Apple and the Great Mystery
What's going on in Cupertino?
01 November 2016
When I tuned in to watch Apple's big announcement last Thursday (Hello, Again) it was with great anticipation and excitement. By the end of the two hour event I was dismayed and struggling to figure out Apple's strategy. This is the story of my journey from excitement to dismay.
I've been an every day Apple user since 1999. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was at a Fast Company conference in Fort Myers, Florida, and Apple created a giant room full of candy-colored iMacs so attendees could check email and use the Internet. (This was, after all, the era right before laptops and smart phones became ubiquitous.) Those old candy-colored iMacs had funky long-throw keyboards and weird, round, one-button mice. There was a lot not to like. Yet, they were compelling. The software was cleaner, with less clutter, and easier to use. When I got home I went out and bought one—Bondi Blue with a G3 under the hood. It was different, and as I spent a lot of my day working with clients and their PCs, it made my own computer use a lot more enjoyable.
Since that first iMac, I've bought new Apple hardware about every four years. They are exceptionally well-made. I typically have a desktop and a laptop. I'm writing this on a 2012 Mac Mini connected to twin LG 24-inch displays. It has a 2.3 Ghz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU and 16 gigabytes of RAM. It's been 100% reliable since the day I put it in service. My daily laptop is a 2012 13" MacBook Air. It has a 2 Ghz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor and it runs a real-world 7 hours on its battery. It's so light I can hold it up between two fingers. It's 17 millimeters thick at the back and it tapers down to 3 millimeters at the front. It weighs 2.9 pounds. The aluminum chassis is extruded from a single piece of aluminum. The machine is an engineering marvel. Unlike their plastic, creaky counterparts running Microsoft Windows, both of these machines still seem fast and run as well as they did the day I put them into service.
The Great Mystery began shortly after I bought the Mac Mini and the MacBook Air in 2012. I did not know it then, but my timing was perfect. It was the zenith of performance and value in the Macintosh line. From that point forward, Apple all but abandoned the idea of meaningful updates to the Macintosh line.
In 2013 Apple released the Mac Pro, a visually stunning machine that produced impressive performance benchmarks. Then 2014 rolled around and Apple did not update it. The same for 2015, and now the same for 2016. You can still buy one from Apple but it's three years out-of-date, has been surpassed in performance by newer high-end iMacs costing substantially less, and it still costs what it did in 2013. If you bought a Mac Pro this year please get in touch with me—I have an acre of waterfront on Gilligan's Island that I'm certain you'll love.
In 2014, Apple "updated" the Mac Mini by removing the option for the quad-core Core i7 processor. Presumably those of us looking for extra performance were supposed to buy the Mac Pro, the beautiful machine that Apple was soon to abandon. The 2014 Mac Minis benchmark slower than my 2012 version—by about 33%! That was the last time the Mac Mini was updated. Today, used 2012 Minis configured like mine are selling for about what I paid for it. No depreciation on a four year old computer. Zero. I'm not the only one who thinks that 2012 was the zenith of the Macintosh line.
In 2013, and again in 2015, Apple updated the MacBook Air. Both of these updates were minor. Here in 2016, the MacBook Air still has the same screen, the same storage options, and very similar battery life to the machines sold in 2012. It does now come standard with 8GB of RAM, up from 4GB, but that's a bare necessity to sell a computer these days. At Apple's October event (Hello, Again) they quietly killed off the 11" MacBook Air simply by not mentioning it and removing it from the Apple Store. The 13" MacBook Air remains for sale, essentially the same machine I bought in 2012. My 2012 machine benchmarks only 13% slower than the fastest one you can buy now.
Whether it was intentional or not, Apple built a very cohesive ecosystem with the Macintosh. At the low end there was the MacBook Air and the Mac Mini. Both offered great value and the ability to build out a Mac system for about $1000. If you wanted to you could load them up with storage, RAM, and faster processors but the basic machines were affordable and very serviceable. When you factored in the durability and the excellent service from AppleCare (extra, but really worth it), the price was truly a bargain. Travel around a lot, as I do, and you see the MacBook Air everywhere. Go into a coffeehouse and half the machines people are using are Airs. Walk through a lounge or library on a college campus anywhere and MacBook Airs abound. It was the machine that brought Apple laptops into the mainstream—Macintosh quality combined with affordability.
At the high end sat the MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro—the upscale siblings of the MacBook Air and the Mac Mini. These were machines for professionals and creatives, machines built to crunch numbers and render graphics at breathtaking speed. They were also user-expandable—drive and memory upgrades are available for these machines from a host of aftermarket suppliers. This is critical in a professional-grade machine where it's difficult to anticipate what future requirements will look like.
In the middle sits the venerable iMac, an all-in-one computer unrecognizable from the Bondi Blue thing I bought in 1999. It can be configured anywhere from an entry-level to a full-on production computer. As I mentioned earlier, a top-end iMac now outperforms the geriatric quad-core Mac Pro. The thing about the iMac is that it's an all-in-one. That configuration is not for everyone. For one thing, display technology can change a lot over the life of a computer. It's nice to be able to upgrade the display without replacing the computer. For another thing, many many people (including me) like to use two displays mounted on swing arms. My LG monitors weigh 6 pounds each. A 27" iMac comes in at 21 pounds. It can make some desks, especially minimalist modern ones, a bit unstable. Also, you must order a "special" iMac with a VESA mount that replaces the stand. You can't change your mind later and sit the machine on a desk—and that's the sort of thing that happens when computers are handed down. Hence, I love the Mac Mini for its balance of capability and flexibility.
Why have I written this short history of the Macintosh? To illustrate the breadth of the offerings beginning at a realistic entry-level and continuing to very high-end machines capable of extraordinary processing power. I believe this, more than other reason, is responsible for Apple's unparalleled success over the past 15 years. Macs were cool and there was a Mac for everyone.
Apple's other Macintosh success story has been the widespread acceptance and adoption by businesses of all sizes. This took decades to achieve. Reluctant and ignorant IT managers the world over dreaded the words "Apple" and "Mac" for their perceived incompatibilities and higher costs. The shining example of overcoming this prejudice occurred just last month when IBM announced that, since their adoption internally at IBM, Macs are between $273 and $543 cheaper to run over a four-year period than an equivalent PC. (2) My own experiences, and those of my Mac-centric clients, mirrors that assertion. Macintoshes in the enterprise play well, last a long time, require less support, and create deeply loyal users.
So, what's wrong with the Macintoshes introduced last week at Apple's Hello, Again Event?
For one thing, every single model in the Macintosh line except the iMac is desperately in need of a major overhaul. What we got were new MacBook Pros but no mention of anything else. When a major refresh came every year or so, Apple's infamous secrecy created only excitement and anticipation. But this protracted silence? It's simply disingenuous. How does one plan? If I need a new Mac Mini, what do I do? Buy today's slower and less capable one? Find someone who will sell me their four year old one? This is no way to treat loyal, sometimes fanatic, customers.
For another, the MacBook Pro has been shrunk down to something smaller than the MacBook Air. It seems clear that Apple wants the MacBook Pro to be the one-and-only go-to laptop. (I'm intentionally ignoring the 12" MacBook, a niche machine for the sub-notebook crowd.) The issue here is that it's a "Pro" machine with a Pro price. Not everyone needs or wants that computer. Some of us design houses on our MacBooks and some of us write books. It's inconceivable to think that those two disparate tasks are best done by the same high-end, expensive machine.
Additionally, a Pro machine needs to be flexible and adaptable. To me that means user-upgradeable RAM and storage. To me that means a plethora of ports—USB 3.1, Thunderbolt 3, and an SD slot. To me that means 32GB of RAM even if it does shorten battery life. To me that means performance over form-factor. The new MacBook Pros are none of these things. It was brilliant positioning to have the "beefy" MacBook Pro juxtaposed against the lightweight, svelte MacBook Air. Each them spoke loudly about their purpose. Every buyer knew they were getting just what they needed at the appropriate price.
Apple's obsession over size, the belief that the best thing they can do to a computer is to make it smaller, illuminates a major flaw in their strategic thinking. We need better, more modern, more flexible products along a wide range of configurations, performance, and price. If smaller can go along with these things—great. If not, give me the machine I need in whatever size that turns out to be. I'll give you 5mm on the enclosure if you give me another hour of battery life, or user-replaceable RAM slots, or a couple of USB3 ports. Form before function is great in a museum but much less so in a tool you hold in your hand, a concept Apple needs to grasp firmly.
Lastly, Apple's great inroads into the business world now teeter over a precipice. As a consultant, I've had no hesitation in recommending Apple products—until recently, that is. In the business world, go-to vendors are the ones that deliver reliably, predictably, and affordably. Apple no longer appears to be any of those things. Perhaps they will become so again—they certainly must be feeling the immense pressure to do so. But there is no mistaking the incredible arrogance that lies behind carrying an army of fans along on this silly, self-destructive journey of abandonment. Perhaps all of Apple's energy is being used up building the new Apple campus, or the not-so-secret but seemingly rudderless car project, or the quest to make an iPad Pro good enough to make me want to ditch my MacBook Air, or yet another redesign of Apple Stores, or yet another attempt to make Apple TV be more than a footnote in the annual report, or, one can only hope, a game-changing black project we know nothing about.
Apple would do well to heed the lesson of Boeing back at the turn of the 21st century. Known the world over for iconic commercial airliners, Boeing allowed engineering skills to atrophy and it became top-heavy in management while spiraling into the abyss of schmoozing Washington for deals instead of making airplanes their customers wanted to buy.(2) When Boeing's then-CEO Phil Condit tried to assure shareholders that no stone would be left unturned in reversing the loss of shareholder value—even if it meant chucking the commercial airplane division—people everywhere were aghast. There could be no Boeing without commercial airplanes. Condit resigned within months, the company embroiled in Washington scandals and a declining reputation amongst their core customers.(3)
There can be no Boeing without commercial airplanes just as there can be no Apple without the Macintosh.
Today I ordered a 512 GB SSD for my 2012 Mac Mini along with a 512 GB SSD and a new power adapter for my 2012 MacBook Air. It is that teeter-totter moment for me: do I trade in my old car or invest in it to keep it running? I'm investing in upgrades in the hope that in a couple of years the options have improved and Apple is back in the business of building machines that both delight the eye and satisfy the need for productivity across its broad range of consumer and business customers.
I know I'm not the only one holding my breath.
(1) Apple, Inc. (2016, Oct 27). Hello, Again. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/apple-events/october-2016.
(2) Kingsley-Hughes, Adrian (2016, Oct 20). Macs are up to $543 cheaper than PCs, claims IBM. Retrieved from http://www.zdnet.com/article/macs-are-up-to-543-cheaper-than-pcs-claims-ibm
(3) Holmes, Stanley (2003, Dec 14). Boeing: What really Happened. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2003-12-14/boeing-what-really-happened
(4) Seattle Times (2003, Oct 20). Boeing chairman, CEO Phil Condit resigns. Retrieved from http://old.seattletimes.com/html/boeingaerospace/2001804571_webcondit01.html