Where are the desktop Macs?

Apple's current desktop lineup includes iMac, updated to Intel Skylake and a P3 5K display at the end of 2015, Mac mini, updated to Intel Haswell in late 2014, and Mac Pro, redesigned in 2013. None of them received any updates in 2016, though. Is that a sign Apple's abandoning the Mac desktop, the way they abandoned dedicated Mac servers? Is it a sign they've had their attention elsewhere, and that less popular, legacy products like desktop Macs and iPods simply get updated less frequently now? Or is it a sign of something else entirely?

What makes the current lack of desktop Mac updates so painful for customers is that Apple's previous updates turned desktop Macs into appliance computers. When you take away a customer's ability to upgrade on their own, to swap in new and better storage, graphics, memory, and more, you take on absolute responsibility to do it for them. Especially in the desktop market, where performance is key, if you seal a Mac Pro up, the version you sell has to always be the latest and the greatest. It can't be outdated by a year, never mind three.

Tim Cook, on Apple Web, via TechCrunch:

The desktop is very strategic for us. It's unique compared to the notebook because you can pack a lot more performance in a desktop — the largest screens, the most memory and storage, a greater variety of I/O, and fastest performance. So there are many different reasons why desktops are really important, and in some cases critical, to people.The current generation iMac is the best desktop we have ever made and its beautiful Retina 5K display is the best desktop display in the world.Some folks in the media have raised the question about whether we're committed to desktops. If there's any doubt about that with our teams, let me be very clear: we have great desktops in our roadmap. Nobody should worry about that.

Apple Web is informal and what Cook wrote absolutely reads like he wrote it himself, rather than having Apple's PR or product marketing write it for him, and he does't come off as man who is careless with his words. That does, however, leave a lot to unravel.

Cook mentions that you can pack the largest screens into a desktop. The only Mac desktop packed with a screen is the iMac, at least right now. No one is packing a large display into a Mac mini or Mac Pro, they're connecting those machines to external displays. And, despite working extremely closely with LG on LG's new 5K panel, there's no Apple-designed casing or logo anywhere on that display.

Cook does say great desktops, plural, though. That could mean multiple sizes of iMacs or it could mean multiple products including the iMac.

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

I'll note that Cook only calls out the 5K iMac — no mention of the Mac Pro.

iMac is still fairly modern, though, with Skylake and a DCI-P3 Retina 5K display, Mac mini and Mac Pro were last updated several years ago and, as such, would have been hella awkward for Cook to mention:

"The current generation Mac Pro/Mac mini are, um, the most recent versions of those desktops and, ah, have processors and graphics from a couple years ago."

Ouch. Better to say nothing at this point, which is what Cook chose to do.

Mark Gurman, writing for Bloomberg:

Apple designers are already exploring standalone keyboards with the touch strip and a fingerprint reader for desktops. Apple will decide whether to release these based on how well the features do on the MacBook Pro.Mac fans shouldn't hold their breath for radical new designs in 2017 though. Instead, the company is preparing modest updates: USB-C ports and a new Advanced Micro Devices Inc. graphics processor for the iMac, and minor bumps in processing power for the 12-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro. Cue the outrage.

Apple's is damned if they do, damned if they don't here. A spec bump is exactly what the iMac needs. It already has a Retina 5K display. Moving to Kaybe Lake, if Intel has suitable chips, especially for the 21.5-inch, upping the AMD graphics. adding in the ridiculously fast new storage controllers, and going USB-C / Thunderbolt 3, makes the best consumer all-in-one on the market even better.

Personally, I'd love a redesign as well, but after the reaction to the last one — Thinner? It's a desktop! And why's the SD card slot so hard to reach?! — and the recent MacBook Pro redesign — Thinner? It's a pro! And where the hell is the SD card slot?! — the spec and port bump feels like the best go-to-market approach right now. In a perfect world, I think we would have gotten it back in October.

As to a new Mac Pro and Mac mini, there's certainly been work done on them over the last couple of years but, obviously, nothing has shipped. Apple could decide to ship updates next year or could decide headless desktops are a market the company no longer wants to be in, like Xserve or Thunderbolt displays.

Customers by far — by FAR — prefer notebooks to desktops these days. When we vote with our wallets, what Apple hears is more notebooks, please; no more desktops, thanks. It's overwhelming.

But to Cook's point on Apple web, it's not about the numbers. It's about the Mac, and about what only a desktop Mac can do — including the ones without built in displays.

Like I mentioned in The Horn Effect:

As profit centers go, displays and routers and their ilk are likely less than a rounding error for Apple. They also pull focus. Part of Apple's success, though, has been the halo effect — once you start buying something Apple, you keep buying more things Apple. Once you get the device, you get the accessories. The opposite — a horn effect? — would be buying non-Apple accessories leading to buying non-Apple devices.A few more small yeses help support the bigger yeses. Mind share is invaluable and that makes it feel like key accessories, niche or not, are something Apple should absolutely still be in.

If you force people, even the tiny but influential percentage that make up high-end creative professionals, to move to Windows and PCs, you start to erode the Apple ecosystem.

And the cost of that could be far greater than the cost of continuing to deliver niche products.

There are a lot of talented people at Apple working really hard on the design and production of new Macs right now. Unfortunately, the only thing that matters to customers — and is supposed to be key to Apple's culture — is shipping.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.