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Bill Bennett


Apple’s ageing Mac line-up reflects bigger picture

Apple MacBook Pro

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.



8 thoughts on “Apple’s ageing Mac line-up reflects bigger picture

  1. While I agree that there is less reason to refresh the range from an innovation standpoint, I think Apple has missed a trick in not doing more regular minor refreshes.
    First off, with their rabid fanbase even a minor upgrade will cause a small sales jump, as diehards who must have the latest Apple gear jump in.
    Secondly, there’s the brand image to think about. It’s hard to maintain a reputation for cutting edge products if one of your major lines contains four year old products in it. At the very least, it would head off articles such as the Verge one.

    Also, you point out the increase in market share that Apple is seeing. But that is a race to the bottom. Apple’s sales are still declining, just not as fast as their competitors. They could be driving more sales by refreshing the range.

  2. Not to be over-looked is Apple’s growth in the Enterprise market. Where once having a Mac was for a few in the Marketing department there are now many more organisations embracing Macs. The security and software management features of OSx are more than a match for the traditional Windows PCs found in large corporates. Corporates care less about having the latest technology and more about stability, predictability and management. In this market Apple is doing increasingly well, despite an ageing line-up. See also Once Taunted by Steve Jobs, Companies Are Now Big Customers of Apple in the New York Times for a similar perspective.

    1. That’s a good point, I’m hearing more and more about Macs in large organisations. BYOD and similar policies help, when people get to choose what they use MacBooks (of all descriptions) are high on their wish lists. And as your hint, the total cost of ownership is low.

      1. Of course, the cost of buying into the Apple walled garden is lack of future flexibility by being dependent on Apple’s monoculture (over which Apple holds tight and unprecedentedly profitable control)… I’m pretty sure no cost of ownership analysis actually takes that into account. The cost of ownership must include the cost of switching platforms.

      2. The cost of leaving a walled garden is huge. You not only foresake the (admittedly sunk) cost of all software purchased, but also all data/artefacts (music, videos, documents, etc.) in proprietary formats only accessible via Apple technologies. You are effectively handing your data and work processes to Apple to ransom. You can only retain your investment by buying technologies which Apple has licensed (under the terms of their choosing) to offer compatibility with their walled garden (e.g. only works on platforms for which iTunes is available). As such, they hold a monopoly over you accessing your own data. The fact that people don’t recognise the control they’re giving away as a cost utterly boggles my mind.

  3. The big question is, what do you upgrade them with? Apple has pretty much decided that the future of Apple’s computes will be around AMD GPU’s so the idea of welding a old GPU to a new CPU which would deliver modest improvements doesn’t exactly make a compelling argument for a refresh. I’d say the refresh will occur once there is the refresh of the AMD GPU line up but even then things are still going to be pretty boring until XPoint storage from Intel/Micron come out which I think will be a lot bigger gamer changer than the incremental improvements that come with a line up refresh. I think the other thing that really needs to also happen is a greater focus on software and optimisation with APFS being a big improvement and hopefully more improvements will arrive in the next release of macOS.

    1. Which implies a big technology refresh is not about to happen. Still, there should be lots of room for sizable incremental updates. I think you could be right about the next big update coinciding with the next release of MacOS.

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