The Future Of The Mac?

Tim Cook has tried to reassure everyone that there will be “great” new desktops from Apple. The big question, of course, is what will those desktops be? Apple has focused more and more on portable computing, and desktops have been largely neglected. The MacBook has become their mainstay in the PC world. So what can we expect? I don’t know, but I am allowed to guess (and I’m allowed to be wrong, too).

Still An iMac

The iMac will still be part of the lineup. After the MacBook, it is their next-most important  personal computer. The education market buys a lot of these things, and a lot of content-creators use them as well. They are a proven workhorse with a known market.

They are also really good machines. For their price, they come packed with a decent amount of punch. Granted, I would rather have the NVidia GPU vs. the AMD. I also wish you could get the discrete graphics in the smaller iMac. But an iMac is an easy choice to make if you want an Apple desktop.

They also continue the all-in-one form-factor that the original Macintosh came in. There may not be a business need, but I like the idea that we still have a machine that has the same philosophy as the one that started it all. The form-factor has evolved over time, and there were some iterations (the LC520 and LC5300) that weren’t exactly examples of amazing design aesthetics. But except for brief interludes, there has almost always been an all-in-one Macintosh available.

Mini and Pro Probably Gone

I fully expect both the Mac Mini and Mac Pro to go away this year. The Mini was a decent machine for its time, and it served its purpose, bridging people from a PC to a Mac. You could keep your display, keyboard and mouse, buy the Mini and voila! You’re a Mac user. The Mini Server was an interesting experiment, but not one that stood the test of time.

I also expect the Mac Pro to ride off into the sunset. Keeping up with the design and engineering of a high-end desktop is a lot of work. Doing it with an unconventional form-factor just makes it harder. Yes, it will be unfortunate that there won’t be a powerhouse Mac for serious computing work. The iMac will do the job for most people, but not having a truly high-end machine means Apple loses those customers.

Down To A Single Desktop?

Does this mean Apple will basically only offer a single line, the iMac, in two sizes? This is the most likely scenario. The new machines will offer fairly hefty CPUs as an option, will likely be Thunderbolt 3 only, and may expand to 3 screen sizes (21″, 27″ and possibly something in the 30″ range). But it may be that the iMac is the only machine in the desktop lineup.

There is, however, a path that allows them to keep costs reasonable but still offer the appearance of a broader desktop line: offering two different types of iMac. The basic iMac would be the 21″ and 27″, with no discrete graphics card option, and with memory and local storage on par with the iMac today.

The second iMac line would be the iMac Pro, possibly in 2 or 3 screen sizes, all with discrete graphics and more memory and storage available. There may be some cosmetic differences, but basically, it’s a question of where the upper vs. lower limit is on memory, storage, processing, etc between the two. The Pro might also offer a couple of extra Thunderbolt 3 ports.

This approach gives them two desktops, one for “normal” use and one for “pro” use, while re-using the core technologies across both lines. It would be the same enclosures, screens and even motherboards. The only difference is which components can be plugged in to which on the order sheet. This results in there being the appearance of 5-6 machines to choose from, when in fact it really is only 2-3.

A Crazy Wildcard

There is also a wildcard: a replacement for the Mac Mini that uses the same case as the current Apple TV (the new, taller “hockey puck”). It could be called something like the Mac Nano or Mac Mini SE. It wouldn’t have more than very basic local storage to hold the OS, and depend entirely on external storage for the “real data”. Don’t expect it to be a heavy-lifter when it comes to CPU or graphics. But it might be “good enough” for people who want an inexpensive Macintosh and don’t want an all-in-one.

I seriously doubt this will come to pass, but never say never. Apple may still surprise us (just don’t bet on that). Given Apple appears to have issues handling their product mix (although they never had a problem in the past), I wouldn’t be surprised to see the iMac as the lone surviving desktop (albeit possibly in “basic” and “pro” forms). That’s too bad because going this somewhat crazy direction would give them bragging rights about a reasonably powerful desktop in a super-tiny form-factor akin to the Raspberry Pi (and smaller than things like the Intel NUC).

Along For The Ride

Along with a new iMac (and maybe a Mac Nano/Mac Mini SE), I expect we’ll also get some kind of TouchBar/TouchID-enabled Apple keyboard (possibly wireless) and probably updated versions of the Magic TrackPad and Magic Mouse. Hopefully they can make an updated Magic Mouse work while connected to the USB cable to charge (making it a wired mouse), because right now it can’t, and that’s annoying

The keyboard may require a wired connection on the first version (and if it does, hopefully it has some Thunderbolt or USB-C ports along for the ride). There may be enough bandwidth and security issues that making it wired is the only way to go, at least initially.

What We Won’t Get

What I don’t expect to see is any kind of touch screen. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense. None of the Mac apps are optimized for touch. Just because Windows 10 does it doesn’t mean it makes sense.

I don’t see Apple removing the headphone jack. These machines need to connect to proper audio equipment, and having a jack (that offers line-out) is the only sensible answer to that right now. Wireless and USB-C/Thunderbolt hacks are not the solution.

But these machines will likely lose the HDMI out, and possibly even built-in Ethernet (although that makes zero sense to me). They also lose the SD Card slot, the Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt 2 ports and the traditional USB ports.

Desktops Are Important, Sort Of…

Having a desktop of some kind is still of value to Apple, although it won’t be the heart of the business (and hasn’t been for some time). Having a desktop like the iMac keeps them in markets that they can’t get with any MacBook. Beefing it up keeps them in some markets at the high end, and maintaining affordable entry-level models keeps them in at the low end without giving up their historic profit margin.

Not having a desktop takes them out of markets like education, and hurts their presence in content creation (the game market isn’t an issue for the Mac, because that space uses Windows machines). There are still a lot of people creating music, video and other content that want a powerful desktop with a big, high-resolution screen. This just isn’t available in the MacBook Pro. They don’t need portability. They need computing power, memory and lots of local storage, more than can offered in a notebook computer.

I suspect we won’t get to see any new hardware until the Worldwide Developer Conference in June. Maybe we’ll get something along with the spring iPad update, assuming Apple sticks to that pattern. I do expect that, whenever we see it, these products will be announced before mid-year. Then again, who knows.