Apple: Too many planes, not enough runways

The new Mac Pro won't be coming until 2019. The next Mac mini doesn't even have a public timeline. The MacBook Air refresh is still just a rumor. Add to that AirPort routers, iPod touch, and iPad mini, which haven't seen updates in just about as long, and it makes many on the outside wonder just what exactly one of the world's most popular and richest companies is doing with its product lines and resources.

Fair question. Especially because, the incredibly rare exception of the Mac Pro aside, Apple doesn't comment on future products.

So what's going on?


Once upon a time, Apple had a single major product: The Mac. That product grew to include a sometimes dizzying array of desktop and laptop options, and Apple flirted with things like the Newton, but shortly after the start of the second Steve Jobs era, there were laptops and desktops for consumers and professionals, and that was it.

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Then came iPod. And, over time, a range of iPods. Then Apple TV and iPhone. This season, Apple release three distinct models of iPhone and, rumor has it, three more new and distinct models of iPhone are following next season.

iPad joined the product line up as well, and now we have three current versions of those. Apple Watch debuted and, finishes aside, we now have two sizes in both Wi-Fi and LTE.

Accessories have also become more sophisticated. AirPods and HomePod are full-on computational audio devices. And that doesn't even include AirPower and other products that have yet to ship.

Inside an increasing number of these devices is custom Apple silicon, from the A-series systems-on-a-chip (now with Apple-spun GPU) to the M-series sensor fusion hubs to the W-series wireless chips to the T-series secure co-processors. Plus a increasingly wide variety of controllers along the way.

Then there are the special projects, which include everything from microLED displays two advanced augmented reality and full-on autonomous technologies.

If Apple was an airport, over the last couple of years, it has grown from a single runway with a few planes flying to a few, closely clustered cities, to having multiple runaways trying to handle an ever-increasing load of flights across the country and around the world.

And there just aren't enough runways to handle all the flights.

It's strange to think about one of the richest companies in the world not having enough resources, but money doesn't solve all problems.

There's a limit to the number of super talented engineers. And there's a harder limit to the number willing to work in Cupertino, under Apple's famous secrecy, rather than trying to strike it rich in startup land, pre-IPO.

There's also all the overhead that comes from scaling up. Apple Park was designed to bring all of Apple together. Yet, by the time it opened, Apple had already grown so much there simply wasn't room for even everyone on some teams to be there together.

Like adding runways, even if you pave the ground there's a ton of support that comes with every expansion — and a ton of complexity. It's why the mythical person month is a cliche.

Apple could — and I'd argue should — keep all products it currently sells up-to-date with the latest specs. That includes Mac mini and MacBook Air, obviously.

But I don't have to run those projects. I don't have to decide between the integration work needed to spin up Kaby Lake on the Mac mini requiring me to pull engineers off iMac Pro and blowing the end-of-2017 shipping window.

I don't have to decide where limited-even-though-Apple resources get allocated between incredibly popular products tens of millions of people buy, like MacBook Pro, and beloved-but-niche products less than a million buy.

I don't have to say, no matter how much I might personally love the Tulsa flight only 3 people booked, that it's the jam-packed New York City and Los Angeles flights that absolutely have to be maintained, staffed, and take off on time.

And I don't have to deal with not just canceling that Tulsa flight, even though it's just sitting on the runway... staring at me... passengers beyond livid.

In a perfect world, Apple would update every major product every year, and cancel any products it couldn't, in all good faith, maintain at that implicit service level.

Many would be angry. "How dare they cancel my favorite instead of someone else's ?" Some would bargain. "Ok, maybe every two years. Or three. Please!" But over time, we'd all come to accept it.


The other knock on Apple's seemingly forgotten products is that, for the most part, they're kept in the lineup at the same price they were introduced, in some cases years after their parts could be considered anything approaching modern.

The reason for this is easier to understand even if its every bit as frustrating: Apple typically introduces new versions of products with enhanced features at the same price as the previous versions.

It makes for a great pitch: "Now with twice the speed, twice the storage, and all new dingus, all for the same price..."

But if Apple discounts products that are still in the lineup but haven't been updated for a while, then that pitch doesn't work: "Now with twice the speed, twice the storage, and all new dingus, all for $200 more..."

It devalues the product. Suddenly, Apple is no longer providing increased value. It's hiking prices. And as much as old products annoy customers, more expensive ones really piss them off.

There are exceptions, like adding the equivalent of an Apple Watch to the new MacBooks Pro — T1 chip, OLED display, Apple Pay — or adding edge-to-edge OLED and FaceID to iPhone X. But even that causes grumbles in reviews and in the market.

Flight Control

So Apple is overbooked. It can't add runways fast enough. It doesn't want to cancel the least popular flights. But it doesn't want to offer discount pricing on those flights either.

Apple can choose to become more ruthless and kill anything and everything that isn't core to its financial success. But that would involve killing several things that are core to its identity.

I can also choose to power through. To tackle all those neglected products, one after the other, in a way that brings them forward but also makes them easier to keep forward. But that would involve more delays and the very real possibility that, functioning the way Apple functions, it'll never be able to truly keep up.

We've all been there. We know we have to do something but other things just keep coming up, delaying us, compounding the delays, making it easier if every more frustrating to keep compounding those delays. Each one may be reasonable in isolation, and each decision logical when its made, but over time the results are untenable.

But it's a problem Apple has to solve. It's a faith with its customers that it can't break — especially for devices like the 2013 Mac Pro where Apple removed the ability to upgrade them on our own and, hence, took on that responsibility itself.

Mac Pro. Mac mini. MacBook Air. AirPort. iPod touch. iPad mini. Apple is shipping an unprecedented amount of atoms and bits, and some are falling behind along the way. When and how Apple updates them will answer how Apple deals with scale in the short term. When and how Apple keeps them updated — or kills them off — will begin to answer how Apple deals with scale in the longer term.

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