Earlier today, David Pell published a rant on Medium about how he desperately wants Apple to update its MacBook Air. It’s a good read.
Two thoughts about this. First, Dave’s argument makes no sense to me whatsoever. Second, I don’t blame him for it.
Let’s start with Dave’s argument. What is it exactly about the MacBook Air that he wants updated? Does he want it to be a more powerful computer? If he originally bought it for its power then he bought the wrong product, because that’s never what the MacBook Air was about. If David needs more power, he needs to move up the product line, to the MacBook Pro. The Pro in MacBook Pro is there for a reason. I don’t think that’s his problem though. So what does he want updated? He’s made it clear that the new keyboard and Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro aren’t to his liking. He’s made it clear that his eyes are too old to benefit from a retina display. He also wants the exact same form factor. So what does he want updated? Nothing. He just wants the psychological happiness of owning a computer that you couldn’t buy 12 months ago. Something that’s been updated for the sake of something that’s been updated. That’s it.
Why don’t I blame Dave? Because it’s not his fault. Apple has trained Dave to think in this way while at the same time leaving part of its product line in a state that defies this trained desire for new. In doing so, Apple is contradicting itself at its own game. In 2017, the outdated MacBook Air is an unfair representation of Apple’s value proposition and it ought to be either updated or pulled from the store.1 Apple isn’t cutting the cord fast enough, and that’s causing whining from its customer base. Is that effect unsurprising?
If a device is profitable enough that Apple can’t afford to remove it from its lineup, then it’s profitable enough for Apple to give it the updates it deserves. Any middle ground from those two extremes might look good on paper from a profitability standpoint, but it does severe damage to the Apple brand longterm and, I argue, costs more in the aggregate in disgruntled customers completely bailing from Apple. Especially in the fast-moving technology space, it’s a bigger insult to your customer base to keep selling a SKU you never update than to pull the SKU altogether. Apple made the right decision to pull the Thunderbolt Display and Airport.2 It’s making the wrong decision in continuing the MacBook Air and the Mac Pro. Of course, we could make the argument that it would be even better if Apple updated all four of these products and kept them in its lineup. But if that isn’t an option for whatever reason, then it should pull them. Simply doing that would force the narrative of “Apple is going down the tubes” to focus on the currently updated products — which would wilt the narrative altogether. The Late 2016 MacBook Pro and the iPhone 7 are truly incredible products. It’s hard to say a company is going down the tubes when all of its products are that solid. But that’s not the case with Apple. Instead, the spotlight of criticism is on these grossly outdated products that Apple can’t bear to let go of because of its focus on efficiency and shareholder value.
The criticism of outdated products instantly goes away when you quit selling them. As an example of this, nobody is complaining that the Apple Extended Keyboard 2 is a grossly outdated product for the simple reason that you can’t go to Apple.com and add it to your shopping cart. Thank goodness you cannot.
If this whole fiasco were just a sideline story then the problem would eventually go away; why worry about it? Why give credence to Dave Pell’s complaint? The reason is because there’s a chance that this mindset might continue to permeate the rest of the company’s decisions. If Apple only innovates on its products that are the most popular, what’s the cutoff? Right now the cutoff is low enough that few of us are affected. As concerns of efficiency and shareholder value grow however, as they do by default unless you viciously fight it, then eventually that cutoff will get closer and closer to macOS itself. It’s nowhere near as valuable to the company as iOS. As a point of comparison, Apple made more money on its services than it did on its entire Mac lineup in Q4 2016.
Now, truth be told, I would be shocked if macOS were ultimately shelved in the next five decades, or basically my lifetime, despite the very serious worries of this on a recent ATP episode. But it’s a possibility.3
We’ll all breathe easier once Apple conjures the courage to remove these outdated products from the lineup. It’s curious how many more years of patient waiting it’s going to take. Until then, in the words of Gruber, we’re watching an unmitigated disaster. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t spread.
- Where by pull from the store I mean quit manufacturing and sell while supplies last. ↩︎
- While it’s technically still possible to buy an Airport from Apple, I’m taking it on good faith that it’s only while supplies last in the same way that the Thunderbolt Display was still available while supplies lasted. ↩︎
- macOS sales may be down but its PC market share is going up. I think if Apple ultimately does cut macOS, it’ll be because nobody uses PCs anymore, and it’ll be a moot point. A few Dave Pell articles will be written on Medium - if Medium is still around by then, which it won’t be - but that’s about it. Why support something nobody uses? What would be more tragic is if the user base of macOS grows small enough that Apple can no longer justify updating it, but can’t bear to pull the plug for profitability reasons. ↩︎