Has Apple given up on the Mac?

Opinion: Apple is rumored to be preparing a long-overdue update to its Macbook line, but will this be too little, too late? In the PC business, Microsoft is wearing the innovation crown these days.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Is Apple's incredible run of innovation in the PC desktop space really going to end with the innovation crown going to Microsoft?

Most Apple-watchers expect to see a new MacBook Pro and MacBook Air refresh announced by Apple within the next few weeks. Those updates are very long overdue. As Adrian Kingsley-Hughes discussed, it's been quite a while since these products got measurable upgrades.

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There has been a lot of discussion about expected features in the updated MacBook Pro. Rumor has it there will be a touch-sensitive OLED strip where function keys would normally be. There might be a Touch ID sensor. The processor is bound to be faster. It might contain USB-C ports instead of USB 3.0 ports. And, just to be ornery, Apple may remove the headset jack.

On the surface, this seems to be a significant update. But when you look at what Apple is capable of, and when you look at the company's competition in the PC business, I'm beginning to wonder if Apple has given up on the Mac. This update looks a lot like they're phoning it in.

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Apple is, above almost everything else, known for design and innovation. If that's so, why is the year-old Microsoft Surface Book vastly more innovative than anything Apple has in its lineup - or appears to be willing to introduce?

Let's just hit some of the top-line Surface Book features. You can write on the screen, like you would on an iPad, with an Apple Pencil. You can flip it around and use it like an easel or a booklet. You can even detach the screen so that it instantly transforms into a Windows tablet.

Sure, Microsoft has been tinkering with the idea of a tablet merged into a PC since the old days of the Tablet PC. I bought a (terrible) Acer Tablet PC running XP back in 2002. It was actually pretty functional. However, the joinery between the lid and the keyboard was flaky. Whenever I switched modes, Windows XP Tablet Edition went into spasms and eventually crashed.

So the notion of a laptop that's also a tablet isn't new. Neither are function keys. The marquee feature of this new upcoming MacBook Pro is supposed to be a small screen that you may be able to customize and use as function keys.

Not only is that a gimmick rather than real innovation, it's a gimmick that will cause software makers to have to add special support for a feature likely to get only minimal real use.

Microsoft is cleaning Apple's clock when it comes to describing the Surface Book. The ads are brutal. They showcase people who you would consider classic Apple users - hip artists, film producers, prop masters - using the tablet features, pencil, and graphics tools to create finished work. To make matters worse, they end the commercial by sadly saying, "You can't do that on a Mac."

That's a powerful statement. It seems obvious that the maker of the iPad should provide a product with pencil and touch capability for its more professional, MacOS users. The iPad is nice, but the reason so many creative professionals use Macs is that the iPad just isn't enough, even if you consider the iPad Pro.

Sometimes you need lots of open windows, lots of applications, scripting, external storage, and all the rest. Sometimes, you just need a real computer. And sometimes you need a real computer that you can also write on with a stylus.

Clearly, Apple's profits and unit sales are heavily weighted towards their iDevices. Equally clearly, what we have been calling desktop computing is changing its nature.., and is no longer the primary way in which typical consumers use digital technology. Even the term "desktop" is anachronistic given that users of powerful desktop technology are more likely to use notebook computers than traditional chained-to-the-desk machines.

Yet, many of us still need the power and flexibility that only desktop computing technology can provide. Apple's developers generally need to use Xcode, which requires a Mac to run. So even if only to support Apple's huge base of developers, Macs are a viable market.

The world's most valuable company, a company known for innovation, has fallen far behind Redmond when it comes to the Mac vs. the Surface Book. It's not like Apple can't afford the R&D cost. It's certainly not that Apple can't innovate.

So why has Apple fallen so far behind? I have to wonder whether Apple is so consumed with maintaining and protecting its mobile market that the Macs just aren't getting enough share of mind.

It isn't as if there's no precedent for this kind of behavior at Apple. If you recall, back before the Mac became a product, there was the Apple II. As tech legend has it, during the Mac's development, the Apple II team was given short shrift. Steve Jobs wasn't nearly as enamored with the cash cow that was the Apple II, because he believed in the future of the Mac.

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Eventually, the Apple II faded away. It's worth noting, however, that the Apple II lasted as a product until 1993, a full nine years after the Mac came out.

There's another big difference, though, between the Apple II vs. the Mac of the early 1980s, and the Mac vs. iDevices of present day. In today's case, the cash cow is not the older technology. Mac sales make up a very small fraction of Apple's overall revenue. So it's understandable that Apple's primary attention is in its mobile device production.

That said, the Mac line is still a hugely popular line in the desktop PC class. In fact, the Mac continues to show growth, while the rest of PC shipments decline. In what should be an even more important point of consideration for Apple, Mac sales are growing, while iDevices have shown some softness of late.

So where is the innovation in the Mac line? Is the flagship feature of 2016 merely to be a replacement function key row? What about major updates to its popular but largely ignored Mac mini? What about convertibles and touch screens?

Has Apple given up on the Mac? Is Apple's incredible run of innovation in the PC desktop space really going to end with the innovation crown going to Microsoft? What do you think? Leave your comments below.

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