Over the last several weeks, a Skylake full of ink has been spilled over this fall’s Apple crop. Actually, the press seems fascinated with three distinct topics:
- Insufficient magic in the 2016 MacBook Pros
- Apple “sticking it to pros” by offering limited RAM in the MBP
- Apple “sticking it to pros” by not updating the Mac Pro desktop since 2013.
Issue number 1: Beginning the next day after the announcement, I had non-technical friends asking me, “what’s the deal with poor, old, beleaguered Apple?”
Okay, I’m exaggerating. That’s not really what they asked. But they were underwhelmed. Tell you what? I was too. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was expecting a bit more. The Touch Bar is interesting, but hardly world-changing. The presence of Touch ID is also interesting, and frankly, more relevant, especially for business users of Macs. (Dare I say it, “Mac-using pros”.) But most relevant, IMHO, is the fact that it is thinner and lighter (both also useful to pros who remove it from their desks). The move to USB-C is perhaps annoying today, but in time, will not be a big deal, and potentially very useful in terms of Thunderbolt 3 extensibility.
So is it earth-shattering? No. But it’ll do just fine at filling the backlog of orders that came after Apple had let the MacBook Pro lay dormant for a good long time.
Issue number 2: Apple only provides up to 16GB of RAM (and they didn’t go full Kaby Lake). Last thing first, it’s just late 2016. Nobody goes full Kaby Lake. But to suggest that Apple missed the boat by skipping a secondary tock is wacky. Apple rarely takes a bullet for the industry. We’ll see Kaby Lake and beyond come to the MBP. But it makes no sense to rush it this year.
Now we come to the real meat of the outrage. There’s this fascination – dare I suggest it is a feedback loop, that Apple completely doomed the MBP by not enabling more than 16GB of RAM in any of the new devices. That these devices are (paraphrasing) “unsuitable for pros”.
I offer you a challenge. Using Google, or any tool you’d like, find links to the following three things:
- The US$15 burger on the McDonald’s menu
- The Tesla convertible
- The page on Microsoft’s site where I can build or configure a Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book with more than 16GB of RAM.
Too tongue in cheek? Seriously though… The first two would exist, if there was a large enough market for them. The third would as well, although Microsoft most likely chose to cap it at 16GB for many of the same reasons that Apple did (Spoiler alert: it was about a compromise of what most users need in terms of RAM, and battery life). You’ll note that every Mac you can plug in, short of the [somewhat] budget conscious Mac Mini, does offer options for configuring more than 16GB of RAM, if that is what a user needs.
I’m admittedly on the low-end of the “pro” user market anymore. I couldn’t readily make my living doing what I do without a Windows PC or a Mac. But I don’t ever run an IDE. Like a band saw, that is a thing I’m not qualified to do, and it’s in nobody’s best interest that I do it. I also am a firm believer for about 4 years now in not virtualizing diddly on my Mac. I cut my teeth on the Mac running VMware Fusion from the beginning. Frankly, licensing (Windows-based) stuff to run in VMs on a Mac is a hot mess that your org should be very careful about doing. But that’s not why I don’t do it. I don’t do it because it’s a hot mess of RAM and storage requirements, in an era when both are more limited than in desktop-class laptops of the past. For my needs, I’m better served by buying a laptop that focuses on being a kick-ass laptop (minimal CPU, the RAM and SSD I really need, and a battery that lasts for a delightfully long time, and running VMs in Azure, AWS, or on a desktop. (Or more desktop-like “laptop” that would probably burn my crotch if I really used it for that.) I’m not convinced that the top-tier MBP that Apple created still can’t meet the needs of many (most?) of those who truly need a laptop to do their work.
I feel like a lot of the issue here can be summed up by a tweet of mine from 2014…
There is a number, greater than 0, of business Mac users who truly need a laptop with more than 16GB of RAM, and would pay what it costs for Apple to build in the technology+battery needed to make it happen. I believe that if Apple saw that that number was significant enough, they would build it. That’s what they do. They built an oversized iPhone, when we all said they wouldn’t. They offered a stylus for the iPad, even though that would mean they blew it. If a market that is willing to pay a premium exists, Apple will build a thing to address it. (This also likely describes why Apple is letting their displays go fallow, and perhaps will even let them die completely. We will see if, perhaps, new displays arrive the next time we see an iMac refresh, likely in 2017.) But I honestly would love to see more detailed scenario descriptions where people need more than 16GB in a laptop day-to-day, where having a secondary desktop or using cloud-based virtualization wouldn’t meet or exceed their needs instead – especially in cases where people aren’t willing to pay the premium Apple would need to charge for an MBP that could meet those needs. Thoughts on that? Blog on what you do, what you need, and why those wouldn’t work, and post a link to my Twitter.
Issue number 3: Finally, we come to the Mac Pro and signs of life. It has been almost 1,100 days since the last update to the Mac Pro, a desktop high-end Mac that is, significantly, a) really expensive, and b) uniquely, assembled in Austin, TX.
As a result of a headline with a recent year stating, “New Mac Pro announced”, many have marked the line for death. Why shouldn’t they? Apple used to make servers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make wireless routers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make displays. Whoops, my bad. We’ll see in 2017, but that might be the case as well. I don’t know the stats on how many Mac Pros Apple sells annually, or what the ASP of those units is. It could potentially be a reasonably large chunk of cash, but even with the price of the units, is most likely a pittance of the actual revenue compared to what Apple makes on iPhones, or even on the rest of the mobile Mac+iMac lines. And for better or worse, Apple’s focus, as most companies of late, has been on shareholder value/returns. Apple gives what it gets. Like a “MacBook Pro Plus” (or whatever the ultimate nerd-spec MBP would be branded), the cost to address the market in a timely manner don’t likely mesh with more aggressive research spend to deliver it more rapidly than the cadence we’re seeing.
So will we see a new Mac Pro anytime? Perhaps.
But there seems to be a fair amount of rumors that say Apple would rather build a tier of iMac that could address some (but not all) of the scenarios the Mac Pro instead of building a new top-shelf desktop PC. Because we are at a reasonable plateau of display technology – of sorts, I could reasonably set aside my distaste for AIOs and say maybe that isn’t a horrible idea. Is it ideal? Not really. The Mac Pro is minimally extensible, and a (27″, Kaby Lake) iMac that addressed it’s space would need to rely completely upon external extensibility… not that the current Mac Pro doesn’t, outside of RAM or SSD). Any iMac would also be seriously challenged to address the caliber of GPU or CPU power possible with the Mac Pro. The replacement, or suggested replacement for a Mac Pro is, IMHO, very likely to arrive in 2017.
In terms of both the MBP and Mac Pro, I think Apple will try their best to continue to address the high-end pro market as best they can. But time will tell. In the end, some pros may find Apple’s innovations discouraging. Some will possibly switch to Windows-based PCs, but short of building their own PC, I think many will find the PC OEMs driving towards similar modularity and cost reductions, and feel constrained – if less so – when buying a PC of any kind.
There’s a whole other topic to discuss another day, which is the rumbling “Microsoft has stolen the creative mantle from Apple” theory. More on that later…