By Jason Snell
October 31, 2016 2:10 PM PT
As I write this, we’re two days away from a surprise Apple event. Proving that nobody remembers anything that happened more than a year ago, the conventional wisdom was that Apple wouldn’t do an October event to follow up the big September iPhone blow-out. But that was 2015’s pattern, while this year Apple has reverted to its 2014 pattern—big off-campus iPhone event in September, small on-campus event in October.
All the rumors point to new Macs. The story seems to be that Apple fully expected to ship the new MacBook Pro models, featuring a touchscreen control strip above the keyboard, this summer at WWDC. For some reason, possibly involving availability of Intel processors, the date slipped. I really do believe Apple thought that this spring’s small event at its historic Town Hall briefing center would be the last of its kind, which is why Tim Cook mentioned it during the event. But things change, this product launch went sideways, and here we are: One last encore in the room where Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod 15 years ago this week.
The MacBook Pro stuff seems fairly settled, at least in terms of hardware, but I still have a lot of questions. How does that “Magic Toolbar” actually work? Hardware details are easy to leak, but software info is hard to come by.
The devil’s in the details, and I fully expect Apple to have an interesting story to tell about how the function-key row is a relic of a bygone time, and how there are better ways to use that space to make you a more efficient user of your computer. Will there be haptic feedback? Will the bar area be entirely smooth or will there be some sort of texture or contour to help navigate it by feel? Will we be able to use it for gestures, rather than just emulating key taps? Will third-party apps get access to the strip right away, or will it initially be reserved for system functions?
What I’m saying is, we think we know a lot about the MacBook Pro hardware, but there are a lot of things we just don’t know about how this stuff will work. And that’s exciting.
The other great mystery of the event, based on other rumors, is the fate of the MacBook Air. This hazy rumor says there’s a new 13-inch laptop coming, and that it might have USB-C ports and a Retina display. Is it a MacBook? A MacBook Air? “Reply hazy, ask again later,” the Magic-8 Ball proclaims. My gut feeling is that it’s a MacBook Air with upgraded specs, because as much as Apple would like to replace the Air in the product line with the Adjectiveless MacBook, it just can’t—the MacBook is still a bit too underpowered and a bit too expensive. So, what to do? An upgrade to the MacBook Air could let that product category live another year or two, by which time perhaps the MacBook will be ready to take its place in the line-up.
The alternative approach is to consider the Adjectiveless MacBook as a line, and not just one product. At which point, Apple might be introducing an additional MacBook, one with a fan and more ports and a higher-powered processor, to sit in the sweet spot between the base MacBook and the MacBook Pro. That’s where the Air lives now—other than the fact that it doesn’t have a Retina display.
The biggest problem with the MacBook isn’t its lack of ports or its low-power processor. It’s that it starts at $1299. The MacBook Air starts at $899 for the 11-inch model and $999 for the 13-inch model. Apple benefits by having its laptop line start $400 down from the base MacBook price. Perhaps the MacBook has progressed to the point where Apple will be willing to cut its price, but it’s hard to imagine Apple cutting it $300, down to the price of the 13-inch MacBook Air. I have to think that Apple won’t be willing to let the base price of buying a Mac laptop go above $1099. And that puts it in a bind.
So I really don’t know what to make of the 13-inch laptop rumor. Wouldn’t a Retina MacBook Air cost a lot more than $999? Why update the MacBook Air if you’re not going to make it Retina? It’s a bit of a mystery. But I do feel confident in saying that the $1299 MacBook won’t be the lowest-priced Mac laptop being sold by Apple, regardless. It just doesn’t make sense.
I’m sure some other Macs will get updated Thursday as well, either at the event or via post-event press release. A speed bump to the iMac makes sense, and I really have no idea if Apple will update the Mac mini and the Mac Pro or not. I sure hope so!
I believe that the most significant thing to come out of this event will probably be the expansion of USB-C (and, with any luck, Thunderbolt 3) across the Mac line. This new connection will lead to a few years of adapters and docks and dongles, but port transitions are inevitable. In a few years we’ll look back on the old USB and Thunderbolt connectors and marvel that we used them for as long as we did.
In any event, it looks like this will be the final final event at Town Hall. Stephen Hackett and I looked back at its storied history earlier this year, so check that piece out and reminisce again, won’t you? I’ll be reporting live from the event for Six Colors, so stay tuned.