oh yeah, mac stuff

Tuesday, 2007-10-23; 19:33:00

MacJournals (the same one of the ZFS debate) issued their latest MDJ/MWJ issues yesterday, and with them come an extensive evaluation of Apple's quarterly report -- that's the one from the third quarter, not the fourth quarter results announced yesterday -- and what it means for Apple as a business. Almost immediately, though, while reading the summary of the issue, alarm bells started ringing in my head: WOOP WOOP MAC WHINER ALERT WOOP WOOP.

To quote:

Apple is letting things fall through the cracks, putting so much effort into the iPhone (and even rushing it) that Macintosh development has suffered for it. This has not been a problem because, despite a lack of new Mac features, Apple sold more Macs in the June 2007 quarter than ever before.


It’s going to pick up some with Leopard, for sure, but it’s hard to imagine why Apple would choose to ratchet up Mac development again when doing very little seems to be extraordinarily successful.

Ah, yes, the age-old WAAH APPLE IS NEGLECTING THEIR MAC BUSINESS WAAH argument. On page 2 of the issue, MacJournals continues on this last point:

Never has Apple sold more Mac computers in a quarter than it did in the three months from April to June 2007, and it did it all despite the obvious (if not explicit) fact that Apple, Inc. has been de-emphasizing the Macintosh for over two years.


When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in January 2007, he said that Apple had been working on it for two and a half years – as far back as mid-2004, almost a full year before Mac OS X 10.4 was released. The effort to port Mac OS X to other processors (including the Intel family now used exclusively in Macintosh computers) and to reduce it for sane use on a phone took its toll on the company. There have been very few new Macintosh computer designs in that timeframe – in fact, this quarter’s iMac update is the first “new” industrial design Apple has released since the MacBook in January 2005, and that was just an update of the original dual-USB iBook from 2001. The June quarter saw speed bumps and LED displays in the MacBook and MacBook Pro families, but that was about it for Mac innovation in the three-month period.

Wait a minute, back up for a sec. You can't claim that porting Mac OS X to other processors was a huge investment while simultaneously claiming that Apple is de-emphasizing the Mac. Mac OS X, as Jobs has stated before, is the "soul" of the Mac, regardless of what processor it uses or what other hardware makes up a particular Mac. So making sure that Mac OS X runs on other processors, so as to ensure the viability of the Mac as a platform, hardly qualifies as neglecting the Mac. Remember, also, that Jobs says that he is "pleased" with a release schedule of 12 to 18 months for new major upgrades to Mac OS X, so the Tiger to Leopard timeframe -- 30 months -- may simply be an anomaly.

And then there's the complaint that the black, aluminum iMac released in August was Apple's first "'new' industrial design" to come along in a while. (Long-time Macintosh fans will note the obvious error here, in that the MacBook was not released in January 2005 but in May 2006. The quite large discrepancy is curious, especially since no major redesigns were introduced for any Mac model in January 2005. I sent an e-mail to MacJournals regarding this, and they admitted that it was a rather glaring error that others have pointed out.)

But let's take that complaint at face value: Apple's supposedly been lacking on innovation in the hardware side of the Macintosh in recent years. (MacJournals defines the period explicitly later on, by saying "everything else just isn’t getting the same attention to detail that it did in 1997-2004 when the iPod either didn’t exist or was a side business.")

So instead of just making vague hand-wavy arguments, let's actually look at the historical data for the Mac. These tables show the model, date of introduction, and time since the previous major refresh for each model. Note that by "major refresh", I basically mean "case redesign" that's readily apparent from the exterior. This seems to be what MacJournals defines as a "'new' industrial design," given that they classify the recent iMac update as one such design.

ModelDate introducedTime since previous major refresh
Original iMac August 1998
Kihei October 1999 1 year, 2 months
iMac G4 "sunflower"/"lampy"/"igloo" January 2002 2 years, 3 months
iMac G5 August 2004 2 years, 7 months
Black, Aluminum, Intel August 2007 3 years
2 months
Original iBook July 1999
Dual USB May 2001 1 year, 10 months
MacBook May 2006 5 years
1 year, 5 months
Original PowerBook G3 November 1997
G3 Series May 1998 6 months
Bronze Keyboard May 1999 1 year
PowerBook G4 January 2001 1 year, 8 months
Aluminum PowerBook G4 12"/17" March 2003 2 years, 2 months
4 years, 7 months
Original G3 Tower November 1997
Blue and White January 1999 1 year, 2 months
PowerMac G4 August 1999 7 months
Quicksilver July 2001 1 year, 11 months
Mirrored Drive Doors/"wind tunnel" August 2002 1 year, 1 month
PowerMac G5 June 2003 10 months
4 years, 4 months
source: MacTracker

There are a few models that don't appear on the above tables because they don't qualify: the "opaque" iBook G3 that was introduced in November 2002 (which amounted to a color change), the 15" Aluminum PowerBook G4 and MacBook Pro releases in September 2003 and February 2006 respectively (the 12" and 17" models debuted the aluminum design, and it's remained largely unchanged since then), the iMac G5 with built-in iSight (this sported internal design changes but not much external difference), and the Mac Pro release in August 2006. The Mac Pro, though, also sported a significant internal redesign compared to the PowerMac G5, but for the sake of argument, let's exclude this model as well. The G4 cube is excluded, too, because it didn't really fit into either of the desktop product line categories.

With the exception of Apple's professional desktop line (PowerMacs and Mac Pros), the time between significant major refreshes has been steadily increasing -- it's a trend that started significantly earlier than the 2004 cut-off date that MacJournals imposes. While MacJournals would like you to think that Apple has only recently stopped "innovating" in its Macintosh segment, the reality is that Apple has been extending the life of its designs for a while now, well before the iPod became a major business and long before the iPhone was even shown the light of day.

MacJournals posits that the MacBook release was "just an update of the original dual-USB iBook from 2001", but the latest iMac refresh falls pretty much in the same category, as does the aluminum PowerBook G4 refresh compared to the original PowerBook G4. One could even argue that the Quicksilver and Mirrored Drive Doors PowerMac models were all only "updates" of the original PowerMac G4 case design, which itself was basically just a color change from the Blue and White PowerMac G3. These all had the same overall case design, with the latch that opened the tower and revealed the motherboard secured to the door. The Kihei, Bronze Keyboard, and Aluminum designs fall under this category too.

Condensing the table results in this:

ModelDate introducedTime since previous major refresh
Original iMac August 1998
iMac G4 "sunflower"/"lampy"/"igloo" January 2002 3 years, 5 months
iMac G5/Intel August 2004 2 years, 7 months
3 years, 2 months
Original iBook July 1999
Dual USB/MacBook May 2001 1 year, 10 months
6 years, 5 months
Original PowerBook G3 November 1997
G3 Series/Bronze Keyboard May 1998 6 months
PowerBook G4/MacBook Pro January 2001 2 years, 8 months
6 years, 9 months
Original G3 Tower November 1997
Blue and White/PowerMac G4 January 1999 1 year, 2 months
PowerMac G5/Mac Pro June 2003 4 years, 5 months
4 years, 4 months

The point to take away here is that really significant case redesigns are few and far between, even from Apple, and this isn't a 2004-and-later trend. Even MacJournals seems to acknowledge this, for I mentioned this in my e-mail to them as well, and they feel that the PowerMac G5 case was the only substantial revision from 1999-2003; but then they curiously dismiss the current situation as being decidedly different than before 2003.

Certainly Apple seems to do a lot more experimentation with their computer cases than do other manufacturers (or at least the magnitude of the changes are huge -- like the iMac G4 -- which definitely sets Apple apart), but Apple's product cycle has always been defined by minor speed bumps, internal hardware upgrades, and Apple fanboy teeth-gnashing. It's kind of silly to expect Apple to release an entirely new case design for each of its products on a rapid timescale, especially so when you consider that would quite probably exacerbate quality control issues. (MacJournals also notes this is supposedly a problem with the newest iMacs, but which is likely only a result of more failures happening because more people are buying Macs.)

One obvious question that comes up: is it necessarily bad that Apple has been extending the lifetime of its major designs? I'd say that it's not. There are only so many "innovative" designs that Apple can come up with -- are we to faithfully expect a pyramidal iMac, or another curvy consumer laptop with a handle, or a new MacBook Pro that can magically paint your backyard fence? After awhile, there's only a certain amount of experimentation you can do with a form factor -- within current technological boundaries -- and still have a viable consumer product.

Certainly, technology eventually advances enough so that assumptions made with previous models can be thrown out (i.e.: the move from CRT to LCD in the iMac G4, or the PowerBook G4 taking advantage of advances in battery life and thin optical drives). But this happens at a rate of several years or so, which seems to be significantly longer than MacJournals would like, given their defined time period.

More importantly, this seems to be a hypocritical stance to take anyway. Why change a form factor if it doesn't give any obvious benefits? The original dual USB form factor for the iBook was a smash hit, so why make anything but minor changes? Should Apple suddenly move back to non-widescreen screens on its MacBook Pros just for the fun of it? Or get rid of the cheese grater holes in favor of cheese grater lines, or make a completely white Mac Pro case? This is from a publication that emphasizes, rightly so, function over form. Not that niggling over form is bad either, but from what I've read about their stance on ZFS and the Leopard Dock, it seems that MacJournals doesn't seem to appreciate stylistic changes for their own sake in software, so why clamor for it in hardware? (MacJournals, to be fair, doesn't complain about the changes in Leopard's Dock per se, but complains that Apple didn't take the time to make it look good on the side. That point seems to be moot now, though, much to my chagrin.)

If MacJournals defines significant redesigns as ones that include new features specific to the Mac, then perhaps they neglected the October 2005 release of the iMac G5 which included a built-in iSight and Front Row, which have migrated across the entire Macintosh line except the Mac Pro? Or how about the firmware update that included support for natively booting Windows on all Intel Macs (also much to my chagrin)? Or how about Safe Sleep? Or the Sudden Motion Sensor (introduced in January 2005)?

MacJournals continues, citing evidence that "there was no new iLife release in January 2007" and that "the first update to iWork since January 2006" includes Numbers whose "main feature was a new spreadsheet that seems like more of a check-off item than the paradigm buster Apple would like to pretend it is". It was reviewers who saw it as a paradigm buster, and besides, innovation? In spreadsheet programs? Remind me to stop laughing; that's an almost impossible bar to meet.

Furthermore, according to MacJournals, "[i]t took Apple two and a half years [...] from shipping Mac OS X 10.4 until shipping Mac OS X 10.5. During that time, while iPod and music development flourished, Macintosh development got shorter shrift." Um, OK. Working on the next major upgrade to the operating system is short shrift? As Siracusa said in his review of Tiger, the low-hanging fruit for OS X has already been harvested, so significant new features will take longer to develop. Leopard is billed, both by Apple and by developers who have access to the internal seeds, as the largest update to Mac OS X since the first public release of Mac OS X itself. Besides, I also seem to remember significant complaining when Apple didn't update the 5G iPods for over a year, and when they did, it was only with slightly better displays, slightly better battery life, and a search function.

MacJournals (almost) ends the issue with this:

The real question, one that won’t even be close to answered today, is “what’s next?” Leopard has been the next big thing for a year and a half, and the Intel transition was it for a year before that. Apple won’t even want to hint about what’s next for several months, lest it remove the spotlight from Leopard. For the first time in about three years, the community won’t be waiting on Apple for something big that’s already been announced to make it to customers’ hands.

This is definitely not the first time this has happened. Where was MacJournals after Jaguar was released? Or Panther? Or Tiger? The months after a major operating system release is always defined by downtime from Apple and confusion as to where to direct Apple-fanboy impulses. It's as if MacJournals expects Apple to announce the new features of OS X 10.6 as soon as Leopard is released to the public. Do they really expect Apple to not want to keep the spotlight on Leopard?

MacJournals says that "[i]t seems that the less Apple does with the Mac, the better the products sell." That's the wrong conclusion to make, especially after Apple's blowout quarterly results announced yesterday. The better Apple does with the Mac, the better the products sell.

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