2017 in Macs

Next year’s calendar looks full of promise for Macs and their users.

macOS Sierra is likely to be updated three more times, to version 10.12.3 in February or March, to 10.12.4 in May, and to 10.12.5 later in the summer. Each of these should be accompanied by an update to iOS, bringing it to 10.5 by the end of the summer.

Since OS X 10.9, Apple has settled into a fairly consistent update schedule. Major upgrades have been released in September-October, with a further five or six substantial updates before the next major release the following autumn. I don’t think that it is any longer correct to refer to those interim updates as being ‘minor’: many replace more than half the components in macOS, and change most of the apps and tools included.

El Capitan was an exception to this cycle because of its evident kernel and driver instability, forcing Apple to squeeze in six updates rather than five, although many users still did not attain stability even then. So far with Sierra, its updates have occurred just a few days later than the equivalent for El Capitan, and significantly earlier than in Mavericks or Yosemite. If Sierra follows the pattern of El Capitan, 10.12.3 should be expected in late January, 10.12.4 at the end of March, and 10.12.5 in May.

However, indications are that Sierra’s kernel and drivers have proved considerably more stable than any of El Capitan’s, so the update schedule is more likely to be driven by the readying of feature enhancements and security fixes, rather than the need to make macOS any more stable.

Apple’s WorldWide Developer Conference (WWDC) in early June should then see the announcement of macOS 10.13 and iOS 11, which will probably ship in late September. Although most of their features will remain under wraps until WWDC, we know that they will include release implementations of Apple File System (APFS), currently in beta test, which is destined to replace the current Mac Extended (HFS+) File System.

Installation of macOS 10.13 will involve converting existing HFS+ startup volumes to the new file system as a default; although macOS 10.13 will still support access to HFS+ volumes, it is going to be optimised for, and should require, APFS. Apple will be putting a lot of effort into minimising the trauma of that conversion, but it is still likely to make macOS 10.13 the most major and potentially disruptive upgrade for many years.

Each user will need to make decisions about when to convert their Time Machine backups to APFS, and the autumn might be a very good time to plan to install a new backup store for your Mac(s) and archive your old one. That should allow you to make a clean break to APFS without the protracted and risky conversion of your old backup volume.

This is also likely to be a worrying time for those using storage which requires third-party drivers, which are likely to break, and particularly for networked storage (NAS). Plain external drives are likely to be the least affected by the switch to APFS.

There should also be no shortage of new hardware, if Apple’s product pipeline is as crowded as Tim Cook has promised. The first could be announced as early as January, but with the US Presidential Inauguration due on 20 January, Apple is likely to avoid being overshadowed at that time. The next batch of Mac hardware announcements is therefore most probably timed for the spring, perhaps in late March or early April. This should include replacements for the current range of iMacs, and a useful refresh of the MacBook.

I expect Apple to launch new peripherals to extend its Touch Bar style input to desktop Macs during the year. These could include a separate Touch Pad or a Touch Bar integrated with a keyboard, much as in the new MacBook Pro. Their greatest problem is likely to be recharge intervals of wireless versions, so this coming year I would expect them to be wired. Apple will also decide whether to include them in the MacBook refresh: I suspect that they will not appear on MacBooks, just yet.

If Apple intends replacing the Mac Pro, I expect that will be announced at WWDC, or possibly a bit later in the summer. The last two Mac Pro models were announced in June 2012 and 2013, although the current model did not actually ship until the following December. These high-end Macs have greatest appeal to software and content developers, and are likely to be used as Apple’s vote of confidence (at last) in its ‘pro’ users.

Attention will then turn to a replacement for the mini (which I suspect will be a completely new design), and a refresh of the MacBook Pro, which seem most likely in September or October. That assumes that Apple still intends to offer a modular desktop system, and that current claims of battery problems in MacBook Pros do not turn out to be true. In the event that Apple needs to revise the battery of the MacBook Pro, that might force an earlier date for the refresh.

I hope that the new Mac hardware will far exceed those expectations, and make 2017 a year to remember for Mac users.