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Apple’s ageing Mac line-up reflects bigger picture

Apart from the 2016 MacBook, Apple’s entire Mac line is overdue for a refresh. Sam Byford at The Verge caused a stir last week writing; “Apple should stop selling four-year-old computers“.

MacBook aside, Apple’s August 2016 catalogue is the same as it was a year ago. It is more than a year since any other Macs had an update.

Today’s Mac Mini design is coming up to its second birthday. The workstation-class Mac Pro is almost three years old. These are nothing compared to the last non-Retina MacBook Pro in Apple’s range. That computer is now more than four years old.

Put in those terms it all sounds terrible.

Bigger picture

Byford is right, but he misses the bigger picture. Indeed, a number of bigger pictures.

Let’s start with the biggest picture: Innovation is far from dead at Apple. There are new iPhone models every year. Cynics may quibble, but they are always among the most advanced digital devices of any description.

Likewise, Apple’s iPad Pro models are computers by any standard. They are sophisticated and do most of the things people buy laptops for. They compete with Macs. For some users they are a better option.

Not only Apple is stagnant

Another big picture overlooked in Byford’s article is that if the Mac line-up stagnant, that reflects the state of the PC market.

Intel rolls out new processors every year. The chips keep coming, but these days the change in performance is, at best, incremental.

You’d be hard-pressed to notice any performance difference between any computer built with a 2016 processor compared to one built four years ago.

Today’s top PC processors boost computer performance by ten percent compared with the best in 2012. There’s less of a boost when you compare mainstream PC processors.  Ten percent makes no difference to how fast you produce documents or surf the web. Your cloud apps won’t be faster. The extra performance may show up if you do heavy-duty video editing, but you’d probably be using different hardware anyway.

Buyers don’t care

Perhaps the most significant big picture is of less interest to computer buyers, but is the most important of all from a computer maker’s point of view. Customers are happy with Apple’s Mac line-up. Or at least they were happy until recently.

For most of the four years since Apple last refreshed the non-Retina MacBook Pro, Macs gained market share from other PC makers.

In mid-2012, Apple didn’t feature among the top five PC brands for global shipments. Both IDC and Gartner bundled Apple into their tables as part of the others at the bottom of their lists.

Markets not bothered

At the time Gartner put Apple’s US market share at 10 percent. By the start of 2016 Apple’s US was almost 13 percent. For the first quarter of 2016 Apple accounted for 7.1 percent of global shipments up from 6.4 percent a year earlier. In other words, customers were buying more, not fewer, of what could be described as outdated computers.

Market share, and quarterly shipment market share at that, are lousy statistics to use for complex  arguments about the state of a computer maker’s strategy. Yet it’s clear Apple’s failure to update its products hasn’t damaged its business. At least not so far.

That last phrase, so far is the killer. Apple’s laptop rivals have lifted their game in recent months. HP is enjoying a product renaissance with impressive models like the Spectre and EliteBook Folio G1.

Meanwhile, Apple has a MacBook Air range that screams out for higher resolution displays. The MacBook satisfies an important niche, but does not suit everyone. And what’s with not being able to connect it to a high-resolution monitor? The MacBook Pros need performance bumps. Mac Mini seems half dead and the Mac Pro is languishing.