Before we get started, I want to make this clear. Apple: I love you. Although, these days, this love is increasingly for iOS and macOS. But before we get distracted, let’s focus on the good; the trifecta. Apple CarPlay, 2012 era Apple Thunderbolt displays and those slick external GPU’s.
Apple CarPlay is the best. Each time I plug my iPhone into the car, it feels like I’m injecting it with some sort of comic book inspired serum. By becoming an extension of my phone, the car gets superpowers. My iPhone fills the car with my music, podcasts and contacts. Plus it’s all seamlessly controlled by the traditional interface within the car. It’s not a dangerous distraction, I don’t need to touch the phone, everything is available via voice commands or buttons on the steering wheel. I often think of CarPlay as the perfect embodiment contextual computing, both my iPhone and car adapt to the presence of one another to provide the best possible experience while driving.
It’s a similar situation with my 2012 era Thunderbolt display. It’s jammed full of the desktop peripherals I love to use - a mechanical keyboard and a corded mouse. I do a bit of work with microcontrollers, so I usually have a spare USB cable kicking around to plug in and upload stuff to whatever hardware I’m working on. Plus the 27” display has tons of room for activities. Oh and the ethernet port, for that extra bandwidth when I’m at my desk uploading and publishing something. I plug my MacBook Air into the thunderbolt display and it too gets imbued with superpowers. And when you are working? Superpowers are exactly what you need. It’s another good example of contextual computing. Like my phone, I can take my laptop anywhere and have all my digital ‘work’ with me. But in certain places, I can plug my laptop in and take advantage of the additional functionality and power of a desktop environment. Hell yes.
This brings me to those slick external GPU’s. I don’t have one. They don’t work with the MacBook Air, but those fancy units that crank the graphics performance of a laptop way up? I haven’t coveted a new piece of computing hardware like that for a very long time. It’s almost enough to make me upgrade my laptop. All that extra grunt would be invaluable for the film editing and CAD work that pummels my little MacBook Air.
But I haven’t upgraded my laptop in a long time because Apple seems to be on a relentless path of making things slimmer and more portable. In many contexts this is certainly helpful - for example when flying, naturally I would have a preference for something lighter and smaller. But when I’m at my desk creating things, I want those devices to take on the superpowers a desktop environment can provide.
It’s a little frustrating, because I honestly don’t know why the current Apple hardware lineup doesn’t take more advantage of this idea around giving portable devices superpowers in different contexts. They have this amazing vertical stack, going from software right down to microchip design. I can’t think of a company that is better placed to give portable devices amazing power in all the different contexts we find ourselves.
For example, what if you took an external GPU and smushed it together with some sort of Thunderbolt 3 Display? Aww-yeah. Now these are superpowers. Bigger display, better graphics performance, ethernet for thicker bandwidth. Sprinkle in a few USB ports for maximum connectivity. Then just a single Thunderbolt 3 cable to hook up your laptop. Superpowers and a charge at the same time? Now we are talking.
Then what if you gave the iPhone and iPad the same Thunderbolt 3 connector? Desktop superpowers regardless of the device - this is starting to sound like my kind of future. Having my devices collaborate and adapt to the context they find themselves within? This sounds like the sort of computing landscape that Apple would utterly dominate.
If you take the buyer’s guide from MacRumours and sort it mostly by size/power, we can leave the last line for hardware that gives us contextual superpowers:
Apple could tweak this hardware lineup to hone in on a direction of contextual computing. I guess I need a bit of a warning here, it’s going to get a bit brutal. Chances are I’m about to suggest cutting your favorite piece of hardware.
The era for this once ubiquitous music player has come to a close. Music streaming services and low end smartphones has pillared the iPod market into an ever increasing niche.
The older iPhone8 can get safely dropped; Apple will do this eventually as part of their natural upgrade cycle anyway. The big change is merging the iPhone SE into Apple’s flagship line of iPhone models. The iPhone X could be available in a smaller 5.0” format, along with the current 5.8” format and maybe an even bigger 6.1” format. Switch over to a Thunderbolt 3 connector and we can start forming a consistent world for giving these devices superpowers.
This tablet is kind of in the middle of nowhere, not really big enough to be a useful tablet and not small enough to fill the mobility needs of a phone. The introduction of a 6.1” variant of the iPhoneX would bridge the gap between the iPhone and the iPad making the Mini obsolete.
Not much to change here aside from upgrading the connector to Thunderbolt 3 to make it compatible with the Apple super-device universe.
Really difficult to slide the Mini anywhere into the contemporary lineup. Apple haven’t updated it in something like three years anyway. Plus that display I was talking about, the Mac Turbo? Plug an iPad into that and it fills the entry level market niche of a Mac Mini.
iPad Pro, MacBook and MacBook Air
I think you could merge these all together into a new device that is part iPad and part MacBook, a built-in keyboard with touch screen that could compete with Microsoft’s Surface. I think Apple is probably pretty close to launching something in this category anyway. Let’s call such a thing the ‘MacBook Touch’, and keep our fingers crossed that it has the unifying Thunderbolt 3 connector.
The MacBook Pro would remain, and become the most powerful standalone machine that Apple sells.
iMac, iMac Pro and Mac Pro
This is probably the most contentious of all the suggestions. Drop all three of them, in favour of this turbocharged Apple display. Any device in the ecosystem can be turbocharged into a desktop class machine via the display.
I think you could tweak the Apple TV into a shape that is more akin to CarPlay. This would be a device that bridges the gap between your existing Apple products and a TV (and eventually built straight into TV’s like CarPlay). The Thunderbolt 3 connector would give your device Apple TV superpowers, presenting your existing apps and content on the screen. The Apple TV would allow you to use the remote to navigate and interact with it all like a traditional TV. Game controllers that connect to the Apple TV and would permit you to play the iOS games on your device via the TV, just like a console.
At the end of all this, you would have a product lineup that covers a broad spectrum of portability and performance requirements. Plus a clear focus on how to give these devices different superpowers depending on the context they find themselves in.
Sitting in your study? Here is a powerful GPU, access to your desktop peripherals and all the film editing/CAD/programming work that’s on your device.
Sitting in your lounge? Here is a TV remote, game controller and access to all the entertainment that’s on your device.
Sitting in your car? Here is navigation, and access to all your contacts and audio content on your device.
I don’t know about you, but that is starting to look like a contemporary hardware lineup. It feels much more like what we have come to expect from Apple, an action packed lineup where you can choose your own superpower.
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