Twenty-sixteen will not be remembered as a vintage year by Apple portable computing fans. Apple simply didn’t give us much new to chew on, and some of what little they did provide turned out to be a disappointment for many of us.
Even the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the latest iterations of Apple’s flagship product, elicited more yawns than accolades, being pretty much an incremental upgrade with no major new features, the main news being a feature deletion — namely the standard 3.5 mm earphone/audio port replaced by wireless ” Ear Buds,” and the availability of a couple of black finish options.
Apple’s arguably most successful new product release of the year had to be the well-received 9.7-inch iPad Pro, but even it was essentially a mash-up of the iPad Air 2 form factor with an array of features from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro such as Apple Pencil stylus, along with more powerful processing and graphics support grafted in. A cautiously anticipated iPad Pro 2 was a no-show, however.
The most bitter Apple 2016 disappointment for many production and productivity oriented Mac laptop users was the anticlimactic arrival of the highly-anticipated replacement for the long-in-the-tooth MacBook Pro, the new machine’s marquee feature being a gimmicky OLED ‘Touch Bar’ in place of the traditional row of F-keys at the top of laptop keyboards, and Touch ID fingerprint sensor login. That is on the top two in the three-model lineup. The odd-duck entry level model doesn’t get either the Touch Bar or Touch ID. Meanwhile, Apple stubbornly resists going with the conventional touchscreen display most Windows PC Ultrabooks have.
Apple also chose to abandon almost all legacy I/O connectivity ports, including the Mag-Safe magnetic quick-release charge port that has saved countless MacBook family laptops from damage in cable trips and snags. The 3.5 mm audio port stays for now, perhaps in limited acknowledgment of needs of the professional user base the product is nominally intended to serve. Also gone is the SD Card expansion slot. Replacing the gone missing connectivity are either four or two (base model) do-all USB-C ports to handle both I/O and battery charging, and requiring a forest of dongle adapters for most real-world connectivity tasks as yet.
Then there’s the keyboard, which Apple says is a second-generation take on the “butterfly” keyswitch ‘board introduced with the 2015 12-inch retina MacBook. My unscientific sampling of user opinion is that most people dislike the clicky short-travel ‘board, but a minority think it’s great. Speaking of battery life, that has proved to be a horror show for Apple, with the late 2016 MacBook Pro becoming the first ever MacBook laptop to not receive a coveted Consumer Reports “recommended” rating due to erratic battery performance observed in CR lab testing, confirming reports of the same behavior from some (but not all) early adopters.
The vaguely focused angularities of these new Apple laptops begs the question of whether Apple pays attention to or cares about what MacBook Pro (or for that matter other Mac model) users whose primary focus is work actually do with and require from their computers as productivity tools. These new MacBook Pros fall well short of the mark for many of us, making the sharp price escalation ushered in with these new models, even for the entry level model with no Touch Bar and only two oversubscribed USB-C ports starting at $1,499.00, especially hard to countenance.
So, closing out what has not been a banner year for Apple productivity hardware, what should we be looking for in 2017? I have mixed feelings about the possibility of a new “mid-range” laptop with a retina display to replace the holdover 13-inch MacBook Air. Such a machine would presumably share the shortcomings of the 12-inch MacBook and the new MacBook Pros, such as the ‘butterfly switch’ keyboard and compromised battery life due to a slimmer form factor. Arguably, the current, non-retina MacBook Air with its comfortable ‘chiclet’ keyboard is a better bet as a lower-priced workhorse Mac laptop.
Reportedly, Apple has decided to concentrate its OS development resources on the iOS. The macOS will be maintained for the foreseeable future with maintenance and security updates, but any new features added will likely be ones migrated over from the iOS. Apple is touting iPad as its productivity platform of the future through such initiatives as its joint MobileFirst MobileFirst iOS business software development and hardware marketing collaboration with IBM. That’s a concept that holds promise, but once again Apple doesn’t appear to be listening to productivity-oriented users regarding shortcomings of the iPad and iOS as a serious work platform, a topic I discussed in last week’s The ‘Book Mystique column.
Hardware-wise, late-winter has been a traditional iPad hardware announcement time, and recent rumor-buzz is that we will see the iPad Pro 2 in 2017, probably no earlier than the 9.7-inch Pro’s first anniversary March 3, with the 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch sizes carried over along with a new “mid-size” professional iPad with a 10.1 or 10.5-inch display taking up the entire facing surface and no electromechanical Home button, enabling it to have a similar size footprint to the current 9.7-inch iPad models. A 10.5-inch panel would be just a smige smaller in area than the Microsoft Surface 3 screen (10.8″) but presumably with higher Retina resolution.
As for 2017’s iPhone refresh, it’s early days yet, but the rumor mills are reasonably suggesting that Apple will want to roll out something special for the iPhone’s 10th anniversary, likely a complete redesign possibly incorporating a flexible OLED display integrated with an all-glass enclosure, and a maybe even a MacBook Pro style Touch Bar, and powered by Apple’s A-11 system-on-chip, no hardware Home button, the camera and Touch ID fingerprint-sensing login function integrated into the display, and wireless charging.
While I don’t have very lively hope for the future of Mac laptops given the path Apple’s last two MacBook models have taken, iPad developments for serous productivity and the 10th Anniversary iPhone could make 2017 a more exciting and satisfying for professional and power users.
Happy New Year!