Why the MacBook Air might spell the end of configurable Macs

There’s been a lot written about the potential merging together of the software that runs (and runs on) the Mac and the iPad. 2019 is shaping up to be a huge year, as Apple’s devices get closer together than they’ve ever been before.

But while the focus on Apple’s smooshing together of its platforms has been primarily about the software (iOS apps running on the Mac) and hardware (the potential of future Macs running Apple-designed ARM processors), the new MacBook Air got me thinking about another way Apple’s approach to iPads and iPhones may dramatically change how we shop for Macs in the future.

As long as it’s black

The new $1,199 base-model MacBook Air comes with a 1.6GHz dual-core Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz. If you max out all of its specs, on the other hand, you’ll walk away with a $2,600 computer… with the very same 1.6GHz processor. Apple will let you expand storage (to 1.5TB) and memory (to 16GB), but the processor you get is the processor you get.

a12 mockupIDG

iPads don’t have processor upgrade options. Neither does the new MacBook Air.

On every other Mac model Apple sells—even the 12-inch MacBook!—you can choose from different processor options. (Okay, on the base-model non-retina 21.5-inch iMac you can’t, but there are other 21.5-inch iMacs available.) In contrast, Apple doesn’t sell different versions of the same product with different processors anywhere else in its product line. The new iPad Pro comes in a single processor option, the A12X. The iPhone XR and XS are powered by the A12. That’s it.

And it got me thinking: This feels like the future of the Mac, certainly on the consumer end of the product line. With the new MacBook Air, Apple has picked a processor and stuck with it. Would any of us be surprised if it did the same with a future update to the MacBook? Or low-end iMacs?

Looking a bit further into the future, if Apple starts building Macs with ARM processors, is it going to want to offer different classes of processors within those models? On iOS, Apple has steadfastly refused to do this. Every model-year of a given model is generally powered by the same processor across the board.

It’s conceivable that Apple might roll out a new ARM processor across several Macs and have each one have a different clock speed or number of cores—but even then, I have a hard time imagining that Apple will let customers configure what processor goes in what Mac when they order them. It seems more likely that Apple will offer what it feels is the right processor configuration for a model—and if you want a more powerful processor, your option will be to buy the next model up.

It’s an open question about how Apple will approach this for professional Macs. As long as Intel is Apple’s chip supplier and Intel is offering a variety of different, compatible chips, Apple will almost certainly keep offering choice. But the moment that ARM enters the picture, all bets are off.