Apple's Mac refresh plays into download strategy

Apple's release of a new Mac OS and Mac hardware can be seen as just another update. But beneath the surface, it plays into the company's long-term plans to get users buying digital content.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
5 min read
Apple's updated Mac Mini does away with the disc drive completely.
Apple's updated Mac Mini does away with the disc drive completely. Apple

Apple today released new versions of its Mac computers as well as the system software that powers them.

At first blush, today's changes would seem to be business as usual for the technology giant, which has built massive success off cyclical updates to its products. But behind the scenes the changes represent a carefully crafted strategy in how the company presents its products to customers, as well as getting its machines more tightly connected to its various digital storefronts. Read on to find out what's new.

New operating system
First things first, there's Lion, the latest version of Apple's Mac OS. The new software is the seventh major revision of Mac OS X, and an upgrade to Apple's Snow Leopard OS which came out in late 2009.

Apple's Launchpad feature mimics the app launching environment people are used to from the iPhone or iPad.
Apple's Launchpad feature mimics the app launching environment people are used to from the iPhone or iPad. Apple

Apple is advertising Lion as having more than 250 new features, with some of the biggest ones being touches brought over from iOS, the system software that powers Apple's iPhone, iPod and iPad. That includes things like an icon-based application launcher, and multitouch gestures that make the OS feel more like an iPhone or iPad when interacting with onscreen content using a multitouch trackpad.

There are also full-screen applications--something Microsoft's Windows has had for years, but Apple's taken a slightly different approach with--making use of the multitouch trackpad to let users switch back and forth between full-screen apps, almost like pages of a magazine. Apple plans to bring identical behavior to iPad apps with a software update in the fall.

Notably, Lion is the first version of the Mac OS to be made available only as digital download to existing Mac OS users, short of having them buy a new computer. That's a stark contrast to years past, where users would have to turn to a retailer to get a DVD. Apple has made that happen through the Mac App Store, a digital downloads storefront the company introduced earlier this year that now comes included out of the gate with Lion.

In what appears to be a concession to users who aren't in a spot to download the 4GB Lion install file, Apple today announced it would also be offering the new OS on a USB stick sometime next month that will let users run the update even if they don't have an Internet connection.

Between the current download-only status of Lion, and a dwindling supply of boxed software offered in the company's retail stores, Apple has made a concerted effort to position the Mac App Store as the place to get apps and games. That's been especially true of the company's software applications like Final Cut Pro X, which is only available through the Mac App Store, and pro photo app Aperture, which can be had at less than half the cost of its boxed counterpart if buyers choose to go through Apple's digital storefront.

New Macs, display
Alongside Lion, Apple today updated two of its Mac computer lines with technology it began adding to its products earlier this year. That change is the move to Intel's newer Sandy Bridge processors alongside the introduction of Thunderbolt, a joint collaboration between Apple and Intel to produce a high-speed port that would take up less space and offer speeds that were faster than USB and Firewire.

Apple's new MacBook Airs, which take the place of the entry-level Apple notebook.
Apple's new MacBook Airs, which take the place as the entry-level Apple notebook. Apple

In late February,Apple began adding Thunderbolt to its most popular products first, starting with the MacBook Pros, followed a few months later with the iMac, Apple's all-in-one desktop. Today's updates bring Thunderbolt ports to the MacBook Air notebook, the Mac Mini desktop, and Apple's LED Cinema Display, which the company has now dubbed the Apple Thunderbolt Display. That leaves just one machine, the Mac Pro desktop tower, without that technology.

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Adding Thunderbolt to the rest of these products is important given that savvy consumers have long been expecting it to infiltrate the rest of the company's Mac lineup since the feature first appeared with February's MacBook Pro refresh. For some, that very expectation, along with the wait for Lion could have been keeping them from buying a computer, a concern that Apple has now addressed.

Apple giveth and taketh away
One change to its Mac lineup that Apple didn't announce was that the MacBook, its longtime entry-level notebook,is no more. The company quietly killed it off in favor of the entry-level MacBook Air. At $999, the 11.6-inch Air is the same price the MacBook was, but sports a smaller screen, fewer ports, no optical drive, and substantially less in built-in storage.

The MacBook, once a best seller, has been put out to pasture. CBS Interactive

The change comes just a day after Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, made mention during the company's quarterly earnings call that some customers were, in fact, choosing to buy an iPad over one of the company's computers, behavior that led to Mac sales that were still bigger than the same time last year, but lower than analysts were expecting. Perhaps by positioning a bigger gap in terms of price and features in the company's portables (which today's changes present), buyers will begin to see the two as filling separate needs.

One other long-term trend that continued to play out this morning was Apple killing off the optical drive. Apple began this with the MacBook Air, a variant of the MacBook Pro line that cut the disc drive and a few extra ports to save on size. Apple today followed that up by nixing the DVD drive in the Mac Mini line, moving it to a design similar to the one it introduced in the server version from the previous Mac Mini refresh (which did away with the optical drive in favor of adding an extra hard drive).

Between the Mac Mini change and the shelving of the MacBook, that means Apple is down to three computers with an optical drive: the MacBook Pro, iMac, and the Mac Pro. While it might take an entire overhaul of those three machines to do away with the disc drives, Apple has made it very clear the feature is on its way out, just like what it did with floppy-disk drives in the 1990s.

Why did Apple nix the disc drive, you might be wondering? With Lion shipping with the Mac App Store from the get go, that drive represents an escape route for buyers to get music, movies, and software from somewhere other than Apple, which offers all three in iTunes and the Mac App Store. Buyers who get the Air and Mac Mini still have the option to use another computer's disc drive with Apple's drive sharing technology. And there's always the optional, external DVD drive, which Apple just happens to sell for $79. At least for now.