When to buy a Mac? Certainly not now?

Introduction 

Apple is a unique company, in a few different ways. It is one of the few companies that had a small but cult like customers / followers initially and was able to expand from that small niche to the biggest company in the World. Apple's customer base now spans Globally across billions of people. So Apple cannot operate like the same company it was when it had only millions of customers. Another thing is that anything written about Apple these days on the Internet garners a lot of publicity and the negative writings garner even more. These two things are sort of my disclaimers about this column and bear there two points as you read further.

How did I become an Apple fanboy? Definitely not by using the iPhone, not even by the iPod. My love for Apple products started with the Mac and Mac OS like many others. Every other Apple product I own and love need to be grateful to the Mac for that was the seed in my mind. Over the years Macs have evolved. They've always been expensive and in my mind, I justified that by saying though both a BMW 3 series and a Nissan Altima are cars, they cannot be compared and contrasted in the same strata. I have used only three Macs in the last 11 years, the black plastic MacBook in 2006, a 13" Aluminum MacBook Pro in 2011 and the current 15" MacBook Pro Ibought in 2015. I've loved all three of them and couldn't have lived without them. Each one of there required some sort of adjustments on my part to be made, be it the lack of DVD drive or the lack of ethernet port or something along those lines. But all there compromises seemed minor compared to the overall value and utility of the MacBook. Or in other words these were compromises worth enduring. That is how I always define any Apple product. You are going to have to make compromises like paying more, having less hardware options or upgradability, lesser choice of available games (at least in the past with the Macs), etc. But in the end at least in my opinion these compromises faded into oblivion when you started using the product, thanks to Apple's simplicity and elegance both in its hardware and software. But has this balance shifted in the last few years? Or is the answer to the question, "When to buy a Mac?" as of today is, "Certainly not now"? 

Is the response to the question, "When to buy a Mac?", is "Certainly not now!" even with the Apple's newest MacBook Pro with Touch Bar release? (Image Source: Apple.com)

Is the response to the question, "When to buy a Mac?", is "Certainly not now!" even with the Apple's newest MacBook Pro with Touch Bar release? (Image Source: Apple.com)

Problem?

First let us look at the reason(s) for why in my opinion the answer to "When to buy a Mac"? is "Probably not now"! 

  1. Apple's computers have generally been less frequently updated or redesigned in the last few years.
  2. Apple has been surprisingly inconsistent about its computers, case in point, the Mac Pro. After famously dissing out at the critics, Apple's Phil Schiller introduced the newly designed Mac Pro a few years ago, promising to keep that category healthy and alive. Its almost the end of 2016 and not even a word has been said about the Mac Pro by Apple and the product has not been updated since its introduction, not even minor processor or graphics updates. But Apple still sells it in store and online. And lastly Apple has not breathed a word about the long past due for a redesign Mac Mini!
  3. Apple introduced a revolutionary new portable laptop, the New MacBook that had only one USB-C port recently. This was clearly not a replacement to the MacBook Pro but probably a replacement to the MacBook Air, albeit a more expensive one. However after a couple of years now, Apple continues to sell its older in terms of design and quite frankly stale, MacBook Air, though only the 13" model. My expectation was that the Airs would be replaced by the more modern MacBooks in time to target light or business users. But that has not happened so far. Neither have the MacBook Airs seen any design changes (they still don't even have Retina displays) nor have the New MacBooks become more affordable.
  4. Finally, Apple's darling computer, the MacBook Pros are in a weird situation to put it lightly. After not being updated as frequently as they used to be, the most recent update or rather a total new design has left a lot of Pro users left wanting. I want to elaborate on this point a little more (below) as I feel this is the strongest bear-case point against Apple.

The curious case of the new MacBook Pros

A 9to5Mac poll of 2016 MacBook Pro owners revealed that the majority found it no big deal to adapt to the brave new USB-C-only world. More than 5,000 readers took part, with 56% describing it as ‘a small deal/painless.’
— via 9to5Mac

First of all, the lack of any ports other than the USB-C ports on the new MacBook Pros is clearly not the biggest complaint against it (via 9to5Mac). Apple has done things like this in the past and will continue doing things like this in the future. This is one of those compromises Apple users are well accustomed to by now. Let's talk about other things related to Apple's newest MacBook Pros.

The current Apple MacBook Pro lineup has some gaping holes in it (Image Source: Apple.com)

The current Apple MacBook Pro lineup has some gaping holes in it (Image Source: Apple.com)

There in a base model of the 13" MacBook Pro without a Touch bar for around the same price as the older model its replacing. Then there is the $200 more expensive 13'' MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar. Then there is no new 15" MacBook Pro around the same price as the outgoing model. The base 15" new MacBook Pro is $200 more expensive now.

At least in the 13” category you have a choice. My issue is with the 15” category. The only 15” new MacBook Pro you can get costs $2399 and it has the Touch Bar. So it is $200 more than the outgoing model and what do you get for it.

The 13" MacBook Pro base model without the Touch Bar seems to be a decent upgrade from the older 13" ones. A design overhaul, more colors, more compact (though this was achieved at the cost of the keyboard), a bigger track pad, etc. But the 13" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar that is $200 more will only get you the Touch Bar and some minor processor and configuration upgrades. But at least in the 13" category you have a choice. My issue is with the 15" category. The only 15" new MacBook Pro you can get costs $2399 and it has the Touch Bar. So it is $200 more than the outgoing model and what do you get for it.

 You get:

  • Better-design
  • Touch Bar
  • More colors

You lose:

You don't get:

  • A Pro configuration (Processor, RAM and Graphics are not pro enough?)

So not only is the new 15'' MacBook Pro more expensive than the outgoing model, but it might also not be good enough, for its user base (i.e., the Pro users). It seems to me that the balance I mentioned before, the one between compromises and the value of Apple Products is indeed shifting and not in the right direction!

Apple’s customers expect new products to launch at the same prices as their predecessors, while those three models’ pricing drops. That’s how it’s been with iPhones, iPads, iMacs, Apple Watches and Apple TVs. Yet in this case, Apple is charging $200 more for the newest MacBook Pro and keeping the same prices on the older models. Worse: To get the same 256GB storage on the old 13-inch MacBook Pro, you have to pay the same price as the new one!
— Joanna Stern via WSJ

Finally, a note about the Apple computer line-up. I am ok if Apple wants to have the 13" MacBook Air, 12" MacBook, 13" MacBook Pro, 15" MacBook Pro, iMac, the Mac Mini and the Mac Pro as its line-up, as it is today. But,

  1. The MacBook Air is outdated
  2. 13" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is not recommended as its too expensive
  3. 15'' MacBook Pro is not a good value for your buck
  4. And the Mac Pro, well no one knows what's up with the Mac Pro, but its a definite "Do not Buy" in every reviewer's opinion
  5. Mac Mini, I don't even know what to say about this machine... 
In Apple's current computer line-up most of the computers are stale in design and/or configuration options (Image Source: Apple.com)

In Apple's current computer line-up most of the computers are stale in design and/or configuration options (Image Source: Apple.com)

Five out of seven Apple Computers are either stale in design and / or configuration options! I'm not saying that Apple should stick to Steve Jobs' four model computer strategy, as it might not be too relevant for today's Apple with billions of customers. But the current Apple lineup is messy and even borderline, dishonest (The Mac Pros shouldn't even be on the current line up, at least not at the current prices they are sold at)!

Steve Job's famous four quadrant strategy for Apple computers might not work for the current Apple (Image Source: CaseStudyINC.com)

Steve Job's famous four quadrant strategy for Apple computers might not work for the current Apple (Image Source: CaseStudyINC.com)

Conclusions

Interviews with people familiar with Apple’s inner workings reveal that the Mac is getting far less attention than it once did. They say the Mac team has lost clout with the famed industrial design group led by Jony Ive and the company’s software team. They also describe a lack of clear direction from senior management, departures of key people working on Mac hardware and technical challenges that have delayed the roll-out of new computers.
— via Bloomberg

A lot has been said about this topic in the recent past. This Bloomberg article kicked things off by saying Apple is not paying any attention to the Macs (by the way I don't agree with most of this article as most of supporting arguments in it are purely circumstantial and here-say). And this one (via MacRumors) speculating that other products might have distracted Apple from its Macs. And then in an unprecedented move we heard from Tim Cook, in response to some internal qualms on the same topic that, asserting that this is not the case and Apple does care about the Macs (via TechCrunch), well in this case specifically about Desktops. Did he mean just the iMacs or is there a new Mac Pro in the horizon?

Strategy Analytics senior analyst Eric Smith attributes the stabilizing effect to Apple’s renewed focus on iPads. He said Apple entered the 2-in-1 tablet market with the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard right in time to renew growth and capitalize on growing enterprise demand in the future.
— via MacRumors
Some folks in the media have raised the question about whether we’re committed to desktops... If there’s any doubt about that with our teams, let me be very clear: we have great desktops in our roadmap. Nobody should worry about that.
— Tim Cook via TechCrunch

Also to be fair to Apple, Intel's last few years have been lethargic and since Apple relies on Intel for its Macs unlike its iOS devices, part of the blame for this should be directed at Intel ("A" series Macs?). I have also read in a lot of places that "Apple thinks of iOS devices (mainly the iPhones) as its cash cow and doesn't care about the Mac. And that Apple is wrong in this assumption, as Macs though in minority are greatly responsible for this phenomenal success of the iPhones." I have two comments on this. Yes of course I agree that, though the Macs bring in far less money than the iPhones, their fall would be a disaster to the iPhones (and Apple). Second, if all of us can think of this correlation, Apple should have thought of it long time ago. Apple is smart in these things.

Another issue for Apple is that not only does it work in a very different way compared to most of the other companies, it also employs very different people and is very choosy when it comes to its employees. This is kind of a "necessary evil" for Apple and the phenomenal (even unexpected by Apple) growth of the iPhone put a lot of strain on it work force. Even with hundreds of billions of dollars in hand, getting Apple-esque Engineers is very difficult and in my opinion this could be a major reason for this situation. The solution? Well I really don't know if there is one in this case, as the Engineer pool is not something Apple can directly improve overnight. 

Even with hundreds of billions of dollars in hand, getting Apple-esque Engineers is very difficult and in my opinion this could be a major reason for this situation. The solution? Well I really don’t know if there is one in this case as the Engineers pool is not something Apple can directly improve overnight.

So either of two things are happening. Apple has some grand plans for the Macs and this is just the messy but unavoidable in-between period. Or that Apple really messed up with the Macs, not realizing its importance and this situation is the result of it paying too much attention to the iOS devices. Either way, I expect Apple to do something about this situation very soon (wishful thinking?) and we should see some sort of revival of the Macs in the near future... So is your response to "When to buy a Mac"? is also "Certainly not now!" or is it different?