“Pro” Mac Hardware

There has been quite a bit of angst in the Mac community lately regarding Mac Hardware, particularly amongst “pro” users. Though there is no accepted definition of a “pro” user, I generally consider the pro user to be anyone who has a use case in which the processing power of the computer has a material impact on the amount of work they can get done. For example, people who can ship more work product because something renders in one hour instead of three, or compiles in 20 minutes instead of an hour.

This excludes the vast majority of users. For most people, speed is a nice feature that makes for  a better user experience. But if the sum total of time savings amounts to minutes per day, there isn’t really much of an actual productivity boost.

The Apple ecosystem has a lot of benefits. The build quality of their hardware is second to none. There is a historical advantage of software reliability and security as compared to Windows, though this gap has closed considerably in recent years. Apple has done a great job of cramming very good hardware specs into progressively thinner and lighter laptops. I still don’t understand why they apply this philosophy to desktops, though they look cool.

However, in pursuit of the continual shrinking and lightening of the product line, the gap between the specs available from Apple and the major PC vendors in the workstation category has finally reached the point where even Apple loyalists are taking notice. We’ll see what Apple releases over the next few months (and years), but as I write this, compared to the MacBook Pro, portable workstations from the major PC vendors can be configured with faster processors, four times as much system AND video RAM, as well as more (and upgradeable) storage. As compared to the Mac Pro, desktop workstations from the PC vendors can be configured with more than three times the number of processor cores, sixteen times as much RAM, and double the number of (more powerful and replaceable) video cards. Compare these specs to the iMac, and the gap is even larger.

These PC workstations will be big and ugly. The battery life of the portable models will probably suck, and getting these kinds of specs will cost a lot of money. These machines will also be upgraded by their vendors – every, single, year. For the non-pro users, annual spec bumps are really not that big of a deal, and even many design upgrades are more about fashion than anything else. For the pro users, Moore’s law has a serious impact on their bottom line. More powerful specs mean significantly more work can get done.

This highlights the risk that’s inherent with being loyal to a single hardware vendor. What happens when your vendor is no longer in addressing your particular needs? I have no doubt that Apple will continue to upgrade the MacBook Pro and the iMac, and they may even come up with a replacement for the Mac Pro. However, even if they do, it’s doubtful that the hardware will be as powerful as what could be purchased in the PC market, and extremely unlikely that the upgrades will happen with the clock-like regularity found in the PC market.

What I think is so frustrating for many pro users is that it would be relatively easy for Apple to profitably build true workstation class machines. Apply loyalists would be willing to pay a premium for hardware that would enable them to make more money. If you exclude size and weight as sacred design elements, development costs would likely drop considerably. Pro users would gladly pay extra for a MacBook Pro that was thicker and heavier than consumer models if it gave them lots of upgradeable RAM and storage, as well as a more useful array of ports. The same holds true for the Mac Pro. The “cheese grater” form factor would allow for specs generally on par with PC workstations and allow for annual incremental upgrades without major redesign work.

These machines would not sell nearly as well as mainstream models, but that’s not really the point. There will eventually be a trickle down effect if Apple loses the pro market. Apple certainly doesn’t owe it to any particular group of users to build machines that meet their particular needs. By the same token, users don’t owe their loyalty to any particular company either.

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“Pro” Mac Hardware

My “New” (old) MacBook Pro

Despite Apple introducing new 2016 MacBook Pro’s last week, I just ordered at 2015 model. Yes, the one that was last updated a year and a half ago. I spent a considerable amount of time looking at the new lineup and thinking through how I intend to use the machine. Ultimately I concluded that in addition to costing several hundreds more, the new models simply offer me less utility than the 2015 models.

I work in Higher-Ed IT in a support role, and need to use both Macs and PCs for a variety of testing and other work functions. Though my very first two computers were Macs (SE and PowerBook 540), I’m really a PC person. I’ve always supported a handful of Mac users, but I started in a new role last January which requires that I become much more proficient in supporting Macs. I was issued Dell Ultrabook right away to get started, and was given the go-ahead to order a MacBook Pro. I decided to hold off on buying a MacBook Pro since new models would be coming out soon (hah!). There was also a four-year-old 21.5” iMac that I could use in the meantime, so I didn’t feel rushed.

I certainly wasn’t expecting to wait until late October. I thought that at worst, the new models would be out for back-to-school. Since I really needed to get up to speed on supporting Macs, I went ahead and setup the old iMac as my primary machine, plugging in a 25” Dell monitor running at 2560×1440. I remote into my Dell for Windows tasks and running VMs (it has an i7, 16 GB of RAM, and a 256 SSD). I then waited, and waited, and waited.

Everyone’s use case is somewhat different, but for me, none of the updates offer any real benefits. Marginally smaller and thinner – I don’t really care. Half a pound lighter – I don’t really care. Better screen, I don’t really care. The 2015 model was already thin, light, and had a great screen. The increases in processor, graphics and storage speed won’t have a significant impact on my workflow, even though I will be using VMs and driving an external monitor. I don’t do design work or video editing, so I don’t expect to ever need to connect multiple 5K displays. I don’t really care about the Touch Bar, and based on the limited time I’ve spent using a 12” MacBook keyboard, I expect to prefer the keyboard on the 2015 model.

However, many of the things that Apple took away are a problem for me. A huge part of my workflow requires that I use a USB security token, and I use USB flash drives a fair amount. I’m not a huge klutz, but I was looking forward to the MagSafe connector. I connect to projectors and large LCDs on a fairly regular basis, so an HDMI port is very useful for me. The thought of having to use dongles all of the time doesn’t appeal to me.

The machine I ended up ordering was the 2015 13” MacBook Pro with the i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage. With our contract pricing and AppleCare, it cost about $2200. It would have cost about $350 more to get comparable specs on the new model, plus the cost of dongles. The price is already painful enough – when purchasing a Mac I try not to look at PC prices for similar specs, but the gap is pretty staggering.

It will be really interesting to see what the sales numbers look like over the next several months. There is certainly a tremendous amount of pent up demand, given how long it has been since the last substantive upgrades. Ironically enough, my purchase will count towards Apple’s sales number for this quarter, even though I’m not happy with the new releases.

Concerns for the Mac

Having read lots of blog posts and listened to a number of podcasts from long time Mac users, I concur that there is legitimate reason for concern over Apple’s direction with the Mac line. It is certainly fair to question Apple’s commitment to the “Pro” market, defined as people who truly need high-end processing capability. Apple seems to have stopped making workstation class machines altogether. These sorts of machines simply don’t fit into Apple’s thin and light design philosophy.

This philosophy makes sense for some models. I think the 12” Macbook is a great machine. I think the new 13” “Escape” model makes a lot of sense, even though it’s overpriced. The 13” Touch Bar model seems nice, and will also make more sense once the price comes down. However, I’m having a much harder time wrapping my head around the 15” model as a “Pro” machine. Pro machines, and for that matter desktops as well, don’t need to be so thin and light. Just as trading off some processing power makes sense for some users to have extra portability, trading off some portability makes sense for users who need more power.

I’m also confused by the mixed messages that Apple is sending with regard to which technologies they are keeping, getting rid of, and introducing. They removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 because it’s such an old technology (and courage). Yet they kept it on the new MacBook Pro’s because it’s a “Pro” feature, but apparently they dropped optical audio output through the headphone jack. They also got rid of the SD slot, which is causing fits for some photographers.

Touch Bar

Speaking of technology introductions, there’s the Touch Bar. While the Touch Bar seems like an interesting concept, I do worry that this will lead to a word usually reserved to criticize Android – fragmentation. There is a huge installed base of Mac desktop and notebooks that don’t have a Touch Bar, and Apple is selling current generation laptops without it (12” MacBooks and the 13” MacBook “Escape”). This seems to be the first time in quite a while that there are going to be Macs with a significant enough hardware difference to affect software functionality.

For years Apple has scoffed at the notion of touching any other screen than an iOS device. The Touch Bar seems to be a compromise at first glance – it’s close enough to the keyboard that you don’t need to raise your hands, but also close enough to the screen that you don’t need to adjust your gaze very much. The question is, how will Apple and developers translate the functionality of the Touch Bar to models without the Touch Bar?

This raises several other questions. Will we soon see new iMacs with a Touch Bar built into the lower part of the bezel? Will there be a floating menu on the screen instead for Macs that don’t have Touch Bars? Will Apple just decide to “invent” the touch screen with the next iMac? Will Apple roll out the Touch Bar to the “Escape” and MacBook models next year to justify the prices?

Prognostications

There seems to be much more rumbling from the Mac community than usual with this release cycle. It will be interesting to see if this is part of a trend, and how all of this plays out over the next several years. Overall, I expect Apple to lose some market share, yet remain very profitable.

At the higher end, Mac users have always had to make a trade-off when it came to raw specs as compared to what’s offered in the Windows universe. For these Mac users, the benefits of MacOS and its integration with (less powerful) hardware made this somewhat of a no-brainer. “It just works” was thrown around quite a bit. In recent years this has shifted as Apple has delayed updating the Mac product line, and software quality has slipped. Staying with Mac OS changed from being a “no brainer” to “still worth it”. It now seems like many high-end users have just about had enough. After some ups and downs, Windows has come a very long way. Some of these users are taking another look at Windows, especially given the wide array of hardware choices available for much less money.

At the low end, Apple seems to getting squeezed as well. Case in point – I just purchased an unlocked Moto G4 from Amazon for $120 with ads. It’s a fantastic device, and in many ways is comparable to my wife’s iPhone 6S Plus. Her company paid for it, and would have cost $750 unlocked when new last year. While the Moto G4 won’t be supported nearly as long as the iPhone, based on a three-year cycle for the iPhone, I could replace the Moto G4 twice a year and still come out ahead financially. If she suddenly had to buy her own smartphone, there’s no way we would spend the extra money for an iPhone.

This holds true for laptops as well. Chromebooks are getting better all of the time and selling quite well. I could just about get away with one as my primary computer at home. You can also get a really good Windows 10 laptop for half the cost of the new MacBook Pro “Escape”. As more and more of what people interact with moves to the web, the operating system seems to be becoming less and less important. The companies that make these inexpensive machines aren’t making much money, but as a consumer, it’s not my job to inflate the profit margins of the vendors.

For consumers who are not price sensitive and don’t have unusually demanding processing needs, Macs will continue to be a great option for years to come. However, as Macs become an increasingly small portion of Apple’s revenues and profits, I expect them to become less and less suited to the needs of true power users. Whether this starts to detract from the “cache” of Macs is doubtful.

My “New” (old) MacBook Pro

Pricing Google Pixel Phones

I watched the first half of Google’s product announcement today (October 4, 2016) before heading to a meeting. As many expected, Google announced two versions of their new Pixel phones. Pricing is “premium”, which is to say that the entry level model costs $649. While I am not the type of consumer that shops in this price range, I do think that Google’s pricing is more competitive than people initially realize.

The reason for this is that Google is including unlimited photo and video storage. Apple gives users 5 GB of iCloud storage, and prices go up pretty steeply from there. At approximately 375 MB per minute for 4k video, that space can add up quickly. One hour’s worth of 4k video use over 20 GB of space. Keeping ten hours of video puts you into the 1 TB plan, which costs about $120 per year. The next (and highest) tier is  currently 2 TB, which costs about $240 per year.

I don’t think that the Pixel phones will be a huge threat to the iPhone in the short term. Apple’s customers do not seem to be particularly sensitive to price. However, there are no doubt a number of high-end consumers who will find Google’s Pixel phones to be compelling for a variety of reasons. Fast charging, free online storage, a headphone jack, project Fi – there are clearly some features that positively distinguish the Pixel from the iPhone. By positioning the Pixel as a premium phone, Google may start to poach some of these high-end users.

Pricing Google Pixel Phones

Is Apple’s Messaging Going Negative?

As I work in IT and support both Macs and PCs, I consider it part of my job to stay up on the latest news with regard to Apple. A few days ago, (3/21/2016) I watched the live stream of Apple’s event, in which they rolled out the iPhone SE and the smaller iPad Pro.

By many accounts, this was a bland event, as Apple has trained us to expect breakthrough products at these events. However, there was one moment that really stood out for me.  It happened about 45 minutes into the presentation, when an Apple exec said the following:

“There’s a second group of people that we’d love to reach with the new iPad Pro. Windows users. You may not know this, but the majority of people (who) come to an iPad Pro are coming from a Windows PC. A desktop, or a notebook. Now of course, we all know, Windows PCs were originally conceived of before there was an Internet. Before there was social media. Before there were app stores. And this is an amazing statistic. There are over 600 million PCs in use today that are over five years old. This is really sad. It really is. These people, yes, could really benefit from an iPad pro. And when they see the features and performance and capabilities of a product like the iPad Pro designed for our modern digital lifestyle, well many of them will find it’s their ultimate PC replacement”.

Never mind the fact that Macs were also originally conceived of before there was an Internet, social media, or app stores. We can also ignore the fact that bulk of these aging Windows PCs can connect to the Internet, access social media, install more apps than are available for the iPad, and have lots of capabilities that the iPad Pro doesn’t.

Putting aside the absurdity of claiming that an iPad is a direct replacement for a desktop class computer, what I find most interesting is that with the exception of the Apple vs. PC commercials that ran from 2006 – 2009, Apple has used very positive messaging that focused on the benefits of their own products. Apple positions their products as status symbols, and typically pulls new customers toward their products in an aspirational way. The “sad” statement, is very different. Rather than positioning their updated iPad as something to aspire to, this message seems to be very negative – even condescending. Apple seems to be saying that there is something wrong with people who continue to use old PCs.

Statistically speaking, I am the target of this statement. The PC that I’m typing this on is 7 1/2 years old. It was only a mid-range machine when I purchased it, costing about $750 including the flat panel monitor. However, the processor is not drastically slower for day-to-day use than a processor in a new computer. Two years ago I spent about $140 to add more RAM and a SSD, which drastically improved its performance. It is more responsive than a typical new computer with a conventional spinning drive. I expect this PC to continue to meet my needs for at least another two or three years.

However, there is nothing sad about my continuing to use it, and if it died tomorrow, I couldn’t possibly imagine replacing it with an iPad.

What might cause Apple to shift from a positive, aspirational message to one of derisiveness? Why are they making the effort to try and portray older PCs as relics of a bygone era? Why is it sad that people are continuing to use computers that are clearly meeting their needs?

My contention is that Apple is worried about both the slowing product replacement cycle across the industry, and commoditization within their product categories. This is a scary prospect for a company that derives the vast majority of its revenues from hardware sales.

The overall replacement cycle for computers is slowing down tremendously. There are a few reasons for this, but I believe that a major factor is that software bloat has largely leveled off for basic applications – i.e. running Windows, Office, and a browser. While it used to be the case that new versions of Windows or Office placed a significantly higher load on machines than their predecessors, this is no longer the case for most users. Businesses and individuals who used to need to replace their hardware every three years have started stretching their replacement cycles to four years, five years, or even longer. Two years ago I surveyed the faculty I supported who were due to have their four year old computers replaced, and 43% of them asked if they could just keep using their old computers.

Yet Apple is counting on this replacement cycle to drive sales of new iPads. While millions of people have certainly supplemented their aging PCs with iPads, the overall market for iPads seems to be plateauing. Just as with PCs, iPads themselves aren’t being replaced at the pace that Apple would like for them to be. For many customers, even those seeking status, there are fewer and fewer compelling reasons to upgrade with each iteration. The iPhones and iPads are maturing, and Apple seems to be exploring new tactics to stimulate growth.

Competition within the Android phone market, combined with the cell phone industry’s move away from subsidized purchasing, is putting increasing pricing pressure on the iPhone. There is currently a selection of not just usable, but very good Android phones in the $200 range, which couldn’t be said a few years ago. As more and more people pay cash and see the actual cost of their iPhones for the first time, it becomes harder and harder for many of them to justify not just replacing their iPhones, but spending significantly more than they would for an Android phone.

I certainly don’t think that Apple is in any danger of going out of business. I fully expect that they will continue to be the most profitable player in the industry for many years to come. Apple has a tremendous amount of cash, their products are extremely popular, and their customers are willing to pay a premium relative to the technical specifications of their products that is unheard of in the rest of the tech industry.

However, the negative message does seem to signal some insecurity on the part of Apple. It will be interesting to see if this is a one-off statement, or represents a change in Apple’s messaging.

 

Is Apple’s Messaging Going Negative?