Apple breaks the annual Mac upgrade cycle

No new MacBooks at WWDC 2014, and that may be a good thing.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

For the past two years, Apple's WWDC keynote has included significant Mac hardware announcements and introductions alongside the software and OS news the conference is built around. The MacBook Air, in particular, has been tied to the WWDC June timetable for its past couple of generations.

At WWDC 2012, the Air was updated with new components, including new Intel processors. Also announced was a new MacBook Pro family, featuring a higher-resolution Retina display, a concept that has since become common in higher-end Windows laptops.

One year later, at WWDC 2013, the MacBook Air line, both the 11-inch and 13-inch models, received yet another upgrade, to an even newer generation of Intel hardware, promising better performance, longer battery life, and faster graphics. The MacBook Pro was similarly upgraded several months later. WWDC 2013 brought us a first look at the radically redesigned Mac Pro desktop, which represented the single biggest change to an Apple computer's overall design in years.

Even before these past two WWDC keynotes, the MacBook Air received its 2011 upgrade in July of that year, placing its update time very close on the calendar for three years running.

By not offering a redesign or major component upgrade to the Air (or any Mac hardware) at WWDC, Apple has in effect broken the unofficial annual upgrade cycle that has trapped many tech companies in a spiral of diminished expectations, at least for the moment. (In April 2014, Apple made a infinitesimally small change to the current Air, switching the base processor to another in the same family, and -- more importantly -- cutting the price by $100. For our purposes, I'd hardly call that an update.)

And it's not just Apple that has been caught in the thrall of annual upgrade cycle (an idea I've railed against for years). Samsung's various devices get new installments every year like clockwork, need it or not, as do game franchises from Call of Duty to Madden. By creating the expectation that there will be a new version of a hardware or software product every year, on roughly a 12-month cycle, companies can be caught between offering a modest but unexciting new installment in a product line, or being called out for abandoning consumers by not having anything new for them to buy. It's a "damned if they do, damned if they don't" situation, one Apple, Samsung, EA, and others have created for themselves.

But perhaps tech companies are starting to lean away from these minor annual refreshes. Today's MacBook Air offers better battery life, faster Wi-Fi and Thunderbolt connections, and more powerful performance than any prior version, this is still essentially the same device for the past few years from a design perspective. As modern and forward-looking as the MacBook Air was when first introduced in 2008, and refined to its current form in 2010, it has since been eclipsed by a few generations of Windows ultrabooks and Windows 8 hybrids, with industrial designers let loose to throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks.

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Sarah Tew/CNET
That's why waiting on new MacBooks, or new iMacs, Mac Pros, or Mac Minis, until there's a more substantive physical update to offer consumers is a change from the standard operating procedure (it helps that there's not a new Intel platform to switch to yet). But, it's a potentially welcome change. After all, how would you feel about being offered yet another MacBook Air in a body that's four years old, or an iMac in a body entering its third annual cycle?

Of course, all we've done here is break the WWDC annual upgrade cycle. Apple may well be back later in the year with separate events for computer, tablet, and phone hardware. The question is -- will these fall updates offer something actually new, or just the usual incremental annual upgrade?

If you're disappointed at the lack of new Apple hardware at WWDC 2014, there are still plenty of new developments to check out. See all of today's WWDC news or zero in on our first looks at OS X Yosemite, iOS 8, and HealthKit.

 

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