Past, Present and Future of the Mac

By now the reactions to the new MacBook Pros have been well documented and analyzed by those within and outside the Apple userbase. Many feel that these Pro laptops are not ‘Pro’ enough. Some say that Apple is constrained from making the specs better by Intel’s chipset realities. A few joke that Apple has become a dongle manufacturer; a rebuttal has come from the unlikeliest of sources. Most agree and mourn that the Mac line is no longer one of Apple’s priorities.

At this point it’s interesting to look back at past Apple keynotes and detect a sense of the company’s overarching philosophy with regards to the Mac, and in particular the Mac laptop.

We think it is an all-in-one world. Clearly in consumer devices, like phones and iPods – these are all-in-one devices. But what’s interesting is that, so are notebooks. And notebooks are taking over the whole PC industry.

Where does Apple get (its) revenue? It gets it from three product lines: iPods, iPhones, and of course, Macs. Now what’s really interesting about this is that iPods are mobile devices, iPhones are all mobile devices, and most of the Macs we ship now are laptops – they’re mobile devices, too. Apple is a mobile devices company. That’s what we do.

What would happen if the MacBook met an iPad? There’s a lot to be inspired about there… iPad has instant-on… great battery life, amazing standby time… solid state storage, so there’s no optical or hard drives. And it’s thinner and lighter, which means it’s even more mobile. These are some great things for notebooks. And so we asked ourselves: what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?

I’ve cherry-picked these moments, and the all-in-one quote originated from a desktop announcement. But these are still quite illustrative of the philosophy Apple has been pursuing for many years with their entire Mac lineup. A couple of things become apparent: one, Apple has for some time been perceiving the future of computing as portable (and by extension, mobile); two, they see the future of mobile computing to be best served if it can be brought as close to the iPad form factor as possible. The results are what we have seen in the new MacBook Pro keynote: no desktop announcement, and a new lineup of ‘Pro’ laptops that have prioritized thinness, lightness and battery life over raw performance.

All this is to say that the new MacBook Pro is just the latest result of a clearly stated and long-term planning by Apple. For them, the present and the future are all portable. Sleekly machined aluminum, 10-hour battery, wireless portable future is what the company has bet on for quite some time. Trace a line from the PowerBook G3 through the titanium PowerBook, to the original MacBook Pro and the unibody MacBook and then the retina MacBook Pro, and the pattern becomes evident. Apple’s laptops, pro and non-pro, have only ever gotten thinner and sleeker, and the power they carry has always been subject to compromise. Those who are up in arms over Apple’s treatment of the Mac – the whole lineup in general, and Mac Pro in particular – have legitimate grievances, but the surprise and outrage of some observers at Apple for not producing a MacBook Pro that prioritizes performance over form factor seem a little misplaced, given the history of the platform.

The current state of the Mac might seem sad for those who back in the day thrilled to the iMac updates, the ‘Get a Mac’ campaign, the dynamic and frequent form factor changes2 and the digital hub strategy, not to mention the blistering pace of hardware and software innovation as Apple moved from transparent plastic to aluminium to unibody aluminium and from OX 9 to OS X through the Intel transition. The late 1990s and early-mid 2000s were truly the Mac’s heyday, being the central part of Apple’s business strategy from which so many ground-breaking and revenue-making products spawned. iPod went through a similarly exciting period of breakneck improvements3, without completely displacing the Mac into the second tier. Today, however, iPhone and iOS have done exactly that. It is by far Apple’s biggest moneymaker as well as the most widely used platform the company has ever had. Naturally it has earned the kind of lavish, breathless annual attention the Mac and the iPod used to enjoy. Is this a sign of Apple neglecting the Mac, or just a consequence of a gradual yet irreversible shift in priorities? In so many ways the iPhone is the portable computing device Jobs and his team dreamed of and evangelized over and over again in past keynotes. It is the ultimate expression of slim, light, sleek, all-in-one portable computer, free of wires and unencumbered by ports. This is the future Apple tried to bring to the present, not the Mac, which will never be so portable, nor so personally essential.

So, back to the new MacBook Pro: Apple engineers will argue, not unreasonably, that the new MacBook Pros are deserving of praise in the way they have improved performance, kept the same battery life and reduced the device footprint, whilst also introducing a new hardware-based user interface. In a vacuum that’s a pretty solid achievement, but since we’re not in a vacuum, Apple can quite easily, through refreshing the Mac Pro once in a while, alleviate the very real difficulties experienced by many of the people who actually rely on the more powerful Macs to make a living and pursue dreams. While the future may be mobile, desk-bound Macs are still relevant, and I absolutely agree with those who demand that Apple acknowledge this, even if it is just for now.

A few more, wilder thoughts: given where things are headed – computing future as mobile all-in-one as described above, plus the ever more powerful A-series SoCs on iPhones and iPads, plus the recent rhetoric from Apple leadership – I think Apple would definitely want for people to be able to develop for iOS devices on iOS devices. I also think Apple would definitely want the iOS devices to become sophisticated enough in the relatively near term to be able to support such developmental work4. I think Apple sees the iPad Pro as the progenitor of an eventual developer edition iOS device. I think that, given the choice (and Apple obviously has the strategic choice if not yet the technical means), Apple would rather grow the already ARM-based iPad into a developer device rather than put ARM inside Macs as a move to bring more control in-house. Finally, I think there has to come a point, sooner rather than later, when Apple transitions much of Mac’s reason for being to iPad5, and the Mac recedes further into the niche, used for only the heaviest of tasks. When that day comes, the reaction from the Mac faithful will make the current reaction against the new MacBook Pros seem quaint.

  1. The first gen MacBook Air, lest we forget, inspired very similar reactions to the new MacBook Pro.
  2. Ranging from the minimalist Power Mac G4 Cube to the sunflower iMac G4 to the seminal iMac G5.
  3. Original iPod to iPod mini to iPod nano is another example of thinner, lighter and more mobile.
  4. iOS in its tenth iteration has already become more sophisticated than the average user realizes, and capable of many of the functions that used to be the sole preserve of the PC/Mac.
  5. iPad isn’t there yet – iOS on the tablet needs more functionality, which sadly hasn’t been delivered in iOS 10 despite all the low-hanging fruits.
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