Requiem for desktop Macs

I tend to be conservative in predicting Apple’s plans for the future. Without any inside knowledge, any predictions are, at best, educated guesses. It’s far too easy to guess wrong and wind up with a bowl of “claim chowder.” But today I take that risk…

Apple’s desktop Mac lineup is headed for the graveyard. Dead. Done. Over.

Why do I believe this? Because of the unstated implications of what Apple announced (and didn’t announce) at its media event yesterday.

Let’s start with the big one: No new or updated desktop Macs were announced yesterday. This means that no new Mac models have been or will be released for the entire year 2016. That’s a significant omen all by itself. But it gets worse.


I’ve read speculation suggesting that Apple might yet release new iMacs before the year is over. Don’t bet on it.

If a new iMac is ready to go (which it would pretty much have to be at this point), I see no reason to delay the announcement by a week or two. There was certainly room to include mention of it at the media event (which ran only 90 minutes and was hardly jam-packed). Alternatively, if they wanted to keep the focus on the new MacBook Pros, they could have announced iMacs via a press release following the event. Either way, it seems preferable to waiting a few more weeks. With the holiday shopping season looming, there’s scant room for further delays. Clearly, updating the iMac is not a top priority for Apple.

Granted, the current “Late-2015” iMac is still a great machine (it’s what I’m using right now). It remains an optimal choice for some home users and even more so for education and other institutional markets. That’s why, as others have predicted, I expect to see updated iMacs, with Thunderbolt 3, arrive in 2017. Beyond that, I am skeptical that we will ever again see a significant update to the iMac. It will linger on in Apple’s catalog for several more years, but will receive scant attention. Eventually it will disappear — as laptops take over the entire Mac lineup (as I detail more below).

Speaking of desktop Macs that receive scant attention, that’s a perfect segue into the remainder of Apple’s desktop Mac models.

Mac mini and Mac Pro

The Mac mini and the Mac Pro are Dead Macs Walking. Apple still sells them, but I find it hard to believe Apple expects anyone to buy one. I fully expect they will be gone by the end of 2017. Let’s dig into this a bit deeper.

The Mac mini was last updated in 2014. For most people, it was a poor choice even when it was new. Its tech specs were always inferior to the iMac (as one example, the mini still offers no quad-core models). This was especially disappointing to those who hoped for a Mac mini that could be a viable less expensive alternative to the Mac Pro. Instead, Apple marketed the Mac mini as a “starter Mac,” geared toward people switching from a PC. It is also well-suited to be a server Mac. Overall, it’s a decent machine but Apple appears to have abandoned it.

[As an aside, with possible implications for where Apple is headed, Apple doesn’t seem to be giving much attention to macOS Server. The Sierra update is 5.2, a relatively minor change to the El Capitan 5.0 version released last year.]

The current state of the Mac Pro is an even sadder story. It was released in 2013 and has never been updated! I see no sign that Apple ever intends to do so. Let me be blunt: There is no market for the Mac Pro today. When combined with a decent 4K 27-inch monitor, the cheapest Mac Pro you can buy costs around $4000 (and goes way up from there). For the minimum price, you get only 12GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and Thunderbolt 2. Buy one of these and you get 3-year old technology with no indication that Apple will ever improve it. You’d have to be a fool to go in this direction. A smart company (and Apple is a smart company) doesn’t let this happen to a product that they believe has a future.

The 2013 Mac Pro had the potential to be a greater success, a worthy follow-up to the popular “cheese-grater” Mac Pro. But Apple never invested the time and resources necessary to make it so. At some point, I assume Apple concluded that the market for a desktop pro-level Mac was either no longer there or no longer worth pursuing. Rather, Apple’s sees its future tied to portable and mobile devices. In other words, the future of the Mac is laptops — which doesn’t leave room for the Mac Pro.

Desktop Macs vs. the MacBook Pro

The major news at Apple’s media event was the unveiling of the new MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar. Once again, reading between the lines, this too hinted at the demise of desktop Macs.

In particular, Apple clearly tried to position the MacBook Pro as a viable workstation-like device, an alternative to a Mac Pro or high-end iMac set-up. For example, Phil Schiller showed off a MacBook Pro connected to two 27-inch 5K displays and a RAID enclosure. Clearly, Phil wasn’t pitching this as a machine intended for keeping up with your friends on Facebook. Similarly, when showing off applications that had been redesigned to take advantage of the new Touch Bar, by far the most attention went to “pro” apps — notably Final Cut and Photoshop.

The cost of a new MacBook Pro also suggests a more “pro-level” target audience. The price tags are significantly higher than for the models they replace. While you can buy a base model for $1800 (plus tax), you will more likely spend upwards of $2500 for a 13-inch model and significantly more for the 15-inch version. Phil Schiller defended the pricing, noting “we don’t design for price, we design for the experience and quality.” In any case, at these prices, the Touch Bar version of the MacBook Pro is no longer a practical option as a second computer, primarily for travel; it’s meant to be your only computer (which once again pushes desktop Macs out of the picture).

The Wall Street Journal suggested that the pricing indicates Apple will be pushing the iPad Pro (and I would add the 12-inch MacBook) as the alternatives for people who don’t want to pony up for a MacBook Pro. That’s already where I am. I have largely shifted to using my iPad Pro whenever I am not using my iMac. Meanwhile, my 2012 MacBook Pro languishes. That’s the main reason I don’t expect to buy a new MacBook Pro — despite the siren call of the Touch Bar.

Let’s step back to look at the bigger picture. If you’ve just done a major overhaul of your application to make it work well with the Touch Bar, you probably hope that your users will have a Mac that includes a Touch Bar. Apple presumably hopes so as well. So, if you’re in the market for a new Mac — Apple will likely be pushing the MacBook Pro over the iMac or Mac Pro. The only way this would change (other than the complete failure of the Touch Bar) is if the iMac eventually included a Touch Bar. This could happen, but it presents some challenges — especially getting a Touch Bar to work from a wireless keyboard. The other option is for Apple to gradually give up on the iMac going forward. That’s the more likely scenario to me.

Some assorted additional thoughts…

Given that Apple makes great Retina-quality displays for the iMac, and given Apple’s preference for hardware-software integration, I found it odd (and disappointing) that Apple appears to have abandoned the market for separate external displays. Still (and I know this is a stretch), it begins to make sense if Apple is planning an exit from the iMac market, greatly reducing the need for Apple to make large displays. In any case, for those wanting a larger screen to connect to their MacBook Pro, Apple touted new 4k and 5K displays from LG.

The MacBook Air is all but dead. Apple still sells the 13-inch model, but don’t expect that to last for long. I mean when Apple itself advises you not to buy one — as it just about did at the media event yesterday — how much longer can it survive?

Apple remains committed to not combine a touchscreen display with a Mac. The Touch Bar is Apple’s answer to how best to combine touch with a traditional computer. It’s a very different vision from Microsoft’s new Surface Studio. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year or two. Although the Touch Bar is very appealing (and I can’t wait to try it out), I have doubts as to how much it would change my daily workflow. Beyond that, I reserve judgment for now.

One last thing…the most lingering feeling I have from Apple’s media event yesterday is one of sadness. I felt I was witnessing the passing of an era. I have owned a desktop Mac since 1984. They continue to be my preferred workhorse computer. Unfortunately, the way things are headed, they may not be around the next time I am in the market to buy a new Mac.

Afterthoughts [added after original posting]

When combining a MacBook with a large external display, it was common to close the MacBook lid and use an external keyboard. Clearly, this will not work with the new MacBook Pro — as this would eliminate the ability to use the Touch Bar.

While Apple is positioning the MacBook Pro to be able to function as a “workstation,” will pro users buy it? Is this the sort of setup such users desire? That remains to be seen.

To those who say that Apple did not update desktop Macs this week because it didn’t have the resources to do that and do the new MacBook Pro at same time, I give you 2013. In that year, Apple released/updated: MacBook Pro Retina display (updated in February and again in October), MacBook Air, Mac Pro, iMac, iPad Air, iPad mini 2, iPhone 5C and 5S, and AirPort Extreme.

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24 Responses to Requiem for desktop Macs

  1. Seth Lewin says:

    Apple no longer makes anything I care to buy. Flat statement. Sad to admit after nearly 30 years of buying their products but true. Apple could care less what its customers think or say or want, it seems. Incompatibility is introduced for its own sake. Sealed-up laptops wit soldered RAM and nearly no ports necessitating carrying a special dongle and a USB hub on the road. Huh? Sorry, Tim. I’ll get as much mileage as I can out of my employer-issued 17″ 2011-vintage MacBook Pro. I use it as you describe in the afterthoughts to this article, taking it one step further and having my “desktop” system and all its connections in a Sonnet Thunderbolt box, using the MBP as a CPU when I’m at home. That was my upgrade path from my indestructible 2006 Mac Pro when Snow Leopard wouldn’t cut it for me any longer. $600 sale for Sonnet; $0 for Apple. Of course the MacPro still works fine – as does a TiBook that runs Tiger and 9.22 and a Cube (2001, anyone?) with an iSub I keep in my office as an iTunes jukebox. I’m doing a fair bit of looking backward, Mac-wise, for lack of an clear path forward.

  2. Larry says:

    All of the other Mac updates will occur, but not in 2016. More work needs to be done in getting the Touch Bar to work in external keyboards AND Apple needs to spread out revenue over time. Releasing all new Macs at once wasn’t feasible or advisable. I’ll patiently wait for a new iMac. Desktops are still an important and viable business to Apple.

  3. Kirk says:

    The Mac mini is still a fairly popular Mac for certain users. First, as a server, it’s a cheap way to set up something that’s easy to use. Second, it’s surprisingly popular among audiophiles as a media center/server. Lots of people connect a Mac mini to their stereo to be able to use large media collections. Now, that’s still “hobby” material, but I think Apple will keep the Mac mini alive for a while.

  4. AdamC says:

    Just read this Someone just borrowed from Apple again.

    Not sure where the Mac in Apple is going or whether they will keep on making their desktop computers perhaps Apple is looking too closely at the bottomline when it comes to their products line.

    I believe there is a future in the iMac but the Mac mini it is anyone’s guess. The Mac Pro, well, I believe it depends on well the are selling.

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  6. Jon Hendry says:

    I noticed one image shown in the macbook pro event that showed, if I recall correctly, two Mac laptops and an iMac. Definitely no mini and no Mac Pro.

    That struck me as a pretty likely depiction of what the Mac line is going to be pretty soon.

  7. Anthony says:

    It looks like your theory is pretty solid. I had the same feeling as Aperture was strangely being left at pasture. As I’ve been looking at software for different functions the past few months, I’ve been looking at ones with cross-platform options. MS Office, Adobe, etc. Strange after spending years moving away from those options to now be forced to go that way after Apple is taking away the usability to make my computer be a phone, or phone/tablet be my computer.

  8. Diane Ross says:

    The event was started with Accessibility for disabled users. Apple totally missed the basic piece of using a Mac….the keyboard. They will never be able to add a Touch Bar to an ergonomic keyboard. I’ve not been able to use an Apple keyboard for 15 years. Having to purchase a ergonomic keyboard with every Mac. Users like me with arthritis cannot use a track pad nor would I be able to use the Track Bar. I certainly don’t need a laptop. I’m homebound.

  9. Eric Likness says:

    Yes, I agree there’s a whole lotta neglect goin’ on. Reminds me vaguely of the Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio era just prior to Jobs return in ’96. More Performa models than one could shake a stick at and NO differentiation among them.

    Why are they marketing/developing the Touch Bar when they’ve had a control surface they could have “paired” with a laptop long ago? It’s called the iPhone or the iPad (take your pick). An outboard touch surface, one that can be used with more than 1 laptop at a time or god forbid a desktop ;^) would be WAY more enticing to me than this fluffed up announcement from Thursday. Count me as disappointed, and I was there on the front line buying Apple during it’s darkest days prior to 1996 when the share price hit $15.

  10. pjg says:

    Good post. I remember Steve Job’s talk about the Apple ecosystem. I can’t imagine it surviving without macs. What can Apple be thinking?

  11. Ted says:

    To pjg: In my prediction of the future, there will still be Macs; just no desktop Macs.

  12. Addicted says:

    It’s possible that the touch bar will be a great new input control. However, after thinking about it a little more, I am convinced it’s only a gimmick. Furthermore, I think even Apple knows it’s just a gimmick.

    If Apple really believed the touch bar was a good solution, they would have ensured its placement and size was ideal. Now, it’s possible that the size and placement of the function keys just happened to be ideal for a touch bar, but I think that’s extremely unlikely. At the very least, if Apple truly believed in the touch bar, they wouldn’t have increased the trackpad size as much as they did, and would have made the touch at slightly thicker.

    I suspect the touch bar is a marketing decision. They didn’t want to put too much effort into the Mac, realized they needed something to sell it, and noticed that the Fn keys were kind of pointless (especially in macOS). So they decided to replace it with a touchscreen as a marketing bullet.

    Also, Apple Watches aren’t doing too hot, so by cramming an Apple Watch inside they get Mac hostages, I mean users, to subsidize their Watch business as well.

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  14. Ouch, Right in the Wallet says:

    I have a 13-inch MacBook Air with a failing battery and an SSD too small to hold the latest Xcode + anything else. The time has now come to make a change whether I want to or not. I don’t need gaming-level performance. The new MacBook Pro lineup would be attractive even at these prices if Apple had maxed out RAM and disk space rather than skewering us on upgrades. The RAM upgrade cost isn’t bad, but on top of overpaying for larger SSDs, the cost starts to add up too fast. It seems I can solve my battery and disk-space woes for less than $500 if I keep my current machine–versus the fortune I’d have to pay for slightly better specs and the gimmicky TouchBar. Tinkering inside a Mac laptop is something I never had to seriously consider before.

  15. Seth Lewin says:

    Another reason to keep my old boat-anchor 17″ MBP. It can be worked on internally by a person with normal sized fingers using a $30. set of precision mini screwdrivers and nut drivers. Mac-wise this is indeed beginning to feel like 1996 again but with no Jobs in sight.

  16. Mitchell Smith says:

    Who charges $500 more for a laptop with a consumer keyboard that more than half of Mac users hate, a larger trackpad nobody asked for, and no significant increase in battery life, all contained in an enclosure with less connectivity and a mediocre CPU and GPU?

    Don’t even get me started on the missing options for 32 GB of memory or 10 GbE.

    Keep the consumer and pro lines separate. If you wan’t to solder the memory and storage to the logic board, and include a terrible keyboard in the consumer model, have at it. But the pro model needs expandable memory and storage, it needs high-end processors, great battery life, and lots of ports.

    Apple seems to only want to make consumer products, given their lackluster Mac Pro and MacBook Pro designs.

    Apple: stop selling us what we DON’T want, and start selling us what we DO want!

  17. Seth Lewin says:

    Amen. Let us pray. There’s nothing they’re selling that I’m eager to buy, or even willing to buy at this point.

  18. Jerome says:

    There seems to be a powerful and persuasive voice inside Apple’s leadership intent on dismantling their solid foundation brick by brick. As a photographer, I noticed this trend got started with the casting out of Aperture, followed by the wonderful iPhoto in iOS, in favour of simplified things that cater to amateur users who do their editing in three clicks or less. That is the demographic Apple is aggressively after. Apple seems to be intent on marginalising the intelligent, creative user (not just professionals). In other words, the very type of people who chose Apple products. What they have done with the new MBP is tragic, and exemplifies Apple’s new dismissive attitude towards their customer’s pain. And all of it is pretty much encapsulated by Phil Schiller; from the ludicrous misuse of the word ‘courage’ to his most recent (and even more ludicrous) declaration that the SD card slot is somehow ‘cumbersome’. This is a glimpse of the state of the Apple leadership’s thinking, and certainly seems driven by hubris. It is a poor sign of things to come.

    It is difficult to fathom that a bunch of smart people at Apple could be convinced that getting rid of valuable interfaces in favour of a homogeneous bunch of USB-C ports was actually helpful the customer. I’m not at all talking about resistance to pursuit of the future; what I’m deeply disappointed about is the paucity of thought – for a company so renowned for developing things that are ‘helpful’ to the user – that they could have totally dismissed any form of helpful transition to that future. That is truely callous disregard. If it were a thoughtful, pragmatic company, would it not have made sense to have USB-C on one side and a legacy USB and SD slot on the other? Would that not achieve both objectives? Let’s not even talk about MagSafe.

    I find it especially pernicious that Apple knowledgeably and wilfully choses today to nickel-and-dime its customers. So many comments above and elsewhere pointing out the inability to connect the latest iPhone to the latest Macbook Pro with an out-of-box cable. That is remarkable. So we pay for dongles. This has happened because people like me and you are still willing to spend our dollars on these products. And because someone with a powerful and persuasive voice inside Apple is driving their decisions deeper into this territory.

    It is not too late, or too soon, for Apple’s leadership to take a glimpse at history and Job’s warning that greed nearly brought down Apple once. That lesson seems forgot today.

  19. Robert Casady says:

    I wish you were wrong about this, but you’re not. I work in the music business and have been a loyal Mac user for 20+ years. People like me (and those in power graphics/video editing) are the ones the Mac Pro was intended for (I’m using an older 8-core right now). All of our software was originally developed for the Mac. But gradually, it’s been ported over to PC, and I’m seeing more and more of my peers jump ship. I don’t intend to do that, but I don’t relish the idea of eventually moving to a laptop-based studio either–one with even more external devices than I have now. My disappointment in Apple is profound. I know the market for pro-level machines is small, but at one time, Apple had it cornered, and it seems that with adequate R&D, they could have kept it going instead of focusing on flavor-of-the-month i-Whatevers.

    Your article is insightful and (sadly) accurate. You confirmed what I’ve been afraid of.

  20. GaranceD says:

    My reaction to the “Hello Again” event was very ambivalent. When the first waves of rage showed up on Twitter, I thought people were over-reacting. There is a lot to like about this laptop! I think the magic Touch Bar is a very interesting idea, and it could work out very well.

    However, I am also one of those users who was expecting to buy a new Macbook Pro this year. I started thinking about replacing my current MB-Pro last year, but waited to see what happened this year. And when I got to the Apple Store to configure the new MB-“ProAir”, I can’t bring myself to buy one. For what *I* need, there’s no point in spending that much money on these laptops.

    I’m not too upset about that. I work at a college, and there are many people I know who absolutely love their Macbook Air’s. Imagine that your most-used Mac is a Macbook Air from two years ago, and your employer shows up and says they’ll buy you this new MB-“ProAir”. I expect you’d be thrilled. This has the mobility a decent battery life of a MB-Air, but in so many ways it is a huge improvement over the MB-Air. Someone on an MB-Air is not going to complain about all the missing ports on this machine. On the contrary, they’ll be thrilled with four USB-C ports! And the display looks gorgeous!

    However, I do not own an MB-Air. It never was the machine I needed, so I never bought one. I am not upset that the MB-Air people get this great new model.

    What infuriates me is when some Mac-user talks about the same that things I want in a laptop, and Apple replies “We couldn’t provide those features in this super-slim form factor”. I don’t *care* about that goal, and yet I’m supposed to give up the things I *want* for something that I really don’t care about? And the fact that they call this a Macbook Pro instead of a Macbook Air (or at least a “ProAir”) means they think this is the new high end. They’re sure that no one needs more than these models, and yet these models *already* fall short of what I want to buy right now.

    And at the prices they want for these machines, I need to know a new machine will work for me for at least three years. These machines already fall short of what I want *right now*, never mind what I might want three years from now. And these models are not upgradable, so I will have to pay top-dollar right now for a machine which is already disappointing to me.

    These models are really great MB-ProAir’s, but I can’t bring myself to buy one because I don’t need or particularly want a MB-Air. So it looks like it will be better for me to put *my* money into some older (used) Macbook Pro or Mac Pro desktop. Pretty sad, really.

    This seemed more like a “Goodbye!” event than “Hello Again!”

  21. GMS says:

    This is the same that I suspected. For several time Apple has focused on consumers with no more than an amateur interest in the things they are doing. Which was fine for me as long as they also supported (to a point) more professional use-cases.
    That Apple lost interest in professional users became apparent with shutting down Aperture. Surely photography is becoming more and more a playground for algorithm assisted snap-shots which professional photographers know all too well that this is making their business harder.
    And as soon as AI/algorithms get better at composing music, musicians will also have a hard time.
    Personally I regret that Apple does this (although it probably pays off), but since my current iMac will last quiet a bit longer, all I need to do is find ways to make my data independent of Apple. And look out for alternatives hardware-wise.
    Something that makes this less saddening is the (perceived) lack of quality control on macOS side. This point might also be an indicator of Apple neglecting the desktop.

  22. KW says:

    Very interesting reading…..since I am sr citizen and somewhat handicapped and need no more than a Mac Mini….mine is 2009 Late which I updated at the time of purchase…..hve so regretted I didn’t buy the 4 core 2012…..never dreamed they wud go back to dual core and the 2014 not be upgradable after purchase. and no optical drive……my thinking is I can buy a 2012 online that has been upgraded SSD/16gb memory/etc….feel sure whatever I buy will outlive me (or my memory)…..but concerned whether this wud be a wise decision. Wud appreciate any input.

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  24. Seth says:

    If you can find a reliable one go for it. If you get a handful of years more out of it it will be well worth it. Any 2012 that’s still working well I’d bet is likely to keep working for some time to come.

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