Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Ignoring Apple’s Fundamental Thinking

Christopher Mims wrote a widely-derided op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, arguing that Apple needs to drop the Mac line:

In the quarter ending in January of this year, a funny thing happened at Apple. The company took in the highest revenue for its Mac line ever, yet the Mac accounted for the lowest-ever proportion of overall revenue. Apple raked in $6.9 billion on 5.5 million Macs, just 9% of overall revenue. This would be a crazy thing to say for any other company, but Apple doesn’t need this revenue.

What the company does need, and like all ambitious companies occasionally strays from, is focus. If the iPhone is just coming into its prime, the iPad is an immature platform and the Watch is in its infancy. Yet Apple continues to invest in one-of-a-kind feats of engineering like the Mac Pro, which ships in volumes that are a rounding error on pretty much everything else Apple makes.

Even ignoring the Mac user story, Glenn Fleishman makes a compelling case for the Mac simply as a developer platform.

Apple will never again cede its future to other firms’ control. It’s why Apple makes its own chips, buys industrial-manufacturing firms that create special tools which it puts into its assembly partners’ factories, and even blows a wad of cash on a failed attempt to generate more sapphire screens.

And it’s why it has its own computer platform: 100 percent of software development for the iPhone, iPad, and Watch (and Mac apps) occurs on Macs. There’s no other way to assemble software for those devices. Even with the highest-end Mac hardware currently available, developers strain against the amount of time it can take to compile and test builds, whether in Mac-based emulators or when cross-loaded onto a developers’ test devices.

Meanwhile, the Macalope is typically direct:

Everyone is so concerned about Apple and its future. And for some reason that concern drives them to write this terrible anti-fan fiction. In effect, Apple’s power has driven them mad.

So Mims wrote a followup piece claiming that he was shocked — shocked! — that the tech press responded this way:

If we collected all the blistering heat generated by this week’s column on why Apple should phase out the Mac, I’m pretty sure it would be enough to power Apple’s headquarters for a month. Which is amazing to me, since I thought what I was saying was only a little bit controversial, and a natural extension of so many others’ reactions to last week’s Apple developer confab.

“There’s no way I could have known that suggesting the retirement of the original personal computer brand would make waves. Oh, please, don’t call it clickbait!”

Yeah, right.

Now, on the matter of the future: If Apple phased out the Mac, how would those who use it to get work done carry on? That’s the question filling up my inbox, and it’s one I wish I hadn’t cut answers to from the original piece.

I recognize this is probably an editor’s doing in order to fit the piece in the paper, but the web has no character limit. Mims could have extended the column on the web to include solutions to the obvious counterpoints; not doing so weakened an already weak piece.

Mims’ point is one that has been made countless times before, though with few titles as clickbaity as his WSJ article: that the computer is evolving, and that tablets will one day replace what we think of today as personal computers. That is, they may have similar form factors, but be using the same hardware as their mobile device counterparts:

It’s been clear since the debut of the iPad that Apple believes it will be the future of the PC. And countless PC makers have realized that, especially if people are going to use a tablet as their primary device, it needs to be able to snap into or easily connect to a keyboard and other input peripherals. Touch interfaces are great for certain tasks, but they’re just not enough on their own. If the iPad Pro isn’t a reasonable laptop replacement, suitable for the needs of 90% of the notebook-buying public, I’ll eat my hat.

Someone butter Mims’ hat and ready a sauté pan.

Indeed, sleuthing by one developer suggests that Apple is already laying the groundwork for developers to run OS X apps on the very same chips that are already in iPhones and iPads. Maybe we’ll get an iPad family that runs OS X apps without running OS X? Or “Macs” that only run iOS? Or, yes, I could be wrong about all this, and what this points to is OS X (i.e. Macs) that run on iPhone/iPad chips.

Mims hasn’t provided a timeframe prediction, only that “one day” we’ll be using laptops and desktops powered by ARM chips, running a hybrid of iOS and OS X. That much has been argued before, enthusiastically, and frequently. But what Mims has failed to articulate clearly is why the Mac brand needs to die for this to happen, instead of simply evolving to meet a new role.

Yet I still disagree. I doubt we’ll be using a hybrid version of iOS and OS X any time soon, with touch controls for when you’re using it on an iPad, and desktop controls on a laptop. I also doubt we’ll see Apple’s professional lineup move to ARM processors in the near future, though I could imagine something like the MacBook potentially using a high-end ARM CPU. But the MacBook Pro is still one of — if not the — best-selling lines of Macs Apple makes. They may have commoditized the Air, but the Pro still gets features first, it still sells extremely well, and it has a very distinctive core customer base. Yes, there are plenty of college students who buy a 13-inch MacBook Pro to browse the web on, but there are lots and lots of recording artists, drafters, designers, architects, movie editors, photographers, mathematicians, and physicists who require the kind of mobile power that the MacBook Pro provides in spades.