The Lost Market of Apple Hardware

The somewhat overheated fervor reacting to last week’s Apple Event is finally over. It’s now worth reconsidering the meaning of what Apple released.

First I think we’re starting to see that there is a gap in Apple’s product line. It probably is a gap Apple left unfulfilled for good reasons. That said it is also a market that Apple could easily dominate.

For most people the new MacBook Pros are amazingly fantastic machines. If you’d told me two years ago we’d have a ultralight machine with four Thunderbolt 3 ports able to drive two 5K displays plus a whole new input device I’d have been ridiculously excited. Add in an amazingly fast SSD and it really is a stunning machine. It just that anxiety and understandable anger over long delays in Mac models getting an update have perhaps cast a shadow over what should be an universally praised machine. Yes I wish it had an SD slot. Honestly though dongles aren’t bad. Those who hate dongles can usually find a single device that contains all the ports they might wish with a single plug. Had the MacBook Pro been released on time (likely it was planned for late spring) and the MacPro and MacMini not been so neglected I think the reaction would have been very different.

Nonetheless it’s become clear that while the MacBook Pro is a fantastic device for a wide swath of people it’s problematic for some. 

Some people use a MacBook Pro primarily as a desktop machine that they want to be able to occasionally move around easily. These people aren’t as concerned with battery life or weight. They’d rather have more ports than battery life. A different (much larger) group of people primarily want a powerful machine that they can run extended times on battery power and easily carry with them. For most of the life of the MacBook Pro the laptop met both these needs with only a few compromises. At least relative to the choices available at the time. Partially due to Intel’s own product lines this just isn’t true anymore.

Next year’s CannonLake chips from Intel will help this problem a lot. They’ll significantly increase the amount of memory available. However I suspect the days of the MacBook Pro being able to meet both needs are gone. While this “transportable” market is small I don’t think it is negligible. It would be nice were Apple to simply take the old MacBook Pro form factor, drop the DP, power port, and one USB-A port and replace them with USB-C/TB3 ports. Leave the rest of the ports the same, put in a powerful Nvidea mobile GPU, have bigger fans, put in the top Intel chip, ignore the weight and be satisfied with battery life more akin to what the 2009 MacBook Pro had. There is a group of Apple fans who would love this device.

I doubt Apple will do this but they should.

In the same way Apple really should just give us a case somewhere between the MacMini and the old large aluminum MacPro and provide a choice of different motherboards. Have one motherboard in the same class as the current MacMini. Have an other one with an E3 Xeon and ECC memory. Finally have a few with the high core E5 Xeon chips. Return to the old design of replaceable GPUs. Have some internal storage bays. 

The usual counterargument to this are the engineering costs. However I think this market would be completely content running on standard Intel motherboards that simply will run OSX. The Hackintosh community is able to get OS X up and running on most of these motherboards. Surely Apple can. Charge the same margins they do on the MacBook Pro. I think people would be willing to pay a 1990’s style Apple Tax if they could get these machines. But here’s the key part. As Intel and Nvidea update their offerings Apple has to update the components. Since they’d be using commodity parts this shouldn’t be a big deal.

Here’s the thing. Apple could reuse this case for ages. Heck, I think people would be completely content just using a classic MacPro case from 10 years ago. This would take little effort from Apple and could be profitable. Yes the market is small. Yes Apple wouldn’t be able to claim “fantastic design” on these the way the did the current (but nearly dead) MacPro. But this market doesn’t care. This is a market that absolutely loves Apple software but needs more niche hardware.

I understand Apple might not want to do this. Here’s the alternative. License OS X to a few manufacturers. Limit the machines they make to these classes that Apple won’t make. Charge a premium but let them support OSX. This really is no different than what Apple did with their own Cinema Display. They didn’t want to support it and probably didn’t sell many. Yet the worked with LG to make a great monitor that Apple sells at their own stores. It’s not as attractive or well designed as the Cinema Display. But it’s there. All these Apple fans want is to have Apple do this with top end machines.

Make them themselves or outsource them. I don’t think the community cares. Most of use will still be buying iMacs or MacBook Pros. But for those niche cases Apple can make real money. Apple is big enough now that it can’t be forever looking for the next iPhone. A large set of small markets can increase Apple’s profits at least as well as the Apple Watch does. Further the implications are great for Apple. They have happy users who advocate Macs. Technology drifts down to Apple. Developers in particular remain ecstatic about running OS X rather than Linux or Windows. Further you cut a resurgent Microsoft off at the knees and limit Google from sneaking into the PC market.

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