The iPad vs. Mac Juxtaposition

Apple has always publicly supported the iPad and Mac. However, that hasn't prevented questions regarding Apple's commitment to the two product categories from popping up. In recent months, Apple has shown a new level of openness when it comes to embracing both the iPad and Mac as unique and differentiated platforms for creative endeavors. The change is noteworthy when thinking about each category's future. 

Ad Campaigns

A few weeks ago, Apple unveiled a new Mac ad campaign, "Behind the Mac." The ads were meant to elicit fond memories professionals have of using Macs to get their work done.

The main ad stood out because, aside from one shot showing the Touch Bar, it could have easily passed for something released by Apple a decade ago. Even the plastic white MacBook made a cameo appearance. After watching the ad, words like "familiar," comfort," and "nostalgia" came to mind. Apple was targeting long-time Mac users.

The song used for the ad, "The Story of An Artist," reinforced this point. Here are the beginning lyrics:

Listen up and I'll tell a story

About an artist growing old

Some would try for fame and glory

Others aren't so bold

The ads also gave a subtle nod to people using their Macs for a long time, which possibly served as a response to the recent uproar surrounding Mac keyboard reliability. 

The Mac ads stood out that much more by being released a few months after Apple's "What's a computer" ad campaign for iPad Pro. That ad featured a young girl using her iPad (and Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard accessories) around her neighborhood in various activities and adventures. 

After watching the iPad ad, words like "new," "different," and "controversial" were the first to come to mind. Here was a young person using an iPad in different, and in some cases, fascinating ways, while drawing into question the traditional definition of a computer. The ad upset quite a few Mac users. 

Apple relied on a similar message with the iPad ad shown at the end of its education event in Chicago back in March. A group of students use iPads (and Apple Pencil) to complete a group homework assignment about gravity. In each case, an iPad is being used for tasks that a Mac or PC wouldn't be able to handle. 

With the Mac ad, Apple was selling comfort to a small percentage of its user base. Meanwhile, the iPad ads were selling newness to a different customer. The juxtaposition of the Mac and iPad ads symbolize the awkward relationship the iPad and Mac have within Apple's product line. 

History: It's Complicated

This iPad vs. Mac juxtaposition hasn't been static. At launch, the iPad was like a rocket, fueled by apps and intrigue found with larger a touch screen powered by iOS. After just a few months, iPad sales surpassed Mac sales. The iPad went on to double and even triple Mac sales. In an iPad vs. Mac battle, the iPad seemed to be the clear winner. 

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While Apple management never publicly showed disdain for Mac, the level of attention given to the iPad in the early 2010s likely corresponded with a declining amount of time and focus dedicated to Mac. Some of the Mac decisions made around this time, like the Mac Pro's design, later came back to haunt Apple. 

The iPad vs. Mac relationship started to change after iPad sales peaked at the end of 2013. Management's efforts to entice iPad users to upgrade proved futile as iPad sales declined from a 75M units per year run rate to a 40M units per year sales pace. While iPad sales were in free fall, the Mac remained a steady ship, not moving far from its 20M unit sales per year pace. The Mac demonstrated a level of sales consistency that management may not have expected given iPad's popularity.

Apple now finds itself with an iPad business that is twice the size of Mac in terms of unit sales, but smaller than the Mac when it comes to revenue. The iPad user base is nearly three time as large as the Mac user base and is growing by 20 million new users per year while the Mac user base is seeing more like 10 million new users per year. In a nutshell, both the iPad and Mac businesses have found stability and continue to connect with their respective user bases. 

Different Tools for Different People

The fact that Apple gave such dramatically different Mac and iPad ad campaigns the green light provides clarity regarding management's approach to the two product categories. Apple has become comfortable in accepting, and even embracing, the awkwardness that exists between the iPad and Mac. Apple isn't trying to hide the differences that exist between the Mac and iPad as creation platforms. Instead, Apple is embracing the unique attributes found with each platform.

Instead of trying to come up with scenarios in which the average consumer will have a use case for both iPad and Mac in their lives, Apple is embracing its heterogeneous user base. For iPad owners, the Mac ads probably didn't connect on an emotional level. Meanwhile, the iPad Pro ad's hostility towards "computers" likely infuriated some Mac users. Apple is OK with such a situation. Their aim isn't to sell consumers on both the iPad and Mac as computing platforms, but rather to ship different kinds of tools that can improve people's lives. 

Apple is betting that the Mac will appeal to some users, potentially those users with legacy workflows, while the iPad will appeal to a different set of users - a younger generation of creatives. Of course, the iPad is appealing to two to three times more people than the Mac, but the overall point still stands.

Post-PC Era?

For every Mac that Apple sells, the company sells approximately 15 non-Mac devices. This ratio is near an all-time high and is very likely to increase over time considering the growing momentum found with Apple wearables. If that doesn't describe a post-PC environment, it's difficult envisioning what would. 

However, for many people, it doesn't feel like we are in a post-PC environment. There are at least 100 million people still using a Mac. More importantly, there are tens of millions of people with workflows that aren't handled by iOS. This group is unable to move beyond the Mac. The continued importance of Mac and PC have led some to conclude that the post-PC era has been a farce. However, this doesn't feel right either given how hundreds of millions of people have positioned their smartphones as the most valuable, and in some cases only, computers in their lives. 

The reason the post-PC era has been so controversial is that smartphones and iPads have become Mac and PC alternatives, not replacements. This subtle, but important, distinction means tens of millions of people still need a Mac to get work done. However, for a much larger number of people, smartphones and iPads have been able to handle certain workflows formerly given to laptops and desktops. We are experiencing the post-PC era. It's just a bit more nuanced than initially imagined.

Looking Ahead

There's always been a grey area between the iPad and Mac within Apple's product line. Questions have swirled as to how Apple can best bridge the gap between iOS and multi-touch computing with macOS and the accompanying mouse and cursor. Some pundits have been vocal that Apple should follow Microsoft and ship hybrid devices that utilize elements from both paradigms. Others think a more practical solution is for Apple to ramp up its bet on the Mac as the iPad sees its use cases eaten by larger iPhones. 

One way to address this grey area is to think about inspiration. 

It's easy to think that Apple is getting inspiration for the iPad from the Mac. New multi-tasking features, an updated dock, and apps like Files would seem to bring up memories more reminiscent of Mac than iPhone. However, I think the opposite is true. Apple is using the iPhone as ultimate inspiration for where to bring its larger iOS sibling. Moreover, even the Mac is getting inspiration from the iPhone.

Apple is bringing things like its custom silicon and Touch ID to the Mac platform. It's not a stretch to envision Face ID eventually making its way to the Mac (after first being brought to the iPad). There is then Apple's focus on making it easier to port iOS apps to macOS. All of these efforts demonstrate Apple utilizing the iPhone (and the iOS developer community) as a catalyst to push both the iPad and Mac platforms forward. This makes sense given the iPhone's ability to connect with the mass market as seen with a user base of approximately 900M users

In terms of where Apple will bring the iPad and Mac platforms, a few things stand out: 

  • Larger, more powerful, iPads that share many features with their iPhone siblings.
  • Macs powered by Apple chips (likely starting at the low end of the Mac line) and gaining features made popular by iOS.
  • Powerful Macs that push the boundaries of a Mac. 

In essence, Apple will continue to dedicate resources to pushing both the iPad and Mac categories forward, even if it means the products target increasingly different types of users.  

Where things aren't headed:

  • Apple coming up with hybrid devices that amount to combining multi-touch tablets with laptops and desktops. 
  • An overall move away from iPad or Mac. 

There is no evidence that Apple is growing frustrated or tired of the differences found between iPad and Mac. Instead, Apple's strategy for iPad and Mac is to position each as its own creative platform. The iPad ends up being a creative arm for iOS, while the Mac harnesses the potential with macOS to power the needs of a wide variety of creators. While this strategy doesn't prevent Apple from trying to share features between the platforms, Apple seems set on recognizing the key differences found with iPad and Mac - iPad's multi-touch user interface and Mac's cursor and mouse paradigm. 

Large Screen Paradox

Three major computing themes have grabbed Apple's attention in recent years:

  • Wearables
  • Smaller, more intelligent screens
  • More powerful and intelligent cameras 

Apple is excelling in each of the preceding themes with clear vision and strategy. However, what about the largest screens in our lives? Is it a coincidence that these devices lack the compelling vision found with the smallest screens in our lives? If AR glasses were to become a mainstream Apple product one day, where would that leave the long-term trajectories for large screens like televisions, iPads and Macs? It's not entirely clear. 

For now, Apple's strategy for iPad and Mac appears to be to position each as a tool for creators. While a growing number of people will be able to do more with smaller screens worn on the body, the iPad and Mac are allowed to handle workflows that require additional screen real estate and power. This doesn't mean Apple is free of challenges and risks.

The company's approach to Mac continues to be a controversial one as legacy users feel uncomfortable with the direction in which Apple wants to take the platform. At the same time, there are some who think Apple isn't moving fast enough with iPad as a tool capable of handling legacy workflows still given to the Mac. Many of these challenges will likely remain for Apple in the near term. However, by embracing the somewhat awkward iPad vs. Mac juxtaposition, Apple is revealing to the world that it will remain true to each platform and focus on the attributes that make the iPad and Mac stand out as creator platforms.

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