As we move into the new year, we’re taking a look in a series of pieces at what the future might hold for Apple’s product line-up, for this year and beyond. Jordan kicked things off with an overview, and a closer look at the iPhone 8, while I’m turning my attention to the Mac.
In the longer-term, there are bigger questions we can ask about the future of the Mac – the biggest of all being: does it have one? While Tim Cook has sought to reassure us that Apple still loves the Mac despite making the vast bulk of its revenue from iOS devices, the company’s upgrade cycles do seem to suggest that computers are no longer the priority they once were.
We had to wait four years for a meaningful upgrade to the MacBook Pro – though not all professional users consider it an upgrade. The flagship Mac Pro has gone more than three years without an update, the Mac mini more than two years, and the iMac over a year. The MacBook Air is coming up for two years without an update, and probably won’t get one as the MacBook lines up to take its place …
Apple has increasingly been positioning the iPad Pro as a replacement for a laptop. The company has dropped out of the display business, and there are rumors it will do the same with routers. The Mac ecosystem appears to be crumbling.
And while we’ve heard plenty of rumors about what sounds like an exciting upgrade to the iPhone this year, the rumor-mill for the Mac has been decidedly quiet and discouraging. So what can we realistically expect this year – and what might the longer-term future hold?
While the news may appear depressing, Macs remain a $22B business for Apple. They are going to be around for some years to come. Let’s start by looking at what we might expect this year and next before we look at the longer-term prospects of the Mac.
The MacBook Pro of course just got a major upgrade, with a much sleeker design, all-USB-C ports, a stunning new display, super-fast SSD, Skylake processors, Radeon Pro GPUs, Touch Bar, Touch ID and more.
Apple was forced to go with Skylake CPUs because suitable Kaby Lake versions weren’t available in time. It’s possible that Apple will refresh the MacBook Pro with Kaby Lake processors at some point this year, but I wouldn’t let this influence any purchase decisions, for two reasons.
First, a rapid refresh with new processors would be poor PR for Apple – leaving existing purchasers annoyed that their expensive new machine has already been superceded. Second, because Kaby Lake specs aren’t very impressive, offering little performance gain over Skylake. Depending on how well Intel has managed to optimize performance, the one real-life benefit we may see is improved battery-life.
Nor is a Kaby Lake refresh likely to see any change to the maximum 16GB RAM. This will disappoint those using their MacBook Pro to run virtual machines, but for most other applications the super-fast SSD means that RAM is much less of an issue than it once was.
Speaking of SSD, anyone hoping for a bump to capacities is also likely to be disappointed. Apple has never been noted for its generosity with storage, and the PCIe/NVMe SSD Apple uses in the 2016 MacBook Pro is frighteningly expensive, so offering higher capacities for the same price would hit Apple’s margins hard. Couple this to the company pushing iCloud as the future of storage and I’d expect SSD capacities to remain unchanged.
Some have speculated that we may see a price cut at some point this year, as happened with the Retina models and the 5K iMac, but with all the shiny new tech, I again wouldn’t hold my breath for this.
In short, if you’re waiting to buy a MacBook Pro, you might as well do so now.
Apple’s current Mac line-up is messy. The MacBook is more expensive than the Air but less powerful. Instead of having a simple choice between a lower-spec/cheaper/lighter and higher-spec/more expensive/heavier range, customers are faced with a more confusing choice where they have to trade off compromises. That’s very un-Apple-like.
We’ve already seen Apple drop the 11-inch MacBook Air, and the smart money says that the 13-inch model is just hanging in there as a stop-gap until the company can make the 12-inch MacBook more affordable. Once it can, then it seems near-certain that the 13-inch MacBook Air will join its smaller brother in being consigned to history, and a lower-price 12-inch MacBook will be the new entry-level portable.
If you specifically want the 13-inch MacBook Air, there doesn’t seem much pointing waiting for an upgrade – a possible minor refresh aside, it’s probably not going to happen.
If the 12-inch MacBook does indeed replace the MacBook Air in the line-up, I can see two things happening.
First, we’ll see an entry-level machine, probably in the $999-1099 range (I suspect the latter is more likely). That would allow Apple to continue to attract those buyers who really want a Mac but are constrained on budget – including the all-important student market. Get them hooked on Macs now, and their lifetime value to the company is huge.
Second, the MacBook will continue to grow more powerful as fanless chips become more capable, but Apple needs to retain clear water between the MacBook and MacBook Pro ranges, so the machine will remain pitched at those with more basic needs.
One big question-mark for me is whether the MacBook will get a Touch Bar. If the new UI takes off, seeing useful support from a wider range of apps, it could be argued that it should be available across the range. But my guess is that this will remain a premium feature that helps Apple maintain a clear distinction between its ultraportable and professional machines.
Given its launch in April 2015 and a new model in April 2016, an update in April 2017 seems at least plausible – though one rumor suggests it will be a minor one. Whether Apple could make a low-end model hit a $999-1099 price target by then is less certain – that might need to wait until either the fall or next year.
The iMac got a big upgrade in 2014, with a Retina 5K display, completing the job just over a year ago when the 5K display was extended across the 27-inch range and the smaller 21.5-inch iMac was upgraded to a 4K screen.
Impressive as those upgrades were, however, the iMac is definitely due a new model this year. Sadly, the rumor reported by Bloomberg is for a relatively minor update this year: ‘USB-C ports and a new AMD GPU.’
That said, given that the switch to USB-C is turning out to be painless for most, it would make sense to wait for the new machine so that you have a more future-proof model.
At some point, though, I can see a new design on the cards. While the core design of the iMac is a classic that looks as great today as it did when first launched, the slim casing we always see in marketing photos is an optical illusion: thin at the edges, fatter in the middle. Given Apple’s obsession with ultra-thin design, I can feel Jony Ive itching to slim down the iMac.
The bad news is that I suspect that may see iMacs take the same approach as MacBooks: soldered RAM and SSDs. The end of the upgradable iMac is, I fear, in sight. If you want to retain the ability to perform DIY upgrades, the next model may be the one to buy before a full redesign.
The Mac Pro is another area where Apple’s line-up is in a bit of a mess. The point of a top-of-the-range Mac – the whole point of it – is that it offers audiovisual pros the maximum possible performance. That means it’s vital to keep updating the machine so that it retains this crown.
The Mac Pro is now more than three years old, and has already (in admittedly limited ways) been out-performed by the top-end MacBook Pro. If the Mac Pro doesn’t represent the pinnacle of performance in the Mac world (and ideally beyond it), why exactly does it exist?
Apple of course doesn’t comment on possible future developments, but it hasn’t even confirmed that the Mac Pro has a future. Any pro looking for a top-spec machine today is faced with the prospect of paying a great deal of money for a three-year-old spec with one of two unappetising prospects: either it will quickly be superseded by a new model or they are buying into a dead-end platform.
There is, perhaps, one slight clue – and it’s not an encouraging one. Given that all expansion of the Mac Pro is external anyway, and given the way that Apple has been playing-up the ability of the 15-inch MacBook Pro to drive up to four 4K monitors, it seems at least possible that the company is positioning the maxed-out MacBook Pro to take over the role once held by the desktop machine.
Unless you really need this machine, wait-and-see would be the only sane approach for now.
I’m a little surprised that the Mac mini still exists. Its original role was to encourage owners of Windows desktop PCs to make the switch to Mac. The thinking was that they already have a keyboard, monitor and mouse, so if you can allow them to replace only the system unit – at an affordable price – it removes a major barrier to switching.
Today, desktop PCs are very much a niche market. That original rationale no longer makes much sense, yet Apple continues to sell its ultra-compact desktop machine.
The Mac mini does have a very enthusiastic fan-base, but my impression is that it’s largely a rather niche techy one. Using the machine as a home media server seems to be a popular application.
However, with a starting-price of just $499, the mini does still provide the most affordable entry into the Mac world, and this may be the secret to its continued survival. Even if all the machine mostly does is bring people in through the door in order to upsell them to something else, that would justify its existence.
Either way, though, I wouldn’t hold out much hope of a major update. It definitely needs something, after more than two years, but I can’t see Apple viewing the machine as much of a priority. If you want an indication of the esteem in which Apple holds the machine, its website is still picturing it with a display the company no longer makes …
Apple’s apparent decision to quit the display business and instead recommend LG products hasn’t been well-received. While I can understand the company viewing desktops as a niche market, and displays as an area where it can perhaps add less value, the fact remains that many of us were disappointed by the move and unimpressed by LG’s UltraFine.
I’m not expecting Apple to make a U-turn on this one, but I’m certainly hoping it will.
I said at the beginning that the biggest long-term question of all is whether the Mac has a long-term future? Apple has for many years been a phone company that also makes computers, and the continued trend is for first desktops and then laptops to be increasingly replaced by mobile devices.
But I think any talk of Apple pulling out of the computer market altogether is very much premature. Macs are a profitable product line, and a key part of the Apple ecosystem that boosts the appeal of its mobile products. We also shouldn’t underestimate the brand value of walking into a coffee shop and seeing a sea of MacBooks.
I also think talk of mobile and desktop devices merging into a single product line is too soon. Steve Jobs was absolutely right in arguing that computers are trucks and most people just need cars, but trucks still perform a necessary role for a significant chunk of the market. Macs are going to remain distinct products for quite some time yet.
But we are undoubtedly going to see ever-closer integration with iOS devices. I’d expect to see more Continuity features, and more cross-platform ones, functionality mirrored as closely as possible between macOS and iOS.
It also seems likely that we’ll at some point see ARM-based Macs. Switching to its own CPU designs would finally free Apple from Intel’s product cycles, allowing it to make its own decisions on when to upgrade.
A change in architecture would not be a step Apple would take lightly: it would require apps to be converted, and native Windows compatibility would also be a problem. But Apple has made this kind of transition twice before, once from the Motorola 68000 architecture of the original Macintosh range to the PowerPC in 1994, and again from PPC to Intel in 2006.
ARM processors are already starting to rival low-end Intel ones for power, both in theory and in real-life use. However, maintaining full compatibility would mean an ARM-based processor having enough power to emulate an Intel one – a much tougher goal. All the same, I’d say it’s a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’
The 12-inch MacBook would be the obvious place for this transition to begin.
A wireless future
With Apple going all-in on USB-C in its latest machines, we’re unlikely to see any major port changes during the next few years, though I do suspect Apple will quietly drop the headphone socket from Macs as wireless headphones become the norm. It’s clear that the company’s long-term vision is of a completely wireless future, with documents mostly stored in the cloud rather than locally, but that’s a long way off right now.
We’ve already seen Apple switch from physical function keys to the Touch Bar in the new MacBook Pro, and Apple has been in discussions with e-ink keyboard manufacturer Sonder. A move to a fully-dynamic keyboard seems inevitable at some point.
It’s even been speculated that Apple will eventually move to an all-glass keyboard – effectively something like an iPad screen taking the place of a physical keyboard. The big barrier to that, of course, is that it would be useless for touch-typing with no way to feel the keys. You’d also need a way to rest your fingers on the keys without activating them.
But these are not necessarily insurmountable problems. Jony Ive has already hinted that the Touch Bar is just the start, and Apple has patents for ways to generate glass keys you can feel.
What are you own thoughts about the future of the Mac, both short-term and long? As ever, please share your views in the comments.