Apple, January 2018: 10 years after the MacBook Air

(My previous look at Apple’s line-up was done in August 2016 and can be found here.)

Today is the 10th anniversary of the MacBook Air, so it is perhaps appropriate to take stock of Apple’s product line as we look back at the debut of the laptop that ushered in many of the design choices (thin, light, etc.) Apple still follows today.

In recent times Apple has faced criticism from a couple of fronts: neglecting certain devices, abandoning standard ports, raising prices to new extremes, introducing “gimmicky” tech and so on. Are the criticisms fair? In some cases yes, in others it’s more complicated.

Here’s a breakdown of where every Apple product is at.

Disclaimer: I am not an industry insider, Apple evangelist, tech guru or even a love guru. I’m just someone who has long been fascinated by Apple and its products, decisions and impact on the world of consumer technology.

I’ve gone from owning a single Apple device–an iPod Classic–to the following (I’m excluding obsolete devices like my iPod nano, may it rest in peace):

  • Phone 8 (just acquired)
  • iPad Pro 10.5″
  • MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (2016 model)
  • Apple Watch Series 2
  • Apple TV 4K

Basically I own nearly everything Apple currently sells. I don’t have a Mac Pro, but I do have a 2011 iMac 27″ from work I use for PD.

On to the products:

iPod
As expected, Apple killed off the iPod nano and Shuffle last year, leaving the iPod Touch as the only iPod (which got its last significant hardware update in July 2015). I will boldly predict the Touch will get the axe in the next year or so, finally ending the iPod line.

iPhone
The bulk of Apple’s revenue continues to come from the iPhone, now over a decade old. I remember when we had fuzzy 3.5″ screens–and we liked it!

Last year Apple made the controversial move to eliminate the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, even as the rest of the phone was just an iterative design on the previous 6s, which was an iterative design on the 6. Some phone manufacturers have followed suit with the jack removal, notably Google with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. It remains to be seen if the rest of the industry follows through. My prediction is the headphone jack will be a scarce thing on most smartphones within two years.

Meanwhile, Apple released three new phones last September. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are again iterative designs, with some tweaks, like glass backs to allow for wireless charging, along with the usual processor and camera improvements. More attention was given to the iPhone X, a near bezel-free design that forsakes the home button and Touch ID for Face ID, introduces an OLED display and, of course, adds animated poop in text messages. The most controversial part was probably the price–$1,000 (over $1300 in Canada with exchange rate).

Scuttlebutt suggests the X sold very well in the first month, with sales falling off notably after, mirroring what happened with the original iPhone in 2007. Back then Apple responded with a price cut. Would they do it again? There’s certainly enough of a gap between the 8 and X to allow for one. Apple hasn’t been cutting prices much lately, though.

Also, the iPhone line-up is a bit bonkers right now. Apple is selling:

  • iPhone 6s and 6s Plus
  • iPhone 7 and 7 Plus
  • iPhone 8 and 8 Plus
  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone X

No iPhone SEX yet, though.

That’s still eight models to choose from. I expect the 6s and 7 to be culled when the next phones come out in September. There are rumors the SE will be updated, which seems entirely plausible.

I think Apple will forge ahead with its iPhone plans regardless of sales for the next year or two. Price cuts are possible, but I think they’ll only happen if sales begin to fall off significantly.

iPad
Last year Apple made the difference between the regular and pro versions of the iPad more distinct, by introducing an iPad (called…iPad) that was in some ways better than the iPad Air 2 (faster processor) but in some ways worse (the screen, size and weight are closer to the original Air). The big change, though, was the price. Instead of the usual $499, it now sells for $329. Apple refreshed the iPad Pro 12.9″ and ditched the 9.7″ Pro, replacing it with a 10.5″ model that is only slightly bigger, thanks to slimmer bezels. The Pro iPads can in some cases equal the performance of decent laptops. The refreshed 2017 line-up saw the first increase in revenue and sales in years, though the difference between revenue and sales gains suggests more people were buying the $329 model.

The overall line-up has been simplified, too, down to four:

  • iPad
  • iPad mini 4
  • iPad Pro 10.5″
  • iPad Pro 12.9″

For the first time, each iPad offers a different size.

I don’t anticipate any dramatic developments for iPads this year, though Apple will continue to push the Pro models as replacements for laptops. I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance the mini will get killed, It hasn’t been updated since 2015.

Apple TV
Apple introduced a 4K version of the Apple TV last year, alongside the current model. It costs a little more and is the priciest Apple TV to date. Unless you’re deep into the Apple ecosystem and have a lot of media purchased through iTunes, there remains little reason to pay the premium when other streaming devices can do what the Apple TV can at much lower prices.

The app store is somnolent. Not dead, exactly, but not particularly alive, either, but it is Apple TV’s biggest differentiating factor compared to other streaming boxes.

Apple Watch
The watch went from an ill-conceived fashion accessory to a fitness-focused device and in the process has claimed most of the smartwatch market, setting companies like Fitbit back on its heels. Last year Apple introduced the Series 3, which includes LTE, making the watch more independent of the iPhone. Overall, the Apple Watch has found its niche and is doing well after a slow start.

I don’t expect any big changes this year, but a redesign is a small possibility. Additional sensors may be added, but I’d expect those to come in 2019 or later.

HomePod
Originally scheduled for December 2017, it’s been bumped to early this year. Many are already declaring it a failure in the making, overpriced ($349) compared to the competition and saddled with inferior voice recognition (Siri vs. Amazon’s Alex or Google’s Assistant). I tend to favor this view. I think the demand for a premium speaker with voice activation is even more niche than something like the watch. It’s kind of like Apple TV–you’ll pay more but if you’re deeply invested in Apple products, the high price might be worth it.

I’m hedging on a prediction here, but leaning toward flop, with a retooling within the year or quiet exit from the market. Then Apple will buy Amazon. :P

And the Macs:

First, my one BOLD Mac prediction: Laptop Macs will support touch no later than 2021.

Mac mini
Nothing has changed since my last overview in August 2016. These aging machines are still selling at the same prices as they did when they were actually new, an embarrassing low light in a line-up that has mostly seen updates over the past year. Apple’s made vague comments indicating support, but nothing more.

I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance the Mac mini will be killed off in the next year. If not, I’d wager on a radical redesign (even smaller and completely sealed).

Mac Pro
Last year Apple admitted the “trashcan” Mac Pro was a mistake–a cool-looking design that was self-defeating because it couldn’t properly dissipate heat. So not so cool after all. They have promised a new modular Mac Pro, but so far no specs or release dates have been forthcoming. The current Pro has seen price reductions but it still isn’t exactly cheap.

iMac
Apple made a few improvements to the iMac line last year, updating processors, displays and including new options in some standard configurations, such as a dedicated graphics option for the 21″ model and fusion drives as standard for the entire 27″ line. The core design remains unchanged and was last updated in 2012.

I’m not expecting any big changes this year, but I am reasonably confident that sometime before the end of 2019 the iMac will get a full redesign–and be even less user-accessible as a result.

iMac Pro
Who wants a $5000 all-in-one? Apple thinks professionals will, so they’ve stuffed professional-grade components into the standard iMac case. It’s only been out for a month, but one retailer has already offered a $1,000 discount, which seems a bit ominous for a new product. Also, unlike other iMacs, users can’t upgrade the ram themselves, it now has to be done by a dealer.

This seems very much like a stop-gap until the revised Mac Pro debuts. I predict the iMac Pro will never see any updates and will be killed off sometime after the new Mac Pro debuts (in Apple time this could still be years).

MacBook Pro (non-Retina)
This was finally killed off, long after it had become outdated. This was the last Apple laptop to ship with an optical drive.

(Old) MacBook Pro (Retina display)
Only the 15″ model survives, the last Pro with a non-butterfly keyboard. I expect it to be axed from the line-up within the year, joining its 13.3″ brethren in the Mac graveyard.

MacBook
Still the only Mac available in four colors. Get your Rose Gold fix on here. Not much has changed with the MacBook, though it got an improved version of the butterfly keyboard. A processor update and optimizations added another hour of battery life.

I don’t expect any changes in design, though processor updates seem to be happening on a yearly basis, provided there is an appropriate CPU available. This will be the eventual MacBook Air successor (see below).

MacBook Pro (2016/2017)
In October 2016 Apple introduced an all-new design for the 13.3 and 15″ MacBook Pro. The changes:

  • dropped all legacy ports in favor of USB-C
  • added an OLED Touch Bar to replace the function keys on all but the base 13.3″ model
  • changed the keyboard, using an updated version of the butterfly mechanism featured in the MacBook, with firmer keys and very little travel
  • the usual display and processor updates
  • thinner and lighter
  • touch pads the size of the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. In the case of the 15″ model, two aircraft carriers.

Both models were refreshed less than a year later with newer processors, but no other notable changes.

The revamped models have been controversial. The Touch Bar has its advocates, but seems underwhelming 15 months after its introduction. The new keyboard mostly inspires love or hate (I find it strangely unsatisfying to type on–not bad, just kind of joyless).

Apple is unlikely to retreat from any of the design choices made (USB-C, for example, is now on nearly all notable PC laptops, albeit often with a legacy port or two still included), though dissatisfaction with the revised keyboard, as well as production problems plaguing both the 2016 and 2017 models may lead Apple to further revise the butterfly mechanism.

The Touch Bar may live on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets quietly dropped in a few years.

MacBook Air
Today, the MacBook Air is 10 years old and it’s been almost that long since its last update, ho ho. It did get a minor speed bump last year (some believe this only happened because the slower CPU Apple was using was no longer available), but has seen no significant updates since 2012. Most assume it lives on in the line-up as the “affordable” MacBook.

It will likely linger on until Apple is willing to drop the price of the MacBook. The difference is currently $999 vs. $1299. It seems unlikely Apple will reduce the gap soon. Maybe by the end of 2019? There’s also the possibility Apple will just kill off the Air and force people to move to the $1299 MacBook (or $1299 base MacBook Pro).

Other stuff
There are no strong rumors regarding other new Apple products, though they continue to work on Augmented Reality and the retooled car project (shrunk down from an entire Apple car to merely making other cars more Apple-ish).

Summary
Apple updated a lot of their devices through 2016 and 2017, to the relief of the faithful, but many of the updates came with controversy and some products still linger around as reminders of the bad old days (hello Mac mini).

Apple’s next quarterly call is coming in a few weeks and while they should report record revenue and profits, it seems likely it will come in the shadow of slowing iPhone X sales. Apple has raised the prices of almost all of its devices–the iPad Pros cost more, the phones cost more, the new MacBooks cost more, the iMac Pro requires you to sell body organs–leaving me to wonder how sustainable it all is, especially when there are indicators that people will scoop up more affordable Apple offerings (the new iPad) while largely staying away from ones that offer poor value vs. the competition (Apple TV).

My hunch is that Apple is poised for a downturn. Nothing like the near-bankruptcy that preceded Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, but something significant enough to prompt the company to react. How it will do so–or if such a downturn even happens–remains to be seen.

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