If you want to watch a master at work, observe Apple’s timing of product launches. It’s one of the underrated aspects of the American giant’s prodigious and prolonged success, but it’s been instrumental. Today’s long-awaited MacBook Pro redesign is just the latest example, coming swiftly on the heels of Apple reporting declining earnings and Microsoft announcing an eye-catching new PC — both of which are liable to be avalanched by excited chatter about Apple’s exciting new laptop.
In a previous article, I addressed the point that being first to launch a new product or technology is no guarantee of success. LG had the first phone with a capacitive touchscreen, but it was Apple’s iPhone that now stands as the iconic smartphone device (literally; when people draw smartphone icons for their related products, they use the iPhone’s shape and globally recognizable home button). Microsoft and HP collaborated on the Slate tablet, but it was Apple’s subsequent iPad that has defined what we mean by that category of portable computer. In both instances, Apple was later than competitors, but it waited until it had perfected both the design of the device and the economics underpinning it before launching.
For its time, back in 2007, the original iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen was large and impressive. Apple was actually on the cutting edge (the iPhone was announced with a plastic screen, but shipped with glass), shrugging off the established physical keyboards and tiny screens in mobile devices for a PDA-like display-dominated device. Just when larger capacitive touchscreens were becoming viable, Apple struck. That’s as true of the iPhone in 2007 as it is of the iPad in 2010. What’s impressive is that at the time of those decisions, especially the iPhone, Apple’s supply and production chain was not as massive or globally integrated as it is today, and the company had to overcome similar constraints to the ones faced by everyone else building consumer electronics. But it foresaw where the future of the industry was headed and launched its new devices at precisely the right time.
The iPhone’s unprecedented run of constant growth has also been the result of well judged, extremely patient expansion. First Apple dropped its carrier exclusives with the likes of AT&T in the US and O2 in the UK. That grew sales. Then it expanded into China. That grew sales in a big way. And then once it had the whole world eating out of the palm of its aluminum hand, Apple finally relented and gave us all bigger iPhones. And that exploded sales. It’s natural that Apple would now be facing a decline, having reached stratospheric heights, but even on the downslope, the company finds ways to sustain mindshare and consumer excitement.
This new MacBook Pro expected today is not going to replace the lost iPhone sales of the past few financial quarters. It’s likely that nothing will, because we don’t live in a world of infinite growth and most people that want a smartphone or laptop already have one — and the ones that don’t won’t be served by Apple and its premium products anyway. No, what the MacBook Pro refresh is about is reasserting Apple’s lead as the premier laptop maker. The new machine will also serve as a swift response to critics casting doubt over the company’s future because of a lack of new and innovative products.
Managing expectations has grown into a big part of the work of Apple’s senior team. As the most valuable company in the world, and one of the most closely scrutinized, Apple is expected to show constant forward momentum, even as advancing in such mature categories as smartphones and laptops becomes increasingly hard to do. It pulled off that tricky task well with its patient iPhone rollout and expansion, and now it’s playing a similar game with the MacBook Pro.
Is Apple launching its newest laptop as quickly as possible? Almost certainly not. Strategically, Apple demands that a product be ready before launch, but the company always performs some tactical maneuverings to ensure that its announcement has maximum impact. Being able to steal the limelight from Microsoft’s Surface Studio may have been serendipitous, however there’s no doubt that Apple deliberately shifted its schedule so that its downbeat earnings call could get buried in enthusiastic coverage of the MacBook Pro with a shiny new touch strip. And after such a protracted wait since the last MBP redesign, it will be hard to stop people enthusing about the new one.
Apple once held the laptop crown with the MacBook Air, but that model has grown woefully out of date and macOS loyalists have started looking in the direction of Windows alternatives like the Dell XPS 13 and Microsoft Surface Book. Looking, yes, but probably not yet making the jump to a whole new OS and working environment — and now Apple is swooping in, just in time, to pull them back into the cozy confines of its ecosystem. Using familiar things like Touch ID, Apple Pay, and what looks like the unique butterfly keyboard mechanism of the updated, extra slim MacBook.
Of course, timing means nothing without a great product and all of this depends on Apple being Apple and delivering a device that becomes the benchmark for its competition. Reviving faith in macOS and Apple innovation at the same time as undermining an old rival’s biggest announcement of the year — who could ask for anything more than that from a product launch?
Looking back on 40 years of Apple products