Apple should be spending a lot more on research and development (Part One)

Over the past few years, Apple has come under increasing criticism for being less innovative than it has in the past. In this post, I will discuss why the existing product lines have come under criticism.

This has been caused by decreasing incremental improvements in its product lines. The iPhone 4 for example impressed the world when it was first released. The latest versions of the iPhone, although still an upgrade in many ways, has left people underwhelmed, particularly due to the high price. While Apple does have a number of advantages, most notably its powerful SOCs on its A-series of chips that lead the mobile industry, it no longer commands the wow factor. Part of this may very well be due to the slowing and ending of Moore’s Law. It may prove that past 2nm, going to smaller and smaller transistors, which has led to many of the extraordinary gains in computing, is simply not possible or economically viable.

Furthermore, the company has hit market saturation. Apple as of late has indicated that it will no longer reveal iPhone numbers during its earnings releases. This has been negatively received and the consensus is that Apple is hiding the fact that they are faced with declining sales numbers for a product that is mature and that has hit market saturation. Upgrade cycles will increase and the high costs of new iPhones may mean that sales are in a decline, although somewhat offset by higher average selling prices.

Not only is the pace of innovation declining, but in many regards, Apple has made a few steps backwards. Take for example the evolution of the Mac Pro to the “Trashcan” Mac Pro and now the iMac Pro, which is to be released in 2019 and has not yet been released.

The original Mac Tower received a final update in 2012 and since then has not been updated. As a proper workstation, it was easy to upgrade, and overall a well designed chassis. However it was not refreshed for a while.

The new iMac Pro is the current generation replacement. It is not nearly as modular, with not nearly as much cooling. Thin form factors are not as important for workstations. Performance, the ability to upgrade, and function over form are important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem is that the new iMac Pro not serve the workstation market very well. The current Mac Pro, the “trash can”, has seen mixed reception at best.  The transition from Mac Pro tower to trashcan and now iMac Pro is one that has focused on form over function. Aesthetics, having a thin chassis, etc, are less important in the professional market. What is important is being able to provide good software (minimize the controversies, such as the transition from Final Cut Pro to Final Cut Pro X by developing software for the professional market), high performance, cooling, and the ability to facilitate upgrades. The trashcan and the iMac Pro in that regard can be considered a step backwards for Apple for the professional market compared to the Mac Pro tower.

These problems can be resolved by releasing a product that professional workstation users need – in other words another serious workstation. The professional market is significant considering they played a key role in saving Apple during its time when it financially struggled. By failing to release such a product, Apple is damaging a lot of goodwill in the professional market and forcing potential customers to either build Hackintoshes or seek alternative products, such as on Windows or perhaps Linux.

The simple solution is to take a good look at the older Mac Pro, work with the professional community, and I daresay, even the Hackintosh community to see what professional users truly want. It is likely to be a second incarnation of the Mac Pro tower, a large full tower, and a serious workstation notebook that will resemble something more like Dell’s Precision series than the current Macbook Pro, which emphasizes being thin and light above all else.

The Macbook Pro too has led to various criticisms, particularly due to failing hardware issues and because of the lack of ports, resulting in many people having to use dongles. The dropping of the MagSafe connector too has led to a lot of criticism for the newer Macbook Pros.

A big problem with the overreliance on dongles is that it defies the “it just works” narrative that Apple has always tried to push. It has led to criticisms that Apple is now a company that sells dongles mainly and a computer/phone company second.  In the short to medium term, dongles are likely to prove profitable because of their high margins, as they have a huge mark-up. In the long run, I suspect that they will alienate even many of Apple’s more loyal users because their products not longer follow the  “it just works”, but rather are reliant on dongles.

A larger problem

There is however, a far bigger problem that cannot be solved by simply refreshing its existing product line-up. A refresh, while it does address many of these criticisms and would likely re-ignite the excitement that the professional space and many disillusioned Apple fans have with the brand, cannot address some of the long term challenges the brand faces. That is not to say the products above need to be refreshed. They do, because the existing users are getting increasingly unhappy, but there are other issues.

In Part Two, I will explore some of the implications of what an under-investing in R&D could do.

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