The Mac Is Turning into Apple's Achilles' Heel

Apple's decision to change course and develop a new Mac Pro has received near-universal praise from the company's pro community. While developing a new Mac Pro is the right decision for Apple to make given the current situation, it has become clear that the Mac is a major vulnerability in Apple's broader product strategy. The product that helped save Apple from bankruptcy 20 years ago is now turning into a barrier that is preventing Apple from focusing on what comes next. 

Apple's Mac Meeting

There were three takeaways from Apple's recent on-the-record meeting with five journalists in Cupertino to discuss the Mac.

  1. Apple is sorry about the lack of Mac updates targeting pro users.
  2. The current Mac Pro suffers from a fatal design decision (although the device will continue to be sold).
  3. Management debated the Mac Pro's future and decided to change strategy and begin work on an entirely new Mac Pro. The company will also work on an Apple-branded pro display to go along with a new Mac Pro. 

(My complete review of Apple's emergency Mac meeting is available for members here.)

It is easy to look at this highly unusual meeting as being just about the Mac Pro and Apple trying to prevent influential content creators from jumping to a competing platform. However, read between the lines, and it becomes clear that Apple has a much bigger problem on its hands than simply an outdated Mac Pro.

The Mac has become a major headache for Apple, and management is on the verge on going down the Mac rabbit hole, funneling an increasing amount of resources and attention into a product category that doesn't represent the future of personal computing. The risk is that Apple will be stuck with a $25B legacy business and corresponding user base that will threaten the company's increasingly ambitious product strategy.

Tale of Two Apples

Apple is like a novel where two characters are battling each other in the post-PC era. When it comes to mobile, Apple's success is unmatched. The company is connecting with the mass market like never before. The iPhone is bringing more than 100M new people into the Apple ecosystem each year. Apple Watch momentum is building with a user base surpassing 20M people. Early AirPods sales trends look even more promising. More importantly, Apple executives have been on the same page with each other when it comes to strategy. 

This cohesion in strategy extends to how Apple continues to place big bets in an effort to control its own destiny in mobile. Recent news of Apple developing its own GPU solution is the latest step in the company's quest to ship a single system-on-the-chip (SOC) powering a range of mobile and wearable devices. This will give Apple a competitive advantage measured in decades. The company is also placing big bets on mobile services such as mapping and payments, items that will serve to create a competitive advantage in the changing tech landscape. 

In stark contrast, Apple's Mac strategy looks like a slow-motion train wreck. While Apple has made some progress with bringing elements of mobile such as Touch ID, multi-touch displays, and ARM processors, to the Mac, years of sporadic updates have overshadowed the positives. Apple's relationship with its pro Mac user community has deteriorated and can now be described as toxic. To make matters worse, there appears to be a growing rift among Apple executives concerning Mac strategy. 

As for why Apple's problematic Mac strategy hasn't caused too many issues for the company up the now, the business has become niche. As seen in Exhibit 1, Apple is selling more than 250M iOS devices per year.  In comparison, they are selling fewer than 20M Macs. The Mac accounts for just 11% of Apple's overall revenue. More importantly, the Mac is no longer the primary way new users enter the Apple ecosystem. In addition, one can also argue that pro Mac users haven't had much in the way of alternative platforms up until recently, although this is still being debated. 

Exhibit 1: The Post-PC Era at Apple

The Achilles' Heel

Apple's Achilles' heel is becoming visible. As Apple gets better at making technology more personal for the mass market, the company is losing touch with its legacy pro users. The situation came to a head last week with Apple announcing that it began work on a new Mac Pro. While one can chalk up a new Mac Pro as a one-off cost for keeping iOS app developers engaged in the platform, Apple's vulnerability extends much deeper than one Mac model.

There appears to be a growing rift among Apple executives when it comes to Mac strategy. Apple Industrial Design and Apple management have spent the better part of the past 10 years focused on devices designed to move hundreds of millions of people beyond the Mac. However, this strategy did not address 30M Apple users dependent on pro Mac hardware and software. While this segment only accounts for 4% of Apple's user base, it is responsible for creating content consumed by the other 96% of Apple users. These content creators have played a major role in Apple's mobile success. 

Apple's Achilles' heel is found with the niche devices at the tail end of the business. As seen in Exhibit 2, when compared to smaller screen unit sales, devices targeting pro users barely register. Apple has come to the realization that these niche devices, instead of being cast off or ignored, need ongoing attention and resources. 

Exhibit 2: Apple Device Sales Mix (Screen Size)

Path to Today

It is fair to ask how Apple got into this predicament.  

The Mac isn't like the iPod, a device cleanly and quickly cannibalized by a newer Apple product. iOS and multi-touch are not able to handle all of the tasks given to Mac. This is one reason why Apple has been extremely vocal about continuing to invest in the Mac despite running forward with iPhone and iPad. The debate was never about whether or not Apple will continue to sell Macs, but rather about how best to bring the Mac into the future. 

One path forward was for Apple to consolidate resources and place a bet that higher-end MacBook Pros and iMacs would be able to handle the needs of most Mac Pro users. Apple ended up being partly right. A majority of pro Mac users have transitioned their workflows to MacBooks and iMacs without incident. 

Apple ran into an issue when it came to addressing the niche of the niche. Millions of pro users could not make the jump from Mac Pros or other high-end PCs to a MacBook Pro or iMac. Apple needed to support these users for no other reason than they create the content consumed by the rest of the user base. 

Issues

Apple's decision to work on a new Mac Pro raises a number of red flags. 

Resource strain. Even though Apple has $246B of cash and cash equivalents, the company is resource-constrained when it comes to time and attention. Apple's functional organizational structure produces a constant battle among products and teams to grab that finite amount of management's attention. For management to dedicate attention to new pro Mac hardware, the company may need to take its foot off the accelerator with other products. This may seem like a major flaw, and judging from the amount of criticism directed towards Apple's organizational structure, such an opinion is widely held. However, Apple's structure is put in place in order for the product to be put ahead of everything else. It is not a disadvantage or weakness, but rather one of Apple's secrets to success. There is value found in having Apple's Industrial Design team, along with Tim Cook and his inner circle, move from product to product throughout the year in order to place a select few big bets.

Broader cultural differences. Some may argue that Apple is capable enough to develop mobile and wearable devices while selling pro Macs at the same time. This ignores the much more complicated aspect of Apple satisfying vastly different user needs with pro Macs. Apple would not only be developing a new Mac Pro or standalone display, but also sustaining a small but influential base of pro users dependent on macOS. Similar to how the iPhone user base is changing, Apple's overall user base has become quite heterogeneous in terms of technology wants and needs. It may be nearly impossible for Apple to satisfy all of its users. 

Product strategy hole. According to consensus, the biggest challenge Apple is facing is finding a business as profitable and influential as the iPhone. This extends to Apple not being able to expand its developer and app success to newer product platforms. It has become clear that Apple's inability to move beyond the Mac poses a much bigger long-term risk. 

There may be a hole developing in The Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products (shown below). The idea behind the theory is that Mac portables and desktops are positioned as the most powerful machines in Apple's product line. These machines will then serve to push the rest of Apple's product line forward. However, there isn't much evidence of this actually taking place. Instead, iPhones and iPads are being used to decide where to bring MacBooks and iMacs. There is also the awkward situation of iPad Pro beginning to give Mac a run for its money in terms of performance. 

 
 

Meanwhile, there isn't much evidence of MacBook or iMac features serving as inspiration for Apple's smaller screens. This is a sign of value destruction occurring with larger screens found at Apple's tail end of the business. We are giving more of our time to the smaller screens in our lives. Where does this leave Macs within Apple's broader product strategy? It increasingly looks like an odd fit as the Mac becomes a legacy platform.

Additional Concerns

The need to have a highly unusual private, on-the-record briefing with five journalists to explain a complete reversal in Mac strategy signals a management team on defense. Apple is afraid of influential Mac content creators jumping ship. This is the exact opposite of the aggressiveness Apple has shown with mobile and wearables. The more one looks into the topic, the more worrying things appear.

In an attempt to explain Apple's new Mac strategy, Apple SVP Phil Schiller wiped the dust off the old quadrant product grid. At the same time, Schiller has been increasingly vocal about the Mac being around for the next quarter of a century. Here's Schiller in late 2016:

"The new MacBook Pro is a product that celebrates that it is a notebook, this shape that has been with us for the last 25 years is probably going to be with us for another 25 years because there’s something eternal about the basic notebook form factor. You have a surface that you type down on with your hands, with a screen facing you vertically. That basic orientation, that L shape makes perfect sense and won’t go away." 

Schiller is likely guided by the desire to calm pro Mac users' fears. Arguing that the Mac will be around for 25 years means that these users won't need to worry about transitioning away from the Mac during their careers. However, this stance places Apple in an awkward situation. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Apple's recent iPad Pro ad campaign. On one hand, Apple is saying it thinks the laptop form factor will be around for 25 years. However, Apple then launches a marketing campaign positioning the iPad Pro as a better computer than MacBook. 

The Way Forward

My suspicion is that instead of trying to get around its Achilles' heel, Apple will try to be more cognizant of it. It is likely that a majority of Apple's senior executives, including Apple's Industrial Design group, still view the iPad and iOS as the more promising platform than Mac and macOS for the next 25 years of computing. Apple is pushing iPad like never before. New pro Mac hardware will not change this dynamic. However, it has become clear that Apple realizes its previous Mac strategy fell short as there was no viable path forward for tens of millions of pro Mac users.

Apple disclosed a few facts about its pro Mac users as measured by pro software usage. The data contains clues as to where Apple's product strategy may be headed. According to Apple, 70% of the Mac user base does not use pro software and would not classify as pro users. This is another way of saying that the iPad Pro could do quite well serving the needs of 70M Mac users. Meanwhile, the other 30% of the Mac user base wants and needs the power and flexibility that Apple has historically had trouble selling. 

Apple will likely position the Mac as a computing platform for legacy pro users while iOS will be targeted to everyone else. This will entail a few steps: 

1) Triple down on iPad. The writing is on the wall. Apple will not be able to address its Achilles' heel until iPad can be used for developing apps. This will involve Apple ramping investment and resources into iPad software, hardware, and accessories. While consensus assumes Apple should look to the Mac for iPad software inspiration, the more appropriate course of action is to look at the iPhone for inspiration. There is a reason that the iPhone is outselling the Mac by 10x. People enjoy iOS as a computing platform. After all, the iPad is just a bigger iPhone.

2) Continue to be aggressive with Mac design. Apple Industrial Design will continue to be aggressive in bringing the Mac experience forward. There have been some controversial Mac design decisions taken recently, including decisions about the Touch Bar and the insistence that multi-touch does not make sense on vertical Mac displays. Some may argue that Apple needs to look at a new Mac Pro as a hardware engineering problem and have the Industrial Design team take a back seat. This may be a recipe for disaster. It just goes to show how tricky of a proposition pro Mac hardware is for this management team. 

3) Running fast with new endeavors. The Mac does not represent Apple's future. Instead, the changing tech landscape will require Apple to play in new industries. The company needs to be extra aware of the long-term damage done by the Mac becoming a resource strain and jeopardizing other initiatives.  

Figuring Out What Comes Next

Apple still needs the Mac. Tens of millions of users aren't able to pack away their large displays and embrace iPhones and iPads. However, the Mac debate has never been about whether or not Apple will stop selling Macs. Instead, the question has been, how will management be able to retain the value of the laptop and desktop form factors in today's mobile world?

The most important thing for Apple to do when it comes to the Mac is to think about what comes next. Apple's broader mission is to use devices capable of making technology more personal to inspire a new generation of content creators. It is clear that iPhone and iPad are already inspiring tomorrow's content creators. Apple Watch and AirPods are not far behind in terms of being able to inspire.

When taking into consideration new technologies such as augmented reality, it is fair to wonder just how important large screens will even be in our lives in the future. Small screens are going to transition from being just tablets, smartphones, and smartwatches to being augmented reality navigators. In such a world, large screens will look like relics. The path forward for Mac looks bumpy.

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