Weekend Edition: Innovation stops for no-one

Matthew JC. Powell
29 February, 2008
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Within minutes of Apple’s announcement in the wee smalls of Wednesday that the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines of portable computers had been updated with Intel’s latest and greatest "Penryn" processors, based on a brand new 45-nanometer fabrication process that very nearly defies the very laws of physics, the rumour sites were abuzz with the news that these machines would be superseded sometime later this year. It has to be some kind of record.

The source of the rumours was someone at Intel, who reportedly told someone else that in a few months Intel will be replacing "Penryn" with "Montevina" and by this time next year doesn’t expect to be selling any more Penryn processors. Someone at Intel told someone at one of the rumour sites that someone at Apple had told them that when Intel introduces Montevina Apple will, of course, be updating its laptop lines with the new processors. Just to add some dressing to this salad of hearsay, the leftover unused rumour about a new form factor for the MacBook Pro was thrown in. For flavour, you understand.

Intel expects to release details of Montevina in June. Everyone knows that, because Intel keeps few secrets about its forward plans. "Release details" and "ship in volumes that will make it cost-effective for Apple to buy any" are two fairly different concepts to my mind.

From the time Intel releasd details of Penryn to when Apple started shipping machines using the new processors was three months. Let’s assume a similar timeframe for Montevina, and the rumour is basically that Apple will update its laptop lines again in about seven or eight months.

To which the market’s response ought to be: "well, duh".

Most laptop manufacturers give their products a refresh about every nine months or so. Sometimes quicker, sometimes slower, depending. Apple’s been more or less in lne with that schedule so far. The big exception is this current line of MacBooks, which comes only four months after the last MacBook rev. It appears that Apple was faced with the choice of a quicker-than-usual refresh to Penryn or a slower-than-usual refresh to Montevina, skipping Penryn altogether. The MacBook Pro revision, on the other hand, is exactly in line with everyone’s realistic expectations of when the MacBook Pro would be updated.

The response on the rumour sites’ forums and mesage boards has largely been along the lins of "ooh, I’ll wait until the Montevina ones ship then, now that I have this inside information". It’s a little unfortunate, because it isn’t inside information at all. It’s, erm, outside information.

Pots and kettles. Before I am quite rightly accused of gross hypocrisy, I should acknowledge that I am just as guilty as the folks on the rumour sites. I’ve stuck doggedly by a 667MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 that I bought in November 2001 because I was waiting for a "generational change". I didn’t see the Aluminium PowerBook G4 as a generational change — I was waiting for the G5. When there was no G5, I skipped the first Intel MacBook Pro because it was clearly a transitional beast — Apple had switched to Intel’s Core Duo chips fairly late in the cycle and the Core 2 Duo was coming very soon. Then when The Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro shipped, I waited because Leopard was imminent and I didn’t want to have to transition to a new computer and then straight away do another transition to the new operating system. Then Leopard was delayed, so I waited longer. When Leopard came out, it was again late in the product cycle, so I waited until the first hardware revision following the launch of the new operating system.

That, my friends, is what happened on Wednesday. As it happens, when I buy my new MacBook Pro I will also get to skip the problematic OS X 10.5.0 and 10.5.1 and go straight into the relatively robust 10.5.2, running on brand-new 45nm chips with 6MB of on-board L2 cache (oh yes, I’m getting mine pimped to the max, bro).

And that will remain the latest and greatest machine until Montevina comes along. I’ll have seven months’ bragging rights.

Or maybe I won’t. Remember that TiBook I bought in November 2001? It was the latest and greatest in its day as well. The very same day as Apple announced the machine with the 100MHz frontside bus (same as was in the desktop machines of the day) I ordered my TiBook. Three weeks later Apple added a DVD-burning SuperDrive to the machine. Three weeks.

Who’s to say Apple won’t pull another one like that on me this time? Three weeks down the track out comes the Penryn-based MacBook Pro with a Blu-ray Disc burner or something? No-one. It’s altogether possible someone in Cupertino is brewing exactly that plot amidst the green steam emanating from their black cauldron, but the folks in Sydney are none the wiser. Apple has become extremely good at keeping secrets, especially from itself.

The thing is, if I wait for the MacBook Pro that will never be superseded by something better, I’ll never ever buy one. Six years is long enough, and Wednesday’s MacBook Pro revision bears so little resemblance to my PowerBook it might as well not have been made by the same company.

Skin deep. Interestingly enough, though, the outside of Wednesday’s MBP is virtually identical to the Aluminium PowerBook G4 I decided not to buy way back when. For a company that thrives on innovation and pioneering design, Apple’s been a tad quiet on changing the appearance of its laptop lines lately. For that matter, the Mac Pro isn’t all that dissimilar to the Power Mac G5 (on the outside at least and the current iMac is not entirely dissimilar to the iMac G5 (which, in turn, looked quite a lot like a design that Steve Jobs showed off at the launch of the iMac G4 but said it was rejected because vertically-mounted optical drives are too slow). And the Mac mini hasn’t changed a jot since it had a G4 processor in it.

If anyone is still looking for signs of where Apple’s focus is moving, the design of its computers is a stark indication. Jonathan Ive, the design wunderkind behind all of the above, is clearly so focussed on iPhone and iPod touch and [I could tell you but I'd have to kill you] that he just doesn’t have the time to spend tweaking computers.

So I’m going to make a bold prediction: the Montevina-based MacBook Pro that comes out in September or so will look almost the same as the current model. There will be no revised form factor, no wedge-shaped casing like the MacBook Air. Ive is too busy with other stuff.

There. Now Apple will be sure to do something radical with the case design, just to prove me wrong. Don’t say I never do anything for you.

Bento winner, week 5. The last of our winners in the Bento by FileMaker "Reader Helper of the Week" award is "bitingmidge" — which doesn’t sound like a very helpful sort of name, but bitingmidge has been a frequent and helpful visitor to the Help and Tips forum almost since we started. Congratulations, your prize will be with you shortly.

Next week (and through March) we’ll have a new prize for the Reader Helper of the Week, so keep an eye out for the announcement of what it is.

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