A Deeper Look at Apple’s ‘Macintosh Problem’

| Analysis

Apple’s overall Macintosh sales are in decline, for how long we don’t know. The MacBook Pro is long over due for a refresh. Apple’s Mac Pro has languished. The Mac mini, last updated in 2014, was less than intoxicating. What’s happening?

Concept of Macintosh, MacBook Pro with OLED strip

2016 MacBook Pro concept. Image credit: Martin Hajek

There is no single issue that seems to be driving Apple’s Mac Problem. By Mac Problem, I mean a general sense of anxiety about the current state of the Macintosh product line.

The 2013 Mac Pro hasn’t been updated since it was released. The last MacBook Pro updates were March, 2015 (13-inch) and May, 2015 (15-inch). The last Mac mini update was October, 2014 and was severely criticized by TekRevue, with good reason. The only shining stars in all this are the 4K (21.5-inch) and 5K (27-inch) iMacs released in October, 2015.

Last week, I surmised that one way to view the situation is that Apple is working on new technologies, including Thunderbolt 3, that will allow the company to rethink and refresh the entire product line. Perhaps create new products.

Pause for Fantasy. It’s possible that Apple has learned from the design mistakes of the 2013 Mac Pro and will present us with a glorious new 2016 Mac Pro in September. One with many Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.1 ports, better expansion capability, easy upgrade to 128/256 GB RAM and 4th generation Xeons. It’s possible (likely) that Apple will present us with exciting new, thinner MacBook Pros, in the style of the 2015/2016 MacBook and include OLED function keys. It’s possible that Apple will utterly rethink the introductory Mac mini to make it fast, expandable and affordable.

The Current Macintosh Crisis

The above fantasies notwithstanding, there remains a sense of alarm about Apple’s current, visible commitment to the Macintosh product line. For example, nothing happened on the MacBook Pro anniversary dates. No announcement was made at WWDC. Right now, 16 months is a long time to wait for an update to the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The best estimate of time and technology I’ve seen are that we’ll finally get new MacBook Pros in the 4th calendar quarter.

If I were to guess, I’d say that there will now be a joint hardware event in September that announces both new MacBook Pros and the new iPhone 7. It’s reasonable to speculate, based on recent history of Apple’s OS designs, that there will be a closer technical relationship between all the product lines. The delay in the MBP’s would allow Apple to achieve that in one fell swoop. Then we’ll be delighted and all will be forgiven.

What I don’t think is reasonable is to conclude, from idle analysis or fear, that Apple is mindfully allowing the Macintosh product line to disintegrate. It’s all too tempting for naysayers to jump on Apple, exhibit a great loss of faith and malign Apple for the sake of juicy headlines. This isn’t productive. History has and will again prove them wrong.

The Macintosh Sales Downturn

Another aspect of the current Mac Problem is the sluggish sales of Macs. I saw this article at the Denver Post: “Apple’s Mac no longer bucking PC industry’s sales slide.” I checked the article against my own spreadsheet of Apple’s Mac sales, and the numbers seem right.

This downturn probably has more to do with the growing strength of the U.S. dollar, the squeeze on Apple customers who have too many devices to manage and update, the global economy, and the thirsty anticipation of new MacBook Pros. Plus, if the slowdown in the iPhone replacement rate extends to Macs, that could be factor in the (temporary) decline of Mac sales.

Patience: Ignition and Synergy

Essentially, Apple is in a situation where it has the opportunity to re-ignite interest across the line in order to regain an overall sense of healthy enthusiasm for the Mac. My instincts tell me that Apple is prepping just that. Why else macOS Sierra in the fall and APFS in 2017? It all goes back to the Fantasy paragraph above and includes, perhaps, some delicious synergy between our Apple Watch, iPhone and Macintoshes. For example, we already know about Auto Unlock in Sierra.

Recently, Ken Ray reminded me that Apple is a company that has so many revenue sources that it can afford to take its time when it comes to technical leaps in any one product. That is, Apple’s bottom line isn’t going to suffer if it sells a million fewer Macs in a quarter or two. Or it goes 18+ months before an Apple Watch hardware update. It will all be made up in the future.

This is what Apple does, and we love the company for it. Let’s give Infinite Loop a little more time.

15 Comments Add a comment

  1. I hope you’re right.
    I hope your fantasy is dead on
    I hope your instincts are actually whispers fr4om insiders that adr dropping NDE information you can’t talk about.
    But I’m investigating running macOS in a virtual machine on Linux or a hackintosh just in case.

    The lat time I was this pessimistic about Apple and the Macintosh, it was trading at $12/share and sold Performas.

  2. This downturn probably has more to do with the growing strength of the U.S. dollar, the squeeze on Apple customers who have too many devices to manage and update, the global economy, and the thirsty anticipation of new MacBook Pros. Plus, if the slowdown in the iPhone replacement rate extends to Macs, that could be factor in the (temporary) decline of Mac sales.

    It probably has more to do with iPads and other tablets.

  3. CudaBoy

    The hero has been the iPhone for way too long; the Mac just does not get the love a real desktop should get from a company like Apple. It’s embarrassing how much horsepower you get in the Windows world and yes – World of Warships/Tanks/Aircraft on a 50″ screen doesn’t hurt either. It’s easily done by Apple if they choose to pay attention to the Macintosh. It will be obvious if the Infinite Loop becomes Loopy. I’m stupidly optimistic the guys won’t forget what brung ’em…i.e. the Macintosh Desktop. But I know we’ll never get World of Warships, dammit.

  4. CudaBoy

    geoduck: <>
    I’m starting to think those were the good old days when the fastest Macs were dual Power PC PowerComputing or UMAX computers for less than a Quadra 900 series. And the Centris…ooohhhhh, ahhhhh…….

  5. I actually like the slow down pace that we are into. My iMac (2014) still is fast and I really don’t have the funds to spare to upgrade. My MacBook Air (2014) is still zippy and gets the job done when on the road.

    Hell I still have an old PowerMacG5 (PowerPC) that I use for some older apps. Thought that does feel slow.

    So unless Apple really comes out with something I “gotta have” then this leisurely pace of upgrade is ok by me.

  6. jhayden

    I’m waiting on a new MacBook Pro. I don’t know what Apple has coming, but I sure would like it to be 32 GB and 6 or 8 core i7. A couple of changes of those types would wake everyone up. I think the technology is there now.

    As to the Mac Pro, why not move it into an iMac with twin Xeons?

  7. Words are important. When Apple dropped “computer” from their name, that was an indicator of the future – not only the emphasis on other devices, but the abandonment of professional computing as a target market. Apple’s market now is solely the non-technical public.

    [NOTE; I’m baaaack!! I finally repaired my login. As usual, take a grain of salt for words from an old systems programmer like me who still thinks in BCD and values CP cycles.
    Gareth – GarethHarris.com – SentimentalStargazer.com ]

  8. Paul Goodwin

    The long upgrade cycle on Macs has been around for a long time. I have been buying Macs since 1988, and have pushed them via RAM and HD upgrades typically to year 8. The most disappointing thing to me is how they’ve removed those easy upgrades from their products. The first repercussion of that is you have to invest more up front to get a machine that will perform well as long as your older Mac. This bigger initial investment is a big deterrent. My mid-2010 iMac i3 is still hanging in there with 8 GB more than I bought it with, but the 500 GB HD is 90% full. But the upgrade to El Capitan has slowed it down.

    Also, Apple only puts the highest performing iMac hardware in it’ 27″ model, and my 21.5″ is plenty big. I’d rather max out one with the smaller monitor.

    Limited configuration, lack of easy upgrades, and the huge initial investment have me hesitating to buy.

  9. rfrmac

    What really is Apple doing with all of it’s people resources and money? I’ve seen progress in the operating systems, iTunes, Apple TV but what else? I’m writing this on a 2014 iMac, the iPhone has fallen behind in several areas, love my iPad and have considered a Pro but can’t get myself to purchase it. Would consider a new MacBook Pro but it needs an update in graphics and speed and communications.

    Would love to purchase a new Macintosh desktop but Apple has given no incentive to purchase any desktop computer for a long time. You can’t expect to make money on the Macintosh line when you haven’t really invested in it for years. And look what they have done with the poor Mac Pro, boy I’m glad I went the iMac route for my video editing. And all that talk about the Mac Pro shows real innovation. They’ve just dropped that platform like a hot potato. Apple, you say your always looking to invest money in things that work well with your existing product lines. How about taking a little of that cash and engineering resources and investing in yourself and updating your entire hardware line to be world class? I don’t need a car, I need a faster and modern Mac!

  10. There have been other ‘in-between’ times like this, and in the past Apple has managed to bring it all together beautifully. I’m on board for the fantasy, too. It really is ludicrous, though, the power we can get by comparison in other machines that mobile devices just can’t currently match (and they likely will never compare to larger machines as technological advancement in computing is largely across the board). Not good for those of us that need the juice, I was thrilled when there was real parity there for a little while.

    There’s no denying the majority of users are elsewhere these days. Though my other devices are important, the Mac is still where I do most things. I’d be fine if I lost my iPhone, work-wise, I’d be screwed if my Mac went south. That’s one of the problems with the, as you put it, John, ‘following the culture’. That particular demographic isn’t working yet, by and large, they don’t yet know what they will require in the future! 😉 It’s a time of shifting sands, to be sure.

  11. Consider this! I Purchased a MacPro for $3,000 to Run SETI! The MacPro Produces a Daily output of 20,000 Work Units! For Half That I BUILT a WinTel Machine that Produces 40,000 WUs and Uses LESS $$$$ for Energy! Out of 25 Computers, 5 are Macs and they all suffer from costing to Much $$$$$ Vs the Amount of Work Produced Vs Watts Used! And 1988 and a SE30 was the First of 25 Macs for me, 28 Years, and I am NOW waiting for Apple to Again Do Something “COOL” with a New MacPro! John Ellwood Burtscher–Jellwood Flint MI

  12. Old UNIX Guy

    I, too, wish that John Martellaro’s “fantasy” about new professional Mac’s would come true, but if I were a betting man I’d bet against it. There are a number of reasons why:

    1. Apple is clearly focused on the consumer market. They certainly don’t care about professionals, and the argument could be made that they barely care about prosumers.
    2. Tim Cook clearly doesn’t care about the Mac. He’s an iPhone / iPad / Watch guy thru and thru.
    3. Jony Ive clearly cares way more about what he mistakenly thinks is beautiful design than he does about the actual usability / functionality of the devices.
    4. Craig Federighi clearly cares way more about stickers in the Messages app than he does about providing a rock solid UNIX box (like Apple used to when Bertrand Serlet was in charge).

    And does anyone out there think that Swift Playgrounds for iOS isn’t the beginning of Tim Cook’s vision to ultimately have app development be done on the iPad and removing the last reason to even keep the Mac around???

    I’ve got 10 years to go until I can retire. My fantasy is that the Mac remains a barely viable choice for me until then. But I’m not holding my breath.

    Again, I hope John ends up getting his fantasy, but I would remind everyone that the definition of a pessimist is, “someone with experience.”

  13. brilor

    John, I hope you’re right. Noticed your podcast with Jeff G. on the same topic didn’t mention the Mac Pro which makes an even stronger case for believing Apple is changing its Mac strategy.

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