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Apple’s Emerging Laptop Computer Strategy

post #1 of 2
Thread Starter 
Introduction

I wanted to tie-up a number of very interesting ideas, rumours and reports to suggest what Apple will offer us in the near future. My start point is a glass thats very much half full rather than half empty. The unibody construction Apple adopted with the first Air and then rolled out across its entire MacBook line-up makes its machines among the most functional and robust of any laptop computers available today. People often describe Apple as being design-led; Id say that Apple is functionality-led. MacBooks have sleek contoured aluminium enclosure not because they look good, but because flimsy plastic boxes with sharp edges get knocked and break. Apple machines are minimalist, because to provide you more than you actually need of anything makes an Apple machine more expensive to produce and more expensive to buy. If cliches like: form follows function and reduce to the max are Cupertino mantras, they are fully justified by Apples amazing product range. Indeed, Apples current line-up is so strong you could be forgiven for advising Jonny Ive and his team to follow another well-worn platitude: if it aint broke, dont fix it. Am I alone in thinking that the form factor of the iPhone 3 remains more practical than that of the fragile iPhone 4? Of course, the overall improvements made to the iPhone 4 are so thorough that any worries about the case design are more than compensated by the incremental functionality on offer. Yet, each iterations makes me wonder when the Law of Diminishing Returns will finally kick-in and prevent the next generation of an Apple something from being a quantum leap in innovation and performance.

So what can we expect? Lets start with key component technologies.

Processor developments

Intels Sandy Bridge architecture was a significant upgrade in processor power versus the previous generation. Anyone using an older Core2Duo system who switched to the new Core i7 in a 13 MacBook Pro experienced a noticeable step-up in performance across all major tasks. The interesting trend thats part and parcel of the SB platform is an integrated GPU. When it comes to graphics, Intel may not have yet matched AMD, but it will either improve its GPUs or allow Nvidias to be mounted on its own motherboards. Either way, the shrinking size of components used to allow manufacturers to do one of two things:
  1. Offer machines with smaller form factors
  2. Offer machines with increased processing power

Soon, theyll be able to do both. The arrival of Ivy Bridge next year, which heralds a die-shrink for mainstream processors to 20 Nm, will soon make machines like new MacBook Airs capable of matching existing MacBook Pros, while new MacBook Pros will enjoy a bump in processing power that enables tasks such as speech recognition, video compositing, video gaming, CAD-CAM design and immensely complex spreadsheet analysis to become routine capabilities in extremely compact and portable machines. Once we go down to 10 Nm chips, your phone will be a Cray Supercomputer in your pocket.

Flash memory

SSD flash memory hard drives are another technology already contributing to faster computer speeds. The only thing preventing SSDs from totally supplanting traditional hard drives is the cost of SSDs. Increased demand for SSDs among consumers is driving prices down while new I/O technologies within SSD design are providing faster read and write times. The other huge benefit of solid state storage is its robustness versus spinning platters. The time saving benefits of faster boot times and document retrieval make a compelling case for it.

With or without flash memory, hard drive sizes are increasing dramatically. Not so long ago, 256 GBs seemed like a massive hard disk size. Today 256 GB is a minimum with 500 GB ant 1 TB drives fast becoming the norm. People are carrying around ever more vast amounts of information with them. I found it very satisfying to go on holiday last year with a MacBook Pro loaded with 120 different movies.

Connectivity

Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 ports will allow dramatically faster connectivity between computers and peripherals. When you can quickly and easily access an external disk, you become less dependent on a large internal drive.

Screen technology

IPS technology and other screen innovations are increasing pixel count and clarity to provide ever more stunning displays with a resolution and colour range greater than that which can be determined by the human eye. 3D and other developments will undoubtedly make their way to the Mac environment to offer a richer experience.

Battery technology

Battery technology isnt standing still either. As the Car Industry explores ways to make Lithium Ion and Lithium Polymer provide meaningful longevity for use in automobiles, PC battery manufacturers will find corresponding ways to improve battery life for smaller cells.

Input technologies

The way in which we interact with computers is changing. While Apple is experimenting with new keyboards that offer greater tactile feedback, speech recognition is proving to be reliable enough to become a mainstream means of data input. Its still very processor intensive but accuracy levels mean that there will soon be little or no need to train a computer to understand your own unique voice - itll just do it. Once voice input becomes established, were then well on the road to Artful Intelligence (AI) where a computer communicates directly with the user to suggest things based on his or her behavior and observed patterns.

Software developments

As computer processors increase in capability, a range of new programs is being written to take advantage of the power on offer. For example, figures in first-person shooters used to have an unreal polygonal look about them. But, as the ability of processors to render 3D images has improved, were gradually reaching a point where computer generated characters will be indistinguishable from real actors.

What these developments mean to Apple

The Mac Pro could well become a MacBook Pro. It just will no longer need such a large box to harness all that power. Youll be able to achieve the same level of power and flexibility with a laptop equivalent and the necessary suite of Thunderbolt peripherals attached to it.

It looks as though the DVD has had its day. If we still need a reusable file transfer format, then we will continue to have it in Thunderbolt, USB and SD card drives. A big question is what do we do with all of our legacy DVDs? Apple has to allow us to legally burn them to our iTunes library.

With the technologies described above, it seems highly likely that Apples Laptop Computer line-up will morph into four primary form factors:

11 MacBook Air
13 MacBook Air
15 MacBook Pro
17 MacBook Pro

All of these machines will come without an onboard DVD drive. They may all be larger or smaller versions of the current MacBook Air form factor. They may evolve into a single enclosure design: either the tapering edge look of the Air line or a new slimmer but flat enclosure based on the current MacBook Pro design (minus the DVD drive). They may be rolled into a single range and be simply called MacBooks, with Pro becoming a standard based on BTO processors for the top model in each size range rather than a particular model nomenclature.

It may be that the 13 MacBook Pro dies in January 2012, when new DVD-driveless MacBook Pros are launched in only 15 and 17 sizes. It could be that Apple will launch a MacBook Air 15 model. That way both the Air and Pro ranges could co-exist with 11, 13, and 15 Air models complemented by 13, 15 and 17 Pros.

Of these scenarios, I would merge the four form factors into a single line-up based on either the Air or a slimmer Pro design. I would simply call the new range the MacBook. I dont think it makes sense to have two separate model lines once the DVD drive is abandoned. That said, it may be necessary for a slimmer Pro format to co-exist with the current Air format to see which works best with new hardware offerings and which consumers like the most.

There has been some mention of whether Apple will use the A5 chip in a laptop computer. I think the answer is 'yes'. But this will be a new entry-level MacBook, running iOS and possibly made of plastic.It should be an ideal first machine for schools and low-intensity use. Itll have excellent battery life and ultimately will bridge the gap between OSX and iOS.

So there you go, fantasy Apple laptops based on a collection of other peoples' ideas.
post #2 of 2
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tailpipe View Post

Introduction

I wanted to tie-up a number of very interesting ideas, rumours and reports to suggest what Apple will offer us in the near future. My start point is a glass thats very much half full rather than half empty. The unibody construction Apple adopted with the first Air and then rolled out across its entire MacBook line-up makes its machines among the most functional and robust of any laptop computers available today. People often describe Apple as being design-led; Id say that Apple is functionality-led. MacBooks have sleek contoured aluminium enclosure not because they look good, but because flimsy plastic boxes with sharp edges get knocked and break. Apple machines are minimalist, because to provide you more than you actually need of anything makes an Apple machine more expensive to produce and more expensive to buy. If cliches like: form follows function and reduce to the max are Cupertino mantras, they are fully justified by Apples amazing product range. Indeed, Apples current line-up is so strong you could be forgiven for advising Jonny Ive and his team to follow another well-worn platitude: if it aint broke, dont fix it. Am I alone in thinking that the form factor of the iPhone 3 remains more practical than that of the fragile iPhone 4? Of course, the overall improvements made to the iPhone 4 are so thorough that any worries about the case design are more than compensated by the incremental functionality on offer. Yet, each iterations makes me wonder when the Law of Diminishing Returns will finally kick-in and prevent the next generation of an Apple something from being a quantum leap in innovation and performance.

It is never good to start off a rant with fanboi speak. Honestly I'm a big fan of Apple current crop of hardware but we need to keep a perspective here. Apple isn't perfect, just really good.
Quote:
So what can we expect? Lets start with key component technologies.

Processor developments

Intels Sandy Bridge architecture was a significant upgrade in processor power versus the previous generation. Anyone using an older Core2Duo system who switched to the new Core i7 in a 13 MacBook Pro experienced a noticeable step-up in performance across all major tasks. The interesting trend thats part and parcel of the SB platform is an integrated GPU. When it comes to graphics, Intel may not have yet matched AMD, but it will either improve its GPUs or allow Nvidias to be mounted on its own motherboards. Either way, the shrinking size of components used to allow manufacturers to do one of two things:

As good as SB is it is a modest upgrade for laptops. The real move will come with Ivy Bridge.
Quote:
  1. Offer machines with smaller form factors
  2. Offer machines with increased processing power

Soon, theyll be able to do both. The arrival of Ivy Bridge next year, which heralds a die-shrink for mainstream processors to 20 Nm, will soon make machines like new MacBook Airs capable of matching existing MacBook Pros, while new MacBook Pros will enjoy a bump in processing power that enables tasks such as speech recognition, video compositing, video gaming, CAD-CAM design and immensely complex spreadsheet analysis to become routine capabilities in extremely compact and portable machines. Once we go down to 10 Nm chips, your phone will be a Cray Supercomputer in your pocket.

Actually I saw a comparison someplace just recently with respect to an iPad and an old Cray. It is surprising that iPad does fairly well up against a Super Computer. That is an iPad with a marginal cell phone processor, I would imagine that todays laptops do very well.

Now I'm not knocking Ivy Bridge, in fact I'm holding out for such a platform, what I'm saying is that I think you are missing important elements here. The big news with respect to Ivy Bridge is that there will be a dramatic drop in power usage and enhanced low power modes. This means Apple will have more flexibility in addressing performance versus power usage. Frankly I'd rather see Apple extend the AIRs ability to run on battery, a modest performance boost is welcomed of course but the thought of a solid 10 hours or so on battery really appeals to me.

The other thing that you are missing is that just because the AIR becomes more powerful it does not imply that the other machines won't benefit. AIR will always be relatively slower compared to the more substantial line up. Some people will always have need for a powerful platform. This idea that I often see in the forum, that is that AIR will become the only portable people need, is totally bogus. Apple will need to sell a range of goods well into the future to support the varied user needs.
Quote:
Flash memory

SSD flash memory hard drives are another technology already contributing to faster computer speeds. The only thing preventing SSDs from totally supplanting traditional hard drives is the cost of SSDs. Increased demand for SSDs among consumers is driving prices down while new I/O technologies within SSD design are providing faster read and write times. The other huge benefit of solid state storage is its robustness versus spinning platters. The time saving benefits of faster boot times and document retrieval make a compelling case for it.

With or without flash memory, hard drive sizes are increasing dramatically. Not so long ago, 256 GBs seemed like a massive hard disk size. Today 256 GB is a minimum with 500 GB ant 1 TB drives fast becoming the norm. People are carrying around ever more vast amounts of information with them. I found it very satisfying to go on holiday last year with a MacBook Pro loaded with 120 different movies.

I agree 100%. The more that you can take with you the better.
Quote:
Connectivity

Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 ports will allow dramatically faster connectivity between computers and peripherals. When you can quickly and easily access an external disk, you become less dependent on a large internal drive.

Which seems at odds with what you just said. Let me get this straight, the overwhelming preference is to put as much tech inside the laptop as possible. In the sense of storage this means a lot of space with some of that being very fast. The use of external disks is problematic and frankly I wish Apple would aggressively address this issue.
Quote:
Screen technology

IPS technology and other screen innovations are increasing pixel count and clarity to provide ever more stunning displays with a resolution and colour range greater than that which can be determined by the human eye. 3D and other developments will undoubtedly make their way to the Mac environment to offer a richer experience.

Battery technology

Battery technology isnt standing still either. As the Car Industry explores ways to make Lithium Ion and Lithium Polymer provide meaningful longevity for use in automobiles, PC battery manufacturers will find corresponding ways to improve battery life for smaller cells.

Input technologies

The way in which we interact with computers is changing. While Apple is experimenting with new keyboards that offer greater tactile feedback, speech recognition is proving to be reliable enough to become a mainstream means of data input. Its still very processor intensive but accuracy levels mean that there will soon be little or no need to train a computer to understand your own unique voice - itll just do it. Once voice input becomes established, were then well on the road to Artful Intelligence (AI) where a computer communicates directly with the user to suggest things based on his or her behavior and observed patterns.

There is no doubt that AI will start to become more important. AI is just one reason why I don't expect computers to every be fast enough in the near future. People look at what they can do on the AIR today and call it good enough, for many this is true but they aren't looking forward. I see Mac OS/X being extended in ways that many will be surprised with, a decidedly different path than iOS devices. AI, Knowledge bases, automatic translations, high performance computing and a host of other activities will keep people wanting more out of their machines not less.
Quote:
Software developments

As computer processors increase in capability, a range of new programs is being written to take advantage of the power on offer. For example, figures in first-person shooters used to have an unreal polygonal look about them. But, as the ability of processors to render 3D images has improved, were gradually reaching a point where computer generated characters will be indistinguishable from real actors.

Games are interesting from the technical challenge point of view. They also highlight how pathetic Intels GPU's are.
Quote:
What these developments mean to Apple

The Mac Pro could well become a MacBook Pro. It just will no longer need such a large box to harness all that power. Youll be able to achieve the same level of power and flexibility with a laptop equivalent and the necessary suite of Thunderbolt peripherals attached to it.

Nope! The ability to harness power will move down the line but software break throughs will come first on the high end machines. I don't ever expect the Mac Pro to go away totally. Further Thunderbolt, like USB ad Firewire before it, is not a replacement for internal drives or hardware. It is an I/O bus nothing more and frankly in this day and age not all that fast of an I/O bus.
Quote:

It looks as though the DVD has had its day. If we still need a reusable file transfer format, then we will continue to have it in Thunderbolt, USB and SD card drives. A big question is what do we do with all of our legacy DVDs? Apple has to allow us to legally burn them to our iTunes library.

With the technologies described above, it seems highly likely that Apples Laptop Computer line-up will morph into four primary form factors:

11 MacBook Air
13 MacBook Air
15 MacBook Pro
17 MacBook Pro

All of these machines will come without an onboard DVD drive. They may all be larger or smaller versions of the current MacBook Air form factor. They may evolve into a single enclosure design: either the tapering edge look of the Air line or a new slimmer but flat enclosure based on the current MacBook Pro design (minus the DVD drive). They may be rolled into a single range and be simply called MacBooks, with Pro becoming a standard based on BTO processors for the top model in each size range rather than a particular model nomenclature.

Wishful thinking? Look that Pros will always offer additional capabilities. It is a simple matter of having more space for faster processors, better cooling and more battery capacity. For the people that need a "Pro" they will continue to be a good option.
Quote:
It may be that the 13 MacBook Pro dies in January 2012, when new DVD-driveless MacBook Pros are launched in only 15 and 17 sizes. It could be that Apple will launch a MacBook Air 15 model. That way both the Air and Pro ranges could co-exist with 11, 13, and 15 Air models complemented by 13, 15 and 17 Pros.

Honestly I only think Apple will drop the DVD when it makes sense in a performance trade off. On the 17" machine that might not happen for a very long time. The most interesting space is to see where the 15" machine goes. I'd love to see a 15" AIR like machine, (old eyes) but I don't hold out a lot of hope that it will come configured as I would like it. For one thing Apple came out with the blade tech and then has ignored its potential in the rest of the lineup. Sometimes I honestly don't think Apple gets it when it comes to user needs.
Quote:

Of these scenarios, I would merge the four form factors into a single line-up based on either the Air or a slimmer Pro design. I would simply call the new range the MacBook. I dont think it makes sense to have two separate model lines once the DVD drive is abandoned. That said, it may be necessary for a slimmer Pro format to co-exist with the current Air format to see which works best with new hardware offerings and which consumers like the most.

You seem to forget that Mac Book is currently Apples best selling laptop. In any event I can see Apple redoing the lineup to compensate for changes in consumer needs. However Apple will never be able to get by with just four machines. Yes some thought needs to go into the current line up, but that is to mainly better position themselves for market realities.
Quote:
There has been some mention of whether Apple will use the A5 chip in a laptop computer. I think the answer is 'yes'. But this will be a new entry-level MacBook, running iOS and possibly made of plastic.It should be an ideal first machine for schools and low-intensity use. Itll have excellent battery life and ultimately will bridge the gap between OSX and iOS.

While I expect many iOS devices from Apple in the near future I'm not expecting an A5 based laptop. To put it simply the current A5 is to slow. I do have great ideas for iOS devices so something that comes close to a laptop is possible.

The problem is you are missing one important element here. The close to SoC construction that things like Sandy Bridge and AMD's Fusion promise means lower costs machines with good performance. I would expect that a new Mac Book revision would actually come in at a lower price than it is currently. That simply due to lower cost parts and over all simplification of the machine. The biggest problem with a Sandy Bridge based Mac Book right now is the lack of OpenCL support on the GPU. For some that is a big short coming but for many it is not of importance.
Quote:

So there you go, fantasy Apple laptops based on a collection of other peoples' ideas.

It is good to dream. I really think the big play in laptops will come with Ivy Bridge. I'm not even sure what Apple will do in the mean time with Sandy Bridge and the AIR. The main concern being the crappy GPU.

in the context of the current MBP's I was actually a little disappointed. No really just a little bit as I expected that they would have adopted a bit more of AIRs technology for the platform. The big desire would have been to see multiple Blade SSD support along with a conventional HD slot. What the hell, maybe on the next go around. Maybe I should temper my expectations a bit after the last release but like you I'm expecting some solid innovation in the rest of the laptop lineup. Sometimes I wish Apple would just hire me as a consultant.
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