Apple used this year's WWDC keynote to let the world know it has every intention of supporting the Mac for the long haul. When reading between the lines, it becomes evident that the Mac's future is one of a niche product within Apple's portfolio. Meanwhile, Apple's messaging around the iPad during the same keynote couldn't be any different. As the Mac is going in the direction of niche, the iPad is being groomed to be the Mac/PC alternative for the masses.
The past few years have been an odd stretch for the Mac. Hardware updates have been unusually sporadic although the few updates that did ship were noteworthy. The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, unveiled in October 2016, represented a prime example of Apple's strategy to use aspects of mobile to push the Mac forward. Apple silicon, Touch ID, and multi-touch displays bring a different kind of experience to the Mac. Throughout this awkward stretch for the Mac, the Apple Industrial Design team's influence on the Mac remained quite obvious, which only increased the level of uneasiness felt by many pro Mac users.
Management used this year's WWDC keynote to officially put an end to this odd Mac stretch. The keynote couldn't have been any different from the previous, somewhat awkward Mac event that took place this past October. This time around, Apple unveiled item after item, clearly targeting pro Mac users.
The new $4,999 iMac Pro was announced to much surprise and with certain configurations that were unimaginable for a Mac all-in-one just a few months earlier. Apple's decision to sell an external graphics development kit was also unthinkable just a few months ago.
It is likely that all of these Mac announcements had been in the pipeline for a while. Nevertheless, Apple seemed eager to spin a fresh Mac narrative around pro users. Much of this change in narrative and attitude was a carryover from management's recent Mac intervention with journalists at Apple HQ this past April. At that meeting, SVP Phil Schiller, SVP Craig Federighi, and VP John Ternus clearly telegraphed a revised Mac strategy focused on placing more attention on the tail end of the business. While one would think the new iMac Pro marks Apple's extent into niche Mac territory, the company still plans on releasing a completely redesigned Mac Pro. Given iMac Pro pricing, it is not out of question the for a new Mac Pro configuration to surpass $10,000. Let that sink in for a minute.
The iPad Juxtaposition
If this year's WWDC keynote doubled as a Mac event (Apple dedicated 23% of stage time to the Mac), the event could have also moonlighted as an iPad event (Apple dedicated 21% of stage time to iPad). My full WWDC review is available for members here. However, when the two products were viewed back-to-back, there couldn't have been a more stark difference between them. While the pro in iMac Pro and Mac Pro stood for professional, the pro in iPad Pro stood for productivity.
During the Mac portion of the keynote, management's focus was on addressing the tail end of a 100M Mac user base. A $4,999 iMac Pro is not about adding productivity for the masses. Instead, it is targeting a particular kind of professional. Apple will likely sell fewer iMac Pros than cylinder Mac Pros sold to date. In terms of a redesigned Mac Pro, it is difficult to picture the machine even qualifying as niche. Instead, it will be a niche of a niche.
Meanwhile, the iPad portion of the WWDC keynote was all about Apple bringing additional productivity to the masses. The new $649 10.5-inch iPad Pro continued Apple's multi-year bet on larger iPad screens (a very sound strategy). Apple also unveiled iOS 11 refinements for iPad that some had been hoping to see for years. One key aspect found in every major iPad software refinement was optionality. For those users craving additional capability, the new software features will prove to be quite valuable. However, for many iPad users, items like multitasking or the new Files app may never be used. In those cases, the same, familiar iOS experience will still be available. Apple was able to add productivity options to the iPad without changing what had gotten the product to where it is today - simplicity and ease of use. The not-so-subtle implication made on stage at WWDC was that the iPad is becoming more of a genuine laptop alternative for hundreds of millions of people.
Change in the Air
This year's WWDC keynote provided a glimpse of the Mac's future. A large portion of the Mac user base are going to find their computing needs met with iPad Pro. According to Apple, approximately 70% to 85% of the current Mac user base does not rely on professional Mac software. This amounts to approximately 80M people. These users are not app developers, nor do they have the need for the kind of power found in a MacBook Pro, iMac Pro, or Mac Pro. Instead, these users are likely attracted to the Mac for keyboard computing.
As Apple pushes the iPad Pro forward with hardware and software advancements, including various keyboard improvements, these 80M Mac users are going to discover that the iPad is getting better at handling their computing needs. It's not that the Mac will lose value, but rather that a large multi-touch display running iOS will gain value. The shift won't occur overnight for the simple fact that consumers hold on to Macs for years. In addition, it is important to point out that Apple management won't have any issue with this development as long as these Mac users remain within the Apple ecosystem.
Over time, the exodus of non-pro Mac users to iPad Pro will transform the Mac into a niche product category. There will still be millions of users, but the machines will increasingly be geared toward narrow use cases such as VR and AR content creation. In addition, the Mac will become the preferred tool for those in various academic, science, and engineering fields.
One may ask, what will happen to consumer-grade Macs, including the MacBook Air and 12-inch MacBook? They will be cannibalized by the iPad Pro line, much as the iPad mini has been cannibalized by larger iPhones. In fact, the entire Mac portable form factor is at risk of cannibalization at the hands of iOS screens. While this won't stop Apple management from pushing the MacBook form factor forward, consumer purchasing habits will speak volumes.
The Achilles' Heel
Two months ago, I published "The Mac Is Turning into Apple's Achilles' Heel." My thesis was that Apple's inability to move beyond the Mac represents a vulnerability in an otherwise strong product strategy geared toward the mass market. Reaction to the piece came in swift and spanned the spectrum.
The issue facing the Mac has never been Apple's ability to give the product category attention. We saw evidence of this first-hand at this year's WWDC. Apple is able to update the Mac, along with every other product category. In fact, it is not a stretch to say the Mac's outlook within Apple has never been brighter and stronger than it stands today. If one were to place a bet on which current Apple product category will remain within Apple's product line the longest, the Mac would certainly be high on the list. This ends up supporting my thesis that the Mac is Apple's Achilles' heel.
It is very difficult envisioning Apple being able to move beyond the Mac. The product is on track to become a permanent niche within a continuously changing product line.
Apple is moving to a point where the product line will look something like:
- iPhone: An AR navigator (mass market item)
- iPad: Computer for the masses (mass market item)
- Wearables: Various form factors with broad use cases (mass market items)
- Transportation: Autonomous transport (mass market item)
- Home: Various form factors with broad use cases (mass market items)
- Mac: Graphics intensive content creation and computation (niche)
This may not seem like a problem for Apple. The Mac has been responsible for a lot of beneficial things at the company, including inspiring the current generation of content creators. However, the problem for Apple is that having a long tail end of the business comprised of niche Macs may pose a new kind of challenge. Apple Industrial Designers will need to look after the user experience found within a portfolio of mass market product. At the same time, they will need to handle the dramatically different user needs found with a niche product category, the Mac. It's not clear how they will do this. Will Apple designers cede control over the user experience to their engineering peers when it comes to niche Mac hardware?
While some people look at Apple's big risk as management's inability or unwillingness to move beyond the iPhone, that fear is misplaced. Apple is already moving beyond the iPhone as seen with more personal gadgets worn on our body.
Instead, the genuine risk facing management is that Apple will be unable to move beyond the Mac. This is unchartered territory for Apple. The theory that Apple has to move beyond legacy products in order to completely focus on the future is going to be put to test. It is also possible that the Mac will end up being the first product category that represents genuine growing pains for Apple. In the past, the company would have been able to bring its entire nimble user base from one product category to the next. A niche Mac line will put an end to that era.
Despite gaining niche status, the Mac will still play a major role in creating content consumed on future Apple products including wearables and transportation products. This will give the Mac a level of influence that should not be underestimated. While it is difficult for some to believe, now has never been a better time to be a pro Mac user. This year's WWDC made it clear that the Mac has a future at Apple. However, the amount of change headed towards the Mac should not be underestimated.
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