For the second year in a row, Microsoft's October hardware event won the hearts and minds of a segment of the Mac user base. While many have been quick to call these past two weeks a renaissance for the personal computer, such proclamations fail to recognize the harsh realities of the mobile era. The new MacBook Pro tells us a lot about Apple's plan for the Mac in today's mobile world, and it doesn't revolve around saving the PC.
What Is the Mac?
The best way to describe the Mac is to revisit a product theory that Phil Schiller, Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing, introduced last year that I coined "The Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products." All of Apple's major product categories are interrelated. The goal or job for each is to gain enough capability to reduce the importance of the next most powerful product. For example, the goal of the iPad is to handle so many tasks that we no longer need a Mac.
In this theory, the Mac's role is to serve as the product that pushes the rest of Apple's product line forward. As Schiller put it, the Mac desktop's role is to "challenge what we think a computer can do and do things that no computer has ever done before."
The Mac Fell Behind
Judging by the way Apple management continues to talk about the Mac, the product category still occupies a surprising amount of mindshare within Apple despite the iPad outselling the Mac by 2.5x and the iPhone outselling both the iPad and Mac by 3.3x in FY2016. Here's Tim Cook kicking off the Mac segment of Apple's keynote last week:
"The Mac is more than a product to us. It's a testament to everything we do and everything we create at Apple."
This follows on the heels of Apple placing the Mac in the spotlight in 2015 by granting Steven Levy a surprising amount of access to one of the Mac labs. Apple had just updated the iMac and introduced the Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Trackpad 2. In retrospect, Apple was likely feeling some of the growing outcry facing the Mac.
While Apple was pledging continued support for the Mac, the product category became long in the tooth. Circling back to The Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products, the Mac was no longer keeping up with Schiller's proclamation of it being the computer meant to push Apple's entire product line forward. While the tech press has remained infatuated with the debate as to whether an iPad can replace a Mac, consumers have already determined that the iPhone is able to handle most of the tasks once given to the Mac.
The Mac had fallen behind and was no longer challenging what we think we can do with a computer. Instead, the iPhone and iPad were overachieving, seeing much success at handling jobs formerly given the Mac.
Last month's Microsoft Surface event exposed the degree to which the Mac business has fallen behind in the eyes of some Mac users. For these customers, the idea of Microsoft ushering in some kind of PC renaissance was a sight for sore eyes. When it came time to unveil the biggest update to MacBook Pro in four years, Apple's presentation last week could have taken three different paths.
Option 1: Give Mac users what they think they want.
In this scenario, Apple Industrial Design (ID) would admit defeat in their long-standing views on Mac design and user experience. The end result would be other divisions within Apple pushing out the most powerful Macs to date from a spec perspective, with plenty of ports and customization.
Option 2: Write a new chapter in the Mac playbook.
I refer to this option as the "Microsoft." Apple could rethink the Mac with the goal of pushing the boundaries of the modern Mac. Similar to Microsoft, Apple would turn to the tablet for inspiration regarding where to bring the Mac. Apple would strive to place the Mac on a better trajectory in an increasingly mobile world. With a focus on niche, creative use cases, touch-screen Macs would likely make an appearance as the Mac tries to become more like a Mac/iPad hybrid.
Option 3: Throw the Mac playbook out the window
In this scenario, Apple recognizes the Mac will never be as popular as iPad but that there is still a need for the Mac in the Apple lineup. The plan would be to position the Mac in such a way as to push the rest of Apple's product line forward. Apple ID would take lessons learned from mobile to rethink the Mac user experience.
The New MacBook Pro
Last week's Mac event gave us a clear indication as to which path Apple chose. The new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar demonstrates how Apple is placing a very different bet than Microsoft. The sheer amount of criticism pointed at the new MacBook Pro from a small but vocal segment of the Mac user base demonstrates how much risk is found with Apple's bet. Jony Ive and the ID group want to rethink the notebook and are throwing the old Mac playbook out the window.
I was able to spend some time with the new MacBook Pro and Touch Bar in the Apple demo room. I left intrigued. (My complete thoughts and observations from attending Apple's keynote are available here and here). A multi-touch screen positioned above the keyboard with adaptive inputs based on what appears on the screen will alter the way we use a Mac. The change will not be dramatic at first. In fact, for some users, Touch Bar usage may only occur when playing music. However, similar to haptic feedback on the iPhone, the Touch Bar's influence will grow over time.
Apple is making a very deliberate decision that the Touch Bar, and not a focus on power and ports, is the best way to push the Mac forward in today's mobile world. As Phil Schiller explained to The Independent earlier this week, Apple was expecting pushback from some of its Mac users. This is a sign that Apple was aware that it was placing a big bet with lots of risk. The new MacBook Pro is the first Mac to have a ARM processor, albeit a secondary one with the T1 chip, and a multi-touch display, albeit a narrow strip positioned above the keyboard. However, more importantly, this MacBook Pro begins to question the "Pro" in MacBook Pro.
Microsoft vs. Apple
No other consumer-facing tech company is going after the Mac with as much vigor as Microsoft. (I view Google's Chromebook as impacting the iPad more than the Mac.) It is often said that this type of competition benefits consumers because it motivates each side of the battle, pushing companies towards greater innovation. I think that adage is outdated. If Apple's motivation to innovate merely came from increased competitive pressure from Microsoft, Apple would have much more serious problems on its hands than slowing innovation.
Instead, the primary benefit to consumers from Microsoft's multi-year push into niche PC hardware targeting "creatives" is that there is additional choice in the marketplace. A look through Microsoft's financials would reveal that there aren't many consumers taking Microsoft up on that additional choice, but that's for another day and weekly article.
It was very clear in watching Panos Panay, head of Microsoft's Surface division, explain and demonstrate Surface Studio that Microsoft is not copying Apple. Microsoft is truly blazing a trail for itself. However, this isn't exactly a new thing for Microsoft, the company that was vocal about inventing tablet computing ten years before Apple unveiled the iPad.
Microsoft's foray into touch-based laptops and desktops does not represent competition for Apple because each company is on a completely different path when it comes to vision for the user experience.
- Microsoft wants users to get lost within Surface Studio hardware (see photo above).
- Apple wants hardware to melt away.
- Microsoft wants its products to help you create and produce.
- Apple wants its products to improve your life.
At the heart of the issue is a difference in motivation and agenda. With the new MacBook Pro, Apple is taking elements of iPhone and iPad to push the Mac forward. This is being done to then serve as a catalyst for pushing the iPhone and iPad forward. Revisiting The Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products, the Mac is positioned as the device that pushes the boundaries of a computer. The consequence is that the iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch have to then work just a little bit harder to handle the tasks given to the Mac.
However, Microsoft has a different goal with Surface Book and Surface Studio. Microsoft doesn't have a wrist wearable, smartphone, or dedicated tablet to push forward. Instead, its goal is to redefine the PC for a mobile world. This is why Microsoft is betting on touch-screen laptops and desktops. While Microsoft is betting on a PC renaissance, Apple is using the Mac to double down on mobile.
Apple's bet with the new MacBook Pro is that the Touch Bar will position the Mac as a tool that is able to push mobile devices forward. This is part of a comprehensive strategy that I call "The Apple Innovation Feedback Loop."
As shown in the diagram below, the driving factor that establishes the feedback loop is Apple ID taking lessons learned from making technology more personal with iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, and improving the user experience found with more powerful products such as the Mac. As these more powerful products are given additional capabilities, the incentive is to then push the less powerful products forward with improved technologies.
While much of the criticism facing the new MacBook Pro concerns power, ports, and adapters, the much more interesting item to watch is how users embrace the Touch Bar. The risk found with this bet is that customers do not embrace the new user experience found with Touch Bar and MacBook Pro.
Combining The Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products with the Apple Innovation Feedback Loop produces the diagram below. The underlying principle that guides both the Grand Unified Theory and the Innovation Feedback Loop is to focus on the user experience created by different input and output mechanisms.
The Mac's Future
With the MacBook Pro's Touch Bar, Apple is combining multi-touch with a mechanical keyboard. This new input will lead to a different user experience that may position the Mac as a more capable device than an iPad. One example is how an photo editing toolbar is removed from the screen and instead positioned in the Touch Bar, freeing up precious screen real estate. Another example is a music DJ placing a MacBook with multi-touch and a keyboard above an iPad in terms of capability and utility. If a MacBook Pro with Touch Bar appeals to a DJ, Apple's new goal is to come up with a way for the iPad Pro to handle the tasks given to the MacBook Pro.
Apple thinks the Mac still has an important role: to help push mobile and wearable devices forward. This is why Apple management speaks so highly of the Mac. It is quintessentially Apple.
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