4 Theories That Explain the Apple MacBook Shortage

Image credit: Apple

The new Apple MacBook was available on April 10, just as Apple said. But not in stores. Online order deliveries quickly shot up to four to six weeks. What happened? Here are some possible failure scenarios based on conjecture—seasoned with some experience.


1. It May Have Been a Timing Snafu. One theory is that WWDC will be all about the iPad Pro and iPhone 6s and iOS 9 changes to support them for a fall rollout. But Phil Schiller, who is the nominal Macintosh spokesperson at Apple events, was in an awkward position leading up to the March 9 event.

That event was supposed to be all about the Apple Watch. We didn't expect anything else. However, I had heard rumors that sounded pretty realistic about a new, 12-inch, gold colored MacBook Air that might replace the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs. See: "What to Expect During Apple’s March 9 Media Event." In that article I ended up admitting that I didn't think it would be appropriate to interfere with the Apple Watch focus.

And yet, perhaps Phil Schiller needed and wanted to announce that new MacBook on March 9 (or else wait until June) even knowing that he wouldn't have sufficient inventory in place. The Apple Executive Team may have decided let him go with it anyway because shipping only one major new product in the first six months of 2015 just will not do.

How did Schiller get his way? If you watch the event closely, Mr. Schiller never mentions anything about "In stores on April 10." What he said was "Shipping April 10." And Apple did that. Mayhap, as our Kelly Guimont suggested to me, that was the clever, perhaps deceptive wording Mr. Schiller had to agree to in order to get on stage with the MacBook in March.

2. Advanced Technology Woes. The new MacBook changes just about everything in Apple's notebook design thinking. Mr. Schiller said, "It took reinventing every technology in it." Here's a list of all the new technologies.

  • All metal. Integrated antennas into the enclosure.
  • Butterfly instead of scissor key mechanism.
  • Individual LED light for each key.
  • 12 inch edge to edge cover glass, 2304 x 1440 pixels.
  • Display panel is only 0.88 mm thick.
  • New pixel technology, more transparent, lower power.
  • Force Touch trackpad. Taptic Engine feedback engine.
  • Removed fan and vents. Heat dissipated via the metal enclosure.
  • Asymmetric, terraced battery.

With all these new technologies, it's not hard to see how a breakthrough design that would elicit (as Mr. Schiller said) "Hashtag MacBooklust" would take some extra time to develop in manufacturing. Perhaps longer than expected to bring it all together in huge quanties But why commit to April 10 when the Apple stores would be jammed with Apple Watch onlookers? Nerviousness about the Apple Watch popularity?

3. Supply Chain QA Snafu. Closely related to #2 is that a critical subcomponent such as the Retina display or battery system might have had supply chain issues. One component shortage or quality control issue can slow down the entire manufacturing process and delay quantity shipments.

It's a judgment call on whether to assume that a QA issue can be solved in time or whether to delay the announcement. Considering the pressure Apple has been under to innovate, it's easy to see how a decision could have been made to proceed with cautious optimism.

It appears that all 265 Apple stores in the U.S. had three MacBooks, one of each color, on display. That's 795 units. On the other hand, even 50 units per store on launch day, April 10 amounts to 13,250 and Apple couldn't even do that. I would expect Apple to sell sell several hundred thousand MacBooks in 2015, so not being able to come up with even 13,000 on launch day makes it look like something went very wrong.

Next Page: Core M Yield Issues. Long Term Trends for Apple.

Page 2 - Core M Yield Issues & Long Term Trends for Apple


4. Intel may be having yield problems with Core M. We have some evidence of that.

In October, 2014 Joel Hruska at ExtremeTech wrote:

To say there’s a great deal riding on the launch of Intel’s Core M is something of an understatement. The chip — and Intel’s 14nm hardware — is nearly a year late. The delays have raised investor questions about Intel’s ability to maintain or leverage a technological advantage over its rivals, and while Intel’s own demos have looked amazing, these always take place on very friendly turf under controlled conditions.

In January 2015, Andrew Cunningham at ars technica wrote:

Intel's new Broadwell chips have had an odd and protracted rollout, due mostly to early yield problems with its new 14 nm manufacturing process.

Perhaps the yield problem isn't completely solved, especially for the sales quantities Apple tends to demand.

A Long Term Trend?

On April 15, our Kelly Guimont wrote: "When Did Apple Stores Become Apple Showrooms?"

What I hope is that this is an anomaly, a temporary situation. Maybe when there’s more inventory, then the rules will change and you will be able to walk in, get a watch and a gold laptop, and leave. What I fear is that it's not an anomaly, that Apple Stores are being transformed into Apple Showrooms.

Has Apple been bitten by the innovation bug so bad that even its own incredible financial resources cannot bring together modern supply chains to build extraordinary technology in massive quantities? Especially at launch? Is there some fundamental issue with current technologies such that Apple presses the supply chain to its limits and beyond? Is Apple strained to its limits in innovation so it can continue to be perceived as the very best premium brand? Are we in for more of this with every new product?

I believe it was Ian Flemming who once said:

  • Once is happenstance.
  • Twice is coincidence.
  • Three times is enemy action.

The Apple Watch was once. The new MacBook was twice. Time will tell if Apple has become a victim of technology so advanced that its hard to come by products have become the enemy of consumer technology lust.