As we talked about yesterday it has been a tough year for Apple. While sales are still up, and the stock price is good, many feel that Apple has lost some of its magic. With a huge array of products now sometimes quality is not as high as one expects with Apple products and the company risks being stretched too thin. One major area that Apple seems to have lost its foothold is with desktop and laptop computers. Once the cream of the crop by a mile, now Apple is another in a long list of premiere computer makers.
Mark Gurman reports:
Mac upgrades, once a frequent ritual, are few and far between. The Mac Pro, Apple's marquee computer, hasn't been refreshed since 2013. The affordable and flexible Mac mini was last upgraded in 2014. And when a new machine does roll out, the results are sometimes underwhelming, if not infuriating, to devotees.
In October, after more than 500 days without an update, Apple unveiled the new MacBook Pro with a slimmer design and louder speakers. The laptop garnered mostly favorable reviews from the technology press but grumbles from creative types, a key constituency, who said the device under-performed rival products.
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.
While the Mac generates about 10 percent of Apple sales, the company can't afford to alienate professional designers and other business customers. After all, they helped fuel Apple's revival in the late 1990s. In a stinging critique, Peter Kirn, founder of a website for music and video creators, wrote: "This is a company with no real vision for what its most creative users actually do with their most advanced machines."
If more Mac users switch, the Apple ecosystem will become less sticky—opening the door to people abandoning higher-value products like the iPhone and iPad.
People now have more options. Microsoft Corp., once derided by Mac loyalists for its clunky, buggy software, offers Windows 10, which provides the tablet type functionality Apple pioneered with the iPad. Microsoft's Surface computers offer Apple-esque quality and a well-reviewed creative paint program aimed at the Mac's audience. Sensing an opportunity, Microsoft called the MacBook Pro a "disappointment" and said more users than ever were switching to its Surface laptops.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment. However, the company has said the Macintosh remains one of its most important products and denies it takes a back seat to other gadgets.
Four years ago at Apple's annual developer conference, marketing chief Phil Schiller pledged to keep the computer front and center in the company's product arsenal. "Nobody turns over their entire line as quickly and completely as we do at Apple," Schiller said. "We’re really proud of the engineering team and the work they do to do this quick so you can get the exact product you need." Two years later, the company held a 30th birthday party for the Macintosh, a splashy event that featured a OneRepublic concert at Apple's Cupertino, California headquarters. The company also created a website celebrating the Mac's history.
To be fair, Apple depends on Intel Corp., which still makes key chips for Macs. Like the rest of the PC industry, Apple's innovation and product cycles are sometimes constrained by when Intel produces new chips—a process that's getting more difficult.
Making a laptop stand out is also harder these days. But when Apple has tried to leapfrog the competition, it has fallen short. Take the company's attempt to create a longer-lasting battery for the MacBook Pro. Apple engineers wanted to use higher capacity battery packs shaped to the insides of the laptop versus the standard square cells found in most machines. The design would have boosted battery life.
In the run-up to the MacBook Pro's planned debut this year, the new battery failed a key test, according to a person familiar with the situation. Rather than delay the launch and risk missing the crucial holiday shopping season, Apple decided to revert to an older design. The change required roping in engineers from other teams to finish the job, meaning work on other Macs languished, the person said. The new laptop didn't represent a game-changing leap in battery performance, and a software bug misrepresented hours of power remaining. Apple has since removed the meter from the top right-hand corner of the screen.
In the Mac's heyday, people working on new models could expect a lot of attention from Ive's team. Once a week his people would meet with Mac engineers to discuss ongoing projects. Mac engineers brought prototypes to Ive's studio for review, while his lieutenants would visit the Mac labs to look at early concepts. Those visits have become less frequent since the company began focusing more on more-valuable products like the iPhone and iPad, and the change became even more obvious after the design team's leadership was shuffled last year, according to a person familiar with the situation.
In another sign that the company has prioritized the iPhone, Apple re-organized its software engineering department so there's no longer a dedicated Mac operating system team. There is now just one team, and most of the engineers are iOS first, giving the people working on the iPhone and iPad more power.
That's part of a broader shift toward making Macs more like iPhones. Apple prioritizes features, like thinness and minimal ports, that sell its iPhones and iPads, which generated about 75 percent of revenue this year. Those are contrary to professional needs, like maximum computing power. Early prototypes of the 12-inch MacBook used the iPhone's Lightning connector, although this was ditched for a more standard USB-C port. There was even a gold MacBook Pro planned, but this was shelved because the color didn’t look good on such a large product.
In recent years, Apple managers have also become more likely to float two or more competing ideas, meaning designers and engineers must work on more than one concept at a time. In the past, managers pushed a more singular vision. Engineers are now "asked to develop multiple options in hopes that one of them will be shippable," a person familiar with the matter said.
When the company was developing the first 12-inch MacBook, Apple tested two primary prototypes. One, known internally as Stealth Fighter, was lighter. The second, a slightly less ambitious design known as Stealth Bomber, was heavier. The lighter model prevailed, but with engineers developing and testing two competing concepts, they had less time to figure out how to cram all the electronics into a thin slab of aluminum that would hold together. In the end, Apple shipped the laptop in 2015, months after its 2014 goal.
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