It's time for Apple to upgrade those aging Macs

NEW YORK—Years before the iPhone showed up, Apple was synonymous with the Macintosh. But Apple’s personal computers have played second fiddle to the iPhone for quite some time now, and a refreshed Mac lineup is long overdue.

All signs point to just that happening on Thursday, at a press event taking place at Apple’s Cupertino, Calif. headquarters. The invite beckoned with "Hello Again" and the Apple icon, seemingly a subtle acknowledgement by the company that it is time to pay attention to the Mac again.

While the Mac business contributes a far smaller piece to Apple’s bottom line, it remains a large and important one for the company, which used to be known as Apple Computer. But it's also a business under pressure, especially as Apple tries to attract and keep customers inside its ecosystem.

Apple sold 4.3 million Macs during the three month period ending June 25, , but that was down 11% from the 4.8 billion it sold in the same period a year earlier. Mac revenues fell 13%to $5.2 billion. During the first half of the year, Mac shipments declined more steeply than PC shipments based on Windows, a reversal from 2015 says Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa. .

In educational markets, a traditional strength for the Mac, inroads are being made by the many companies that make Chromebooks that are based on Google’s Chrome operating system. Most Chromebooks are inexpensive; Macs by contrast play in premium, high-margin territory.

Meantime, many of the more interesting form factors of late are coming on the Windows side: 2-in-1s convertibles, machines that bend or fold every which way, and PCs that sport touch-screens. While touch-screens are obviously at the core of the iPad and iPhones, Apple has resisted them on the Mac.

A day before Apple has its press event in California, Microsoft will be hosting a Windows event in New York, with presumed updates to its Surface hardware. One rumor has Microsoft unveiling an all-in-one Surface desktop PC that might compete against Apple's iMac.

For its part, Apple did introduce a remarkably thin, 2-pound MacBook computer in 2015, though the design only permitted a single USB-C type connector; Apple received criticism for not having extra ports.

Apple still sells the popular airy light MacBook Air computers — for now. But given the move to thinner and lighter machines generally, fans of Apple's most powerful and expensive laptops, the MacBook Pros, are pressing the company to produce a Pro model that goes on its own diet.

“Apple’s recent weakness may be largely because they haven’t refreshed much of their Mac line,” says Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis. “Apple has prided itself on setting the direction of the laptop industry and its Macs are long in the tooth.”

Gartner's Kitagawa agrees: The “Mac has always been on top of innovation but that’s not the case anymore….it is very crucial for them to have some `wow’ device.”

It remains to be seen if a newly designed MacBook Pro (or Pros) will be that wow computer. The speculation is that the latest Pro will indeed be considerably slimmer. It is also expected to have a customizable OLED-style touch key strip that would replace the standard function keys on the top of the Qwerty keyboard. This row of touch keys would dynamically change depending on what the user is doing at the time. That would be innovative but whether it would also be a useful change is one of those things we'll have to wait on.

At an event in San Francisco on March 9, 2015, Apple's
At an event in San Francisco on March 9, 2015, Apple's Philip Schiller introduces the new MacBook, right, which is thinner, lighter and has a just one port, a USB-C. (Photo: Apple)
You can also expect the MacBook Pro to get the versatile USB-C connector, as well, presumably more than one, and hopefully without simultaneously abandoning the standard USB ports now on the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and other Macs, lest consumers may have to rely on clumsy adapters to connect standard USB devices.

It’s a good bet we’ll see USB-C across the Mac line. USB-C might also spell the end of the MagSafe power adapter, at least as we know it.

It is also quite possible some or all of Apple’s new computers will add the Touch ID fingerprint scanner that is familiar to iPhone users.  A feature that came to the Mac with the MacOS Sierra operating system upgrade that arrived in September gave consumers the capability of paying for stuff on the Web via Apple Pay. Touch ID would make it way easier to complete such transactions on a Mac since folks currently have to do so with an iPhone or Apple Watch.

Other things to watch: Will Apple bring the Lightning connector that’s on the iPhone and iPad to the Mac? If so, would it take the bold—and unpopular—step of removing the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, just as it did on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus?

And will Apple finally give in and add touch-displays to the Mac? I’m not counting on it.

Nor do I don’t think Apple will necessarily bring its high resolution Retina display to the MacBook Air, since Retina is one of the drivers for getting you to pony up for the MacBook Pro. It's not even out of the question that Apple will ditch the Air altogether and give all its love (among its lightest laptops) to the MacBook.

Whichever models remain in the line up will almost certainly incorporate the latest specs, something would-be buyers are getting antsy for.

“It is important to remember that Apple is an ecosystem company and are tying Mac and iOS together," Greengart says. “Having current versions of both Mac and iOS (devices) is important to Apple’s best customers.”

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

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