drive because of Apple’s choices is quite the game changer. Since ram and internal storage have traditionally been upgradeable, I would normally max out on processing and only spend as much as necessary on ram and internal storage at the time of purchase. That at least let me spread out my expenses, especially since ram and internal drive costs usually drop fairly dramatically and quickly.

      I don’t recall Schiller saying exactly how much battery life would have been sacrificed. What exactly is the quantity of “a great deal”?

      The irony is that the professional set-up to illustrate the new MBP capabilities with the 5k monitor would not have been done on battery power. So clearly there are professional situations, battery life is not the point.


      • gene says:

        Remember, switching is not the same as going from Dell to HP. It’s a new OS, and new problems to confront.

        Obviously if you don’t want a notebook, you buy a desktop. The MacBook Pro is designed to serve both masters.

        The tradeoffs of 32GB have been widely published and easily searched. It can mean 7 days of standby time instead of 30 days. It can shave several hours off the estimated continuous battery life. There are people now who complain that the new MacBook Pros are delivering subpar battery life. Imagine how they’d feel if it was crippled to provide even less.

        Apple made a compromise decision based on a set of tradeoffs. Obviously the interest n 32GB means that Apple will probably look at the options again in the fall of 2017.

        Threatening to switch platforms doesn’t resolve the tradeoffs. When you are running a large multinational corporation and have to decide which compromises to accept. let us know.


    5. jfutral says:

      I don’t know why you consider my position a “threat”. It is a position that I as an educated consumer have to always weigh. I’ve been at this for over 30 years, so yes I know the implications. Have used that argument with others. And it has been a solid argument when there was greater disparity between Mac and Windows, both in hardware and OS. There is less disparity today than before, Touchbar not withstanding.

      And as you point out a single large, multinational has to make the decisions they have to. And I have to accept when their priorities don’t align with mine. I get that for writers like you and Gruber and Macalope, you are only as successful as Apple is successful. I am only as successful at my job as Apple hardware allows me to be successful. That includes being able to upgrade ram and change internal drives without needing a whole new computer to do so. As you say, it is all about the trade-offs we are willing to make. That works on the consumer side as well as the company side.


    6. jfutral says:

      I sure would like to know your search criteria for those numbers because I’ve never could (and still can’t, though I took your word that they are easily searchable) find them. Standby is irrelevant to me, so no big whoop there. I have found quite a bit countering Apple’s claims, but no mention of the numbers you cite.

      Also, still not sure why I need to run a multinational corporation to know what I need out of a laptop.

      Also, I imagine that people took Apple’s word that they would get 10 hours of battery time and they are not. Imagine if Apple under promised and over delivered.


    7. Kaleberg says:

      Good grief!

      Some people seem to think that Apple exists only for them. Apple has to serve a lot of masters, and it cannot get out in front of Intel as much as they might want to. Apple has always compromised on computational power and field upgrading, i.e. been “under powered” and “impossible to tweak”. Anyone serious about maximizing performance buys a PC or, even better, builds their own and runs Linux. Apple’s products have always commanded a premium i.e. been “overpriced”.

      Anyone who has been using Macs for more than a few years knows that Apple has its own innovate-then-improve cycle, just like Intel or any other company that actually innovates rather than just copies. Innovation is always going to annoy a lot of people because it involves changing things. An awful lot of people look at exactly their own needs, right now, and say they want exactly the same system, except with 32GB of RAM or a 2TB SSD or a four core processor or seven day battery life or a few ounces lighter or whatever. They each have their own nirvana. When Apple compromises and doesn’t provide exactly what they want, they feel that Apple has shafted them. Worse, when Apple changes anything else that they might have to adapt to, they are offended. The system is no longer the same, it has been iPhoned or perhaps saxophoned.

      It’s rather obvious that Apple would have loved to have designed a 32GB Macbook Pro. Odds are they would have charged an rich fee for the 16GB to 32GB BTO and raked it in. That would have meant designing a system for DDR4 RAM and accepting all the compromises that would entail – power consumption, size, weight. Then, they’d have to redesign the entire thing for LDDR4 RAM and undo all the compromises, most likely one year later. That would have been insane. This was an innovation step, so the redesign has to serve for the several years during which people would complain that Apple can no longer innovate. It would be like GM or Honda coming out with a new car series, but having to modify it completely after one year to deal with a new engine fuel.

      Anyone following Intel’s plans can predict the next few years. Odds are there will be 32GB models in 2017. There will be a few speed boosts and probably a few upgrades. Meanwhile, the touch bar will get the software it needs. The piano keyboard is an obvious improvement for music professionals, most of whom are even more familiar with the piano keyboard then with QWERTY. Finally, they can type in music as music is meant to be typed, and without lugging around a second keyboard.

    8. Shameer M. says:

      “Odds are there will be 32GB models in 2017”

      Per Intel’s latest mobile CPU roadmap, the next Intel Mobile CPU designed specifically for the MBP, that will support 32GB LPDDR4 RAM, is either Coffee Lake or Cannon Lake, both of which will see the light of day some time in 2018. Kaby Lake will not support it

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