How Apple could have avoided much of the controversy

Here’s a basic reality: criticizing and second-guessing Apple is a hobby for many of us, and a profession for more than is probably healthy for the Apple ecosystem. That is a basic reality that isn’t going to change any time soon.

I long ago got used the the idea that no matter what Apple said or released, the Internet would fall over itself proving how much smarter they were than Apple, only to see Apple make another truckload of money on the product everyone was criticizing.

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That said, this event’s criticism has been louder and more widespread and angrier than I remember seeing for a long time. I finally had to basically unplug for a while because I found myself getting into the “someone is wrong on the internet” mentality.

Writing my piece over the weekend was about as difficult as anything I’ve ever written because there are a lot of legitimate gripe points with Apple right now, but so much of what’s being thrown around is trivial and petty and often outright wrong, or just plain silly.

A lot of it boils down to this concept: We demand Apple innovate, but we insist they don’t change anything.

No matter what, Apple loses. And as someone who watches this circus from my perch here in the Apple Ecosystem, I have to just recognize that, find the interesting and informed voices among the noise, learn from them and then move on.

If I were Apple

I’ve been thinking about how — if I were Apple — I’d try to minimize some of the pain and chaos going on with the users right now, while still being, well, Apple, who doesn’t roadmap the future and who really doesn’t like admitting there are problems or mistakes.

Under the assumption that there are updated desktops coming after the first of the year, I think it would have made sense to mention that, just so users waiting for them can stop feeling abandoned. It doesn’t require a lot of disclosure, but I think it was time for at least some.

So, later in the event, Phil brings up a single slide that says something like “More is coming soon”, and adds some color about what that means — updated iMac, a new Mac pro, and — dare we dream — an update to the Mini?

Highlight some of the upcoming features, wide color, Skylake processors, USB C and thunderbolt 3, and perhaps even throw Intel under the bus a little bit over the reason they’re not shipping today.

That would, I think, have muted a lot of the anger I’m seeing, without really giving away anything people couldn’t guess for themselves. What’s important here to me is that Apple acknowledges the cluster in the product line rather than proudly announce how great life is.

Let’s Talk Mac Pro

Speaking of clusters, let’s talk Mac Pro for a minute. I’ve come to the belief that the trash can Mac pro, the “Can’t Innovate my Ass” machine, is a product mistake of the “20th Century Anniversary Macintosh” caliber. It was a technological marvel, it was a stunning design, and it was a terrible piece of hardware for its primary audiences because of limited upgradability and component flexibility — and then Apple compounded that by not having good upgrade plans in place to refresh it since the design it created wouldn’t let its users do it for themselves.

I’m convinced we’ll see not just an updated Mac Pro, but a new design, one that I hope backs away from some of the issues this design has. What I’m hoping for is in fact a new desktop product line which merges the Mini and the Mac Pro where, like the MacBooks, you have the options of 2-3 models each with 2-3 configuration upgrades which cover the pricing and processing needs from a basic Mac Mini to today’s Mac Pro supercomputer capabilities.

I’m not convinced the Mini will survive this round of upgrades, but I do believe there’s a good niche for a basic desktop/server, and if it’s part of a consolidated product line (“meet the Apple Desktop!”) that’ll minimize investments in the product line because it can be shared across the configurations.

Lets Talk Dongles

People are having a field day talking about dongles and escape keys. Which is a bit like buying a new BMW and complaining about the color. The reality is, most might need a dongle or two but many people won’t need any. I bought three, mostly because I like keeping them in my travel bag for when I’m out and about, and in reality, 90% of their usage is by co-workers who forget to bring theirs to meetings, not by me. But hey, someone needs to think ahead.

As has been pointed out by many, the escape key is still there, it’s just not a separate physical key any more. And in all honestly, almost nobody will care about that after having used the new device for a month and gotten used to it, and for the couple of percent of you who will insist on remaining upset about this change, I’m sorry. But you can always use the VT-100 you have in your office when it bothers you too much.

I know when I buy a new car, I invariably have some accessories I need to buy because the ones I had with the old one aren’t correct for the new one — winter chains are always replaced, it seems. So if I’m spending $25-$30K on a car, spending another $100 on chains isn’t a big deal.

But watch the nerds complain about a $19 thing to customize their $2500 computer. My short answer: time for a bit of perspective, people.

In my case, my solution to all of the port changes is pretty simple: I bought a USB-C dock for the desktop, and a small one for the travel bag. When the new laptop arrives, I’ll unplug the Thunderbolt dock, replace it with the USB dock, plug it into the new Laptop, plug my Thunderbolt drive into the laptop with a dongle, and plug my existing USB hub into the new dock. Done.

It really doesn’t seem that complicated or expensive. And in fact, USB-C docks are half the price of thunderbolt docks. Which makes them almost a no-brainer option for people using these new laptops at their workspace. So I’m going from two cables into the laptop (power and thunderbolt for the dock) to two cables into the laptop (USB-C/power and Thunderbolt).

Lets Talk Niche

When I wrote about this over the weekend, I was thinking and talking about niches a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I see this unhappiness as a battle to stay out of the niche — people want to be part of Apple’s mainstream, and where we see the biggest anger is groups of people who’s come to the realization that’s not true any more.

The fact is, the Mac product line itself is becoming a niche product, because the days of the personal computer have started the shift back to where computers will be a hobby for the nerd and for the mainstream user, devices which use computers to enable tasks are starting to replace them: that includes tablets, but also gaming consoles and whatever it is that will ultimately take ownership of the living room.

This is sad if you’re a computer nerd, but it means these technologies have gone mainstream and we have to remember most people aren’t interested for computers as computers, they are interested in solving problems, and use computers for doing that.

And in many ways, a lot of the unhappiness I’m seeing about these new computers comes down to dealing with the realities of the Mac itself becoming a niche product to Apple, and of finding that your preferred use of the Mac is itself a niche within that niche, and one Apple may not see as central to the product itself any more.

And that’s just reality; all the whining and moaning aren’t going to undo the market forces driving this. Apple is reacting to changes, not pushing them.

But let’s talk about niches within niches for a minute. Lots of the complaints about dongles boil down to two things: they’re ugly (which is true) and they are features that should be built into the product.

I can’t fix the first one, but to those arguing that Apple is just soaking users by forcing them to buy dongles, adding $40 to a $2500 product simply isn’t financially significant. And if you think about it, if Apple did see these are lucrative products instead of functional accessories, they’d make them a lot prettier.

But the bigger issue around dongles is that niche thing again. These are accessories that allow specific customizations to the device that some people will want, but which most people won’t need. If you think about it, perhaps the biggest change from my older, 2013 laptop is that it’s gone from having seven (yes, that many) ports, each with a specific purpose to having four points, each customizable by a cable to dongle to solve the problem you have.

My laptop has a power port, an SD card port, 3 Thunderbolt ports and two USB ports. I know that in the four years I’ve owned it, I’ve never used the SD card, I use the Power port, one Thunderbolt port, and occasionally plug a USB cable in. So half the ports in this thing are never used — and yet I paid for them because they were built into the computer.

That’s the issue that defines dongles: Should 100% of buyers pay for a feature when only 5% of the owners will use it? Or 10%? How many users will need a feature before you think it ought to be required for everyone to buy it as part of
the device? Where do you draw that line?

One thing I’ve been pondering this weekend, but I couldn’t find any data on it: if Apple had to make a choice between including that SD card or including a VGA connector, which one should Apple do? Because I’d be willing to take a bet that more people use a VGA dongle twice a month than use that SD card twice a month on their existing machines.

But the nice thing is that the ports on the new computer give you the options to have the capabilities you need, not the capabilities Apple thinks someone might need. And if you really think the dongles are ugly, I’m sorry — but there are also non-Apple options that are often cheaper, too.
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But dongles are very much a feature, not a bug. And four general purpose ports is, to me, a big upgrade over seven specialty ports.

We need to remember that if they add all of those ports to the computer, you’re paying for them, whether or not you use them. And they all take power, they add complexity, and increase the chance of failure for the device as a whole. And it’ll end up looking like this.

Lets Talk RAM

There’s been a lot of criticism about the limit to 16Gb in these machines. As people have dug into it, it looks like this is another bundle of joy Intel has left on Apple’s porch for Apple to do the best it can with. One of the best looks at it is Rene at iMore:

Why not throw power efficiency out the window and make a 15-inch MacBook Pro variant for video pros that can support the big, hot, and hungry workarounds needed to get 32 GB or more into a notebook, the way they made a 13-inch variant without a Touch Bar and with only two Thunderbolt 3 ports?

Take a step back and think about this product: let’s say Apple releases a MacBook Pro, probably 15” with a special configuration for power users: you can build it out to 32Gb (probably comes in 16 and 32Gb only), has a beefier CPU/GPU — and gets 2-3 hours of battery life. So effectively, they’re reinventing the portable office machine, not a laptop.

Stop and think about how the internet would react to this product. Now, start muting all the yelling, and ask yourself: If you had a choice between this product, or buying the existing MacBook Pro with good battery life but some struggles with 4K video processing (which seems to be the space where this memory is going to hurt a bit), I’d go with the smaller RAM on the existing laptop. I expect all but the most hard-core video nerds would, too.

So, think about niches and market sizes: If only about 10% (SWAG(1) numbers) of MacBook Pro users are likely to have memory issues at 16Gb and then only for specific tasks like 4K video rendering, and if only 40% of those users would consider buying this memory enhanced special product (at a premium), is it worth Apple doing?

I’m thinking not. At the same time, I’m not saying there’s no issue here: it bothers me that users have no viable options here at all right now, but Apple can’t solve a problem Intel’s left no solution for. I do think/hope that an updated kick-butt Mini after the first of the year could be one way through this for most of the users impacted by the memory, but we won’t know for a while, and the uncertainty is bad news for the user base.

Missing the forest for the trees

[Update: I grabbed the wrong CPU benchmark; my bad. Updated this to the corrected info — it’s not doubled, it’s roughly the same as my current Laptop, but since I’m going from the top end 15″ model to a 13″ model, that’s really what I was expecting in the first place — chuq]

Among the noise being made about this upgrade by people complaining these new laptops bring nothing for them to the table are a bunch of basic enhancements being ignored: when I looked up raw benchmarks on my existing 2013 unit and the one I bought, I found the CPU benchmark doubled and the GPU benchmark was about the same. On top of that, a bigger, faster SSD and faster RAM mean this machine should be a lot faster and more capable.

Also in the long run, USB C is a performance win, and so is Thunderbolt 3. For Photographers, the new wide color monitor looks to be a massive upgrade.

This machine is a much better machine in many ways, which is being ignored in the discussions about all of the other features in the device.

Lets Talk Bottom Line

I think these computers are taking some valid criticism, but much of that criticism is ignoring a lot of the positives that these new computers have, including nice improvements in CPU and GPU speed and faster RAM, all indicating nice bumps in overall performance.

But having said that, the fact that so much of the Mac product line is such a cluster and Apple didn’t acknowledge that makes the criticism understandable and deserved. What we got from Apple was good; what we needed from Apple was that and more — and it didn’t happen.

This was all Apple being Apple, but this time, because of the issues in the product line, it wasn’t enough.

I’m disappointed Apple said nothing about desktops this event, but not surprised. Personally, I was hoping to get a nice desktop and a MacBook, but since there’s no new desktop to buy, I’m picking up the MacBook pro and so I lose my chance to give Apple even more money during this round of upgrades.

I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on this new laptop and seeing how it performs. I’m hopeful the new Touch Bar will be a tool and not a toy, but time will tell on that. And I’m really, really hoping that early in 2017 Apple unless the new iMac, the new MacPro line, and that all of this will finally be behind us; unfortunately, this product line cluster has run on about a year longer than I’m happy with — in many ways, we can blame Intel for the cause, but Apple takes it’s part of blame for poor communication on all of this.

But if there’s one truth I can predict moving forward, no matter what Apple does, there will be people criticizing it. That’s just life in the Apple ecosystem.

Notes:

(1) SWAG: Silly Wild Ass Guess, although my percentages of users affected by the memory limitation is based around talks I’ve had this last few days trying to scope out the impact of this. It’s pretty… Niche.