Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Mac

Of the frustrations I’ve had with Apple’s products and services this year, perhaps the most galling is the state of the Mac. From a software standpoint, many of the consumer-facing changes in MacOS Sierra are so modest as to be perfunctory. Sierra’s most obvious new feature, Siri, is ported from iOS, albeit with a few Mac-specific tweaks.

The hardware side tells a similar story. Of the six Mac lines that Apple sells, just one — the MacBook Pro — saw a major revision this year. The MacBook received a minor spec bump update. The other four Macs Apple makes were untouched in 2016, including all three desktop models.

What’s more, the updates to the MacBook Pro have proved to be — as with any major change in product direction — controversial, with reviewers questioning its performance, lack of upgradability, battery life, and price.1

I would not blame you for being a tiny bit worried about that.

Apple employees are clearly concerned as well, with one asking yesterday about the state of the desktop Mac, in particular, on the company’s internal messaging system. Tim Cook replied:

The desktop is very strategic for us. It’s unique compared to the notebook because you can pack a lot more performance in a desktop — the largest screens, the most memory and storage, a greater variety of I/O, and fastest performance. So there are many different reasons why desktops are really important, and in some cases critical, to people.

The current generation iMac is the best desktop we have ever made and its beautiful Retina 5K display is the best desktop display in the world.

Some folks in the media have raised the question about whether we’re committed to desktops. If there’s any doubt about that with our teams, let me be very clear: we have great desktops in our roadmap. Nobody should worry about that.

Cook’s answer here is cagey, as is usual for Apple executives, with Marco Arment pointing to the singling-out of the iMac as evidence for the Mac Pro’s departure. I think Stephen Hackett’s impression is more correct: as the Mac Mini and Mac Pro haven’t been updated since 2014 and 2013, respectively, calling them the best of anything would be dishonest.

Then, today, a big report from Mark Gurman of Bloomberg:

Interviews with people familiar with Apple’s inner workings reveal that the Mac is getting far less attention than it once did. They say the Mac team has lost clout with the famed industrial design group led by Jony Ive and the company’s software team. They also describe a lack of clear direction from senior management, departures of key people working on Mac hardware and technical challenges that have delayed the roll-out of new computers.

As usual for one of Gurman’s pieces, it’s packed with scoops and intriguing asides. But even if you read it with a heavy dose of skepticism, the impression it gives is dire. In short, the Mac is, reportedly, not seen as an important product at Apple today. If you doubt that, just look at the state of the Mac for the past year.

Frankly, I don’t care if the Mac doesn’t interest the industrial design team any more. While I’d love to see a smaller Mac Mini, a radical new Mac Pro design, or an even thinner MacBook, what I — and, I’m sure, so many others — would prefer are regular internal upgrades for improved performance and longer battery life.

This is never as simple as it sounds. Apple is dependent on third-party suppliers for new components, and those components may require different thermal envelopes, a different chip configuration, or new drivers. Updating these products isn’t as simple as we want to believe. And, yet, the company has previously managed to update their Mac lineup on an annual basis without changing the enclosure. Why can’t they do so now?

I have quibbles with Gurman’s article. For example:

Apple prioritizes features, like thinness and minimal ports, that sell its iPhones and iPads, which generated about 75 percent of revenue this year. Those are contrary to professional needs, like maximum computing power.

I don’t necessarily agree that prioritizing thinness and lightness is inherently contradictory to performance — or, at least, not in a way that cannot be solved. Earlier in the piece, Gurman says that Apple was working on a “stepped” battery for the MacBook Pro, similar to the one fitted to the MacBook, that would improve its capacity while keeping the product light. Apple has also excelled at designing high-performance processors for the iPhone and iPad that minimize power consumption.

Nitpicks aside, Gurman’s closing paragraph does little to assuage concerns:

Mac fans shouldn’t hold their breath for radical new designs in 2017 though. Instead, the company is preparing modest updates: USB-C ports and a new Advanced Micro Devices Inc. graphics processor for the iMac, and minor bumps in processing power for the 12-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro. Cue the outrage.

Gurman says little about the Mac Pro in the article, aside from noting how difficult it was to build in the United States, and says nothing about the Mac Mini. That doesn’t necessarily mean that updates to those products aren’t coming, of course, but there’s clearly a lack of enthusiasm for them.

Something that’s increasingly clear is that not all of today’s Macs may be important to Apple’s strategy. The MacBook Air only exists today to serve its price point; once the MacBook can be the same price as the Air, you can bet that it will be. Perhaps the Mac lineup goes back to the “grid of four” from the late-’90s, with the MacBook and MacBook Pro filling the consumer and professional portable roles, respectively, and the iMac and a revised Mac Pro doing the same on the desktop.

All I really want, though, is some confidence again in the Mac as a product line and a platform.


  1. Michael Tsai’s roundups continue to be my favourite way to see the zeitgeist of responses to major tech news items. ↩︎