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Understanding Apple’s Marginalization of the Mac

If you’ve been feeling as though Apple’s heart isn’t in moving the Mac forward these days, you’re not alone. The new MacBook Pro models have taken widespread criticism, Apple has provided no roadmap for the future of its desktop Macs, and most recently, the company eliminated the position of Product Manager of Automation Technologies, presumably seeing it as unnecessary. High-end creatives have despaired about Apple’s lack of attention to their needs, and the mood among many of the consultants and support professionals at last week’s MacTech Conference was downbeat.

So what could explain Apple’s increasing marginalization of the Mac, particularly in the pro market? The culprit is clearly the iOS platform, and the iPhone in particular. But the reason why it’s happening has more to do with a structural fact about the company that Apple will have to change if the Mac is to get the attention it needs to thrive.

For better and worse, Steve Jobs burned focus into Apple’s DNA. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, he focused the entire company on the Mac, slashing projects like the Newton and eliminating the Mac clone licensing program. Famously, he limited the Mac line to just four core models: the iBook and iMac for consumers, and the PowerBook and Power Mac for professionals. That product matrix was simple, clean, and understandable, and it was probably the only reason that Apple survived that era. Focusing on one platform was essential.

Here’s the problem: Despite the fact that it now employs 115,000 people and is the most valuable company in the world, Apple still thinks like a one-platform company. Now it’s all about iOS, and everything Apple does is designed to serve the single goal of selling more iPhones and iPads. Sure, the Apple Watch and Apple TV might seem separate, but they’re not. The Apple Watch is an iPhone accessory that makes the iPhone more attractive, and Apple TV apps generally have iOS counterparts. Heck, both watchOS and tvOS are basically custom versions of iOS. Apple’s online services, from iCloud to the App Store to the iTunes Store, all support the shared ecosystem, which encourages platform lock-in.

How does the Mac fit into this new world order? It plays well with iCloud and the iTunes Store, and it increasingly taps iCloud for added functionality. It’s another link in the chain that keeps users buying iPhones and iPads because it’s easier to have a computer that talks to your smartphone and tablet seamlessly. The Mac also remains essential to iOS as a development platform, and (through macOS Server) as an organization-wide caching server for iOS and app updates. In essence, the Mac is an accessory to the iOS platform.

But that’s it. If you’re an architect who relies on AutoCAD on the Mac to design buildings, or a video editor who spends your days in Adobe Premiere and After Effects, or a photographer who works in Photoshop and Lightroom, you care primarily about what the Mac enables you do to as a Mac, not as an adjunct to iOS. You might be a huge fan of your iPhone and iPad, but the Mac is what enables you to earn your bread and butter.

Before iOS, Apple’s goals and the needs of professional Mac users were more aligned. Apple wanted to make the Macs — and versions of the Mac operating system — that would give users capabilities and efficiencies they couldn’t get from PCs running Windows. That goal also informed Apple’s relationship with developers, since Apple had a vested interest in supporting software companies whose apps made the Mac attractive to different professions.

Now that Apple’s primary task is to sell more iPhones, the company has little incentive to improve the Mac past the point that iOS developers need to run Xcode and macOS Server’s caching server effectively. Sure, the Mac business was worth $22.8 billion in revenues in 2016, which is far from chump change, but it’s nothing compared to the $192.8 billion of revenues generated by iOS and associated services.

When you look at the notable changes in the Mac operating system in the last five or six years, many of them are more about making the Mac experience more like the iPhone and iPad experience. Consider Siri, Picture in Picture, Split View, and Launchpad. And then there are Photos, Contacts, Calendar, and Mail, all of which are nearly identical across platforms. Even the iWork apps like Pages, Keynote, and Numbers have changed not to become better Mac apps, but to work more like and in tandem with their iOS cousins. The entire point of Handoff, arguably, is to make the Mac more of an accessory for iOS, handing off tasks to an iPhone so the user can leave the Mac or transferring something from the iPhone to the Mac to take advantage of a
keyboard and large screen.

Plus, Apple has started to drop Mac accessories that it previously thought were important to the overall Mac experience. The 27-inch Thunderbolt Display fell by the wayside earlier this year (see “Apple Discontinues Thunderbolt Display with No Replacement in Sight,” 27 June 2016), and if the rumors are correct, Apple has disbanded the AirPort division.

Don’t misunderstand me. Apple’s focus on iOS has been insanely successful, generating unimaginable amounts of money and taking the company from the “critically acclaimed” category to “mainstream blockbuster.” I’m not criticizing that success, or the method that Apple used to get there.

However, I am troubled by what it means for the future of the Mac as a general purpose, user-focused computer. The relative success of the iPad Pro, with its Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil, suggests that Apple wants to push iOS toward the productivity market. Even app development is moving in that direction — the Swift Playgrounds app for learning to program exists only on the iPad (see “Playing Around with Swift on the iPad,” 13 June 2016). The writing would appear to be on the wall for the Mac — I can’t see Apple killing it off anytime soon, but benign neglect will have the same effect in professional markets, as developers weigh their options and direct more effort toward
Windows. And that in turn will cause Mac sales to drop and Apple to be even less interested.

Steve Jobs said, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” That was appropriate when killing off the iPod with the iPhone, but assuming that the iPad can supplant the Mac would be a mistake, I believe. Unlike the iPod, which was a subset of the iPhone, there are many things we can accomplish on a Mac that would be difficult or completely impossible on any iOS device. Apple seems to be under the incorrect impression that, for whatever you might want to do, there’s an iOS app for that.

The future doesn’t have to play out this way. In fact, Apple has shown that it’s capable of breaking free of the focus on a single product in the past. That’s where the iPod came from, and without the iPod, it’s unclear if Apple would have come up with the iPad and iPhone. Focus is good, but it can be taken too far, and that’s what I’d argue is happening at Apple right now.

Instead, Apple could take FileMaker Inc. as a model. FileMaker, which emerged from the ashes of Claris, is a wholly owned subsidiary, but since the needs of the database development market differ significantly from those of Apple’s other markets, it has presumably made sense to give FileMaker more autonomy than other apps. Even if FileMaker’s independence is a historical accident — I don’t know what sets it apart from Final Cut Pro or Logic Pro, which Apple has kept in-house — the point remains: Apple could give the Mac division its head rather than tying it to the iOS wagon.

Lots of corporate giants have divisions or subsidiaries that run largely independently, and I see no inherent reason why Apple couldn’t spin the Mac out just far enough that it could focus on the needs of Mac users, rather than merely trying to be supportive of iOS. That would apply to both Mac hardware and macOS, and yes, it would require significant coordination to ensure that Apple’s famed integration didn’t suffer in the process.

Hard though it might be, letting the Mac team pursue its own goals could result in a Mac that would once again indisputably be the computer of choice for creative professionals.

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