Three Reasons Apple is Done Making Displays
I’ve been a fan of Apple’s displays since ancient times, when you needed to buy a special graphics card that connected to your motherboard via an AGP slot. Back in those days, your Apple display connected via the proprietary ADC port, which I remember well because I had to scour the internet — and Fry’s — to find one that would work with my PowerMac G4. So I was a little sad that Apple pulled the Thunderbolt Display off the shelf earlier this year. I had hopes that last week’s event would come with the revelation of an external Retina Display; good thing those hopes weren’t strong.
There’s been a lot of speculation around whether Apple might release another display, but I think there are three reasons why those of us who were wishing for one need to come to terms with the fact that Apple has moved on to greener pastures.
Apple Makes a Conscious Effort to Find their Focus
One of the most famous moves Steve Jobs made after coming back to a struggling Apple was the creation of the four-quadrant product grid. He drew four squares, and wrote “consumer” and “professional” across the top, while writing “desktop” and “portable” down the side. Those four products became Apple’s focus.
Everything else — printers, clones, licensing, and even PDAs (which, somewhat ironically, were the ancestor of Apple’s most popular product) — was cut from production. 3000 people lost their jobs as a result of Jobs’ resolve to focus.
It’s hard to argue with the results. Nearly 20 years since those initial decisions, nobody cares that Apple no longer makes printers or allows third party manufacturers to sell cheaper versions of their hardware. They care that Apple continues innovating in the mobile, tablet, and laptop space. And while some might argue that Apple is struggling to regain their focus in recent years, “regaining” their focus is a problem that can only come from having found it to begin with.
I believe that Apple’s focus has not included displays since 2011. It may even be the case — and this is purely speculation — that Steve Jobs was the only person on Apple’s executive team who cared about including displays in the product line. It seems more than coincidental that the year of Mr. Jobs’ passing was also the last year Apple released a display. Keeping that last display in the product lineup for as long as Apple did may have been out of respect for the late founder, but it also illustrated a second reason we’ll likely never see another Apple display.
The Thunderbolt Display was Abandonware
The truth of the matter is that when Apple nixed the Thunderbolt Display from retailers earlier this year, it was already five years old. In tech terms, that’s a lifetime; in Apple’s terms, that’s an eon. The only proposition to be inferred from such a long time without improvement or iteration is that Apple just didn’t care about it. I suspect they didn’t really want to do away with it completely (again, possibly out of respect for Mr. Jobs), but neither did they have any interest in making it any better. So it stagnated for half a decade until Apple finally ended its run, a decision born out of Apple’s commitment to reason number three.
Apple Ditches Tech that Isn’t Useful Enough
I have a (very roughly-hewn) theory that Apple has some form of internal rubric for determining how useful a given technology is. This rubric may not even be explicitly stated, but it’s understood clearly enough by Apple’s leadership to help them determine whether a certain bit of technology meets a certain standard. If it doesn’t, Apple deems it not useful enough and scraps it from their products.
I remember my junior high receiving some iMacs soon after they came out in 1998. I was surprised to discover that none of them had a floppy disk drive, which I thought was a strange choice. How in the world was I going to use my Mac-formatted floppy disks?
The thing I didn’t realize then was that my floppy disk use was already on the decline. Apple simply accepted this trend and put the tech out of its misery on their product line. Floppy disks still had their uses at the time, but they just weren’t useful enough. When the iMac came out, floppies were quickly being replaced by ZIP drives and CDs, made possible by ever-increasingly-popular CD burners. Then when 2012 rolled around and Apple released the new Macbook Pro, CDs and DVDs had become like the floppy in 1998: useful, but not useful enough. At that point I had relegated the primary function of burnable DVDs — computer backups — to the Time Machine share on my home NAS. As in 1998, I still found the technology useful in some cases — but not most.
Apple’s decision to ditch the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 may be a bit aggravating and somewhat inconvenient, but it’s fully within character. (The narrative Apple tried to spin around this decision was ludicrous. It doesn’t take “courage” to do the thing you usually do.) It’s useful tech, but for Apple, it’s not useful enough. It takes up space in the iPhone that could be used for something newer and better. And my guess is that the Thunderbolt Display was in the same boat as the headphone jack. It’s useful, but not useful enough. The resources necessary to keep it in the product line, compared with the usefulness of the technology, don’t meet the minimum requirements of Apple’s internal rubric. So Apple ditched it.
Things are Looking Up
The Thunderbolt Display wasn’t perfect, but there was one thing I liked about it that nobody else could quite get right: its unity. Plug in one port and a power cable, and the display became the hub of everything else. Nothing else needed plugging in to the computer. It matched Apple’s aesthetic. It streamlined the peripheral connection process.
Nobody has gotten that part of it quite right, but some are getting better. Dell is one of these. Currently I use their UltraSharp U3415W. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it; in particular, I thought it was comically wide. But now I can’t live without it. Its color, quality, and picture are all glorious, and more than once I’ve found myself wishing my PC were powerful enough to render games on a screen that wide.
The Dell also succeeds in fulfilling my need for unity, albeit not quite as well as the Thunderbolt Display did. All I need to do is plug in the Mini DisplayPort and one USB connector and the display becomes the hub of the computer. My USB Das Keyboard and wireless Logitech mouse both run seamlessly through the Dell without a hint of latency.
Add up the variety of displays available on the market, from 144hz to 4K to 1440p, and it becomes clear that we need not lament the loss of the Thunderbolt Display for too long. Maybe ditching the old tech will finally help Apple regain some of their focus — like how to make Apple Music better, or somehow making the Apple Watch a palatable purchase.