Dave Mark: Where are the new Macs?

Dave Mark, writing in the the Loop, asks a great question: Where are the new Macs? It’s one many of us that are rather impatiently waiting for new hardware.

Dave asks:

What is the story here? Is the Mac space too small, revenue-wise, for Apple to go to the trouble of a new product launch? Is something else causing this lack of new models?

I think the answer to that is “no”, and that the problem ties back instead to two things:

  • Dependence on a vendor for a product that missed its deadlines: Intel and the Skylake processors
  • Apple’s strong integration of hardware and software

Intel’s problems are pretty well documented, they’ve been missing their roadmap schedules for a few generations now, first with their Broadwell generation and now with Skylake. The Skylake processors are now hitting the market, but after delays — but even at that, there have been problems, such as the chip bug discovered by the prime number researchers.

If you look at Apple’s product timelines, I think it makes sense to think that the Mac Pro (at least) originally was planned for a Broadwell refresh, and I think it makes sense to guess that once Broadwell was seriously delayed that it would make sense to choose to skip that generation for Skylake generation CPUs. So far, so good.

But then, Skylake gets delayed as well, and things get complicated.

Apple as a company designs around technologies and most of the time, strong integration and consistency of the product lines are positives for the company, but I think this is one of the things that has come back and bitten Apple because of the delays.

Think about the likely technologies that Apple has likely decided have to be in future products: Retina displays, and 4K or 5K display monitors would be key ones. but driving those displays requires a lot of bandwidth, and that means Thunderbolt 3; existing Thunderbolt technology won’t cut it. And that means Skylake. Other connectivity? USB-C is clearly the future with Apple, and again.. that really means Skylake CPU technology.

So if you’re Apple, you’ve likely planned your product line around a new Thunderbolt 3 display that’s fully retina and has at least a 4K screen in it — and perhaps that embedded GPU so it can be used by less powerful computers. And your Macbook pros will have 2 (or 3 or 4) ports that will take either USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 and drive these monitors.

And none of that can happen without the Intel parts.

Think back to that prime number bug. It was discovered in January. A BIOS fix was issued for it in February. I’m curious what kind of problems that chip bug might have caused for Apple: how hard was a fix for Apple’s OS to protect it and Apple’s users from that bug? Did Apple hold up finalizing hardware while it evaluated the problem? I can see a reasonable chance that the bug kicked Apple’s hardware schedule in the knee once more, and might be a legitimate reason why a Macbook pro release schedule originally slotted for WWDC might have had to be pushed back a month or so.

One could even speculate that Apple might have chosen or been forced to disqualify the skylake CPU form its products, but the rumors of the upcoming laptops makes that the kind of rumor even the bad rumor sites would walk away from.

You can’t release that new monitor until you have CPUs that support thunderbolt 3, and so the top priority for Apple has to be to get the new Macbook pro line out there. Because the line all ties together, the other pieces can’t hit the shelves until that piece does.

And because the Mac Pro and Mac Mini are both dependent on the new monitor (because it would make no sense for Apple to target new generations of those devices to old technologies) they won’t get released until after the laptop logjam.

If they’re ever released. Will there be a new Mac Pro? Will there be a Mac Mini?

I do think there has to be a new high end device, whether or not it’s call a Mac Pro. That’s very much a low-volume niche, but it’s an important one for a key segment of Apple’s customers. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Apple releases something that rethinks how they fill that niche. The more I think about it, the more I tend to think the Mac Pro as we see it today is probably fading away. And we can probably expect whining and moaning, because I think Apple has made it clear it sees extendability as being a feature done through expansion ports, not through internal connectors and bays, and we know some segments of the high end devices hate that concept — even though with Thunderbolt 3 I think the reality of the concept starts matching up a lot better with the theory…

But the mini? What’s today’s market for a new Mini? It’s frankly hard for me to define a viable market strategy to continue producing it, beyond us greybeards who still want something to use as a home server or a home media server.

I can justify producing a new Mac Pro line (whatever it’s called) that only sells 100-200,000 units in the lifetime, but can I justify a new generation Mac Mini if it doesn’t sell a million units? And can I figure out a market that’ll buy a million of them over 2-3 years? In trying to define a market for that box, I can’t.

And I don’t think it makes sense to build the Mac Mini if it’ll only sell 50,000 copies to people building media servers to run Plex on.

The market has changed, and I think it’s changed in ways where a device like the Mac Mini no longer makes sense.

So if I were speculating, I’d say the answer to where is the new hardware? is blame Intel. And I hope that the signs point to a reality where we’ll soon stop asking that question, because I’m hoping the logjam is soon to be ended.

Unless Intel screws it up again. I know one job I definitely do not want today: Intel Account Rep to Apple. Those meetings must be some kind of fun…