Would Apple Ever Abandon the Mac?
There’s been plenty of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth following the launch of the late 2016 MacBook Pro laptops. Many praise the style but lament the prices, the me-too specs, the lukewarm innovation, and the dongle economy that it creates.
One piece of crowd-wisdom (is there even such a thing?) is that Apple is step-by-step retreating from the pro market. For decades, designers, illustrators, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, developers, and others have relied upon the Mac to provide them power and performance and reliability for their work. This group of professionals embraced the original Mac, carried the company through the dark PowerPC days of the 90s (anybody remember Performas?), and have sung Cupertino’s praises as Apple launched hit after hit for the pro market…cheesegrater Mac Pros, high-spec iMacs, the first several generations of the Macbook Pro, etc…
Proponents of this theory point to a number of “signs” that Apple no longer cares all that much about pros, namely:
- Abandonment of pro-level photo editor Aperture
- Glacial pace of Mac Pro improvements
- Increased use of soldered-on (non-upgradeable) components in iMacs and Macbook Pros
- Less than top-level specs of the new Macbook Pros
Could Apple really abandon the pro market? In a word, yes.
This is Not Your Father’s Apple Computer, Inc.
There was a time when Apple was a computer company and their fortunes (and stock price) lived and died on the success of their computers in the market. There was a time when Apple and Mac were but a blip on the cultural radar, known for little more than “the computer that those folks in Marketing use.” There was a time when those fortunes looked really bleak, and Apple forged an unholy alliance and migrated both their hardware and OS to new architectures in order to survive. Dark days indeed.
But those days are long past. Thanks to the return of Steve Jobs and a willingness to think different, Apple released hit after hit product and are now a technical and cultural juggernaut. While MacOS has had its share of success (the original Bondi blue iMac practically saved the company), the real blockbusters have come from the other side of the house, iOS. Nearly a decade since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, here are the numbers from Apple’s Q4 2016 report:
To put a finer point on it, here are iOS sales vs. MacOS sales:
Truth told, Apple’s meteoric growth in the 21st century has been fueled by iOS, not MacOS:
See that blue line at the bottom? That’s MacOS and it looks pretty stagnant.
We should have seen it coming. Way back on Jan 9, 2007 Jobs announced the name change from Apple Computer to simply Apple Inc. and back then we saw it a bold move into a blue ocean of consumer mobile. We cheered and gobbled up iPods, iPhones, and iPads like they were the next big thing. And they were. Apple completely re-wrote the mobile playbook and we were mostly content to inhale each new iPhone as our Mac Pros and Macbook Pros slowly started falling back to earth.
Apple is an iOS Company Now
But as the numbers show, Apple revenue (and likely profits, assuming similar profit margins between iOS and MacOS products) is dominated by iOS. And in a highly competitive mobile world, Apple has steadily updated their iOS-based offerings to compete, making them more powerful and more functional with each iteration. The quad-core A10 Fusion chip in the new iPhone 7 is getting fast, really fast and for large swaths of consumers, iOS is the only OS they need in their lives. And Apple has begun blurring the line between iOS and MacOS with the iPad Pro. Sure, most professionals scoff at the idea that the iPad Pro can completely replace their beloved Macbooks and iMacs, but that’s today.
The Battle for Resources
iOS and MacOS are on a collision course. With each iteration, iOS gets more powerful and encroaches upon what used to be solely MacOS’ turf. With the iPad, the cloud, and a keyboard, writers can happily bang out 500 word blog posts. With an iPad Pro and Pencil, an illustrator or designer can sketch out a concept or storyboard. Today, they’ll bring that sketch to a Mac where they’ll work on it some more. But what about tomorrow? What about next year?
As long as MacOS still exists, Apple needs to devote significant resources to it. And with iPhone sales flattening amidst a maturing market and increased competition from Samsung, Google, and others, Apple needs to protect their cash cow. As the iPad Pro line grows and evolves it may start to rival products like Microsoft’s Surface line in capabilities. In other words, it may start to really be a replacement for a computer for an ever-larger segment of the population.
And at some point in time, both iOS and MacOS are going to require a substantial upgrade. When that happens, Apple CEO Tim Cook is going to look at his abacus and ask himself…
- How much more competitive would we be with iOS if we added resources from the MacOS team?
- How much money and time could we save if we just killed MacOS?
- What iOS performance and features will we need to retain enough MacOS user to make this work financially?
- Are we willing to lose a portion of the “pro” market to Windows to make this happen?
- How much will we need to increase iOS sales to make up for lost MacOS sales?*
For the company that has killed Aperture, castrated Final Cut, and left the Mac Pro withering on the vine, the answer to the last question may very well be, “Yes.” It would be an incredibly tough decision, of course, because MacOS has been Apple’s DNA from the first day it said, “Hello”, the 3.5" floppy disk started whirring and clattering, and it changed everyone’s idea of what a personal computer could be.
It would take a lot of soul searching in Cupertino to kill MacOS. It would alienate large swaths of the Mac user base. It would take real courage. But it might be what Apple needs to do and the most Jobsian thing that Tim Cook could do.
*9.7 million units or 17.7% based on 2016Q4 numbers