No, WSJ, Apple shouldn't kill off the Mac
A Wall Street Journal piece that argues Apple should kill the Macintosh line completely ignores Apple's fundamental thinking about its future.
The Wall Street Journal isn’t trolling us, is it? Columnist Christopher Mims penned an essay titled, “Why Apple Should Kill Off the Mac” (it’s behind a paywall), and goes on to enumerate various reasons. But it ignores the elephant—or El Capitan—in the room: Apple will never again let another company decide its destiny.
Mims’s thesis is that Apple is stretched so thinly, it cannot design new Macs and produce an operating system for them while maintaining its focus on making the best products in the world. The iPhone, iPad, and Watch suffer because Macs still exist, he posits. No longer investing in “one-of-a-kind feats of engineering like the Mac Pro” would free the company to go all-in on the future of mobile and wearables. (Disclosure: I know Chris a little and think he’s generally a smart fellow.)
This seems like yet another variant on the “Apple is doomed” gong that has sounded so often that the Macalope has to pick and choose what it writes about. Once upon a time, I thought that mythical beast would run out of material. Now I don’t know why I ever believed that.
But Mims’ essay is more subtle and worth taking more seriously because he believes Apple is being held back by putting resources into “being king of a last-century technology.” Macs account for less than 10 percent of Apple’s revenue in the current quarter and an unknown but significant percentage of profit, likely punching above their revenue percentage because of continued high margins.
I'm a firm believer that that Apple’s fit and finish needs work on the software side. On my personal blog, I posted a lengthy list of Yosemite and iOS 8 bugs and implementation issues in January under the title, “The Software and Services Apple Needs to Fix.” It received almost 200,000 views and more than 400 comments on what I thought would be just me complaining about bad quality assurance before they let releases out the door. It resonated.
But I fear that Mims is pushing away details like Apple’s fundamental view of itself, its software engineering process, and its hardware development. Let’s forget the fact that any other company would kill for the revenue, growth, margins, and profits that the Macintosh line counts for on its own.
Hardware spit and polish, software spit
Apple doesn’t have a hardware manufacturing problem. The Watch was “delayed” in that it clearly shipped later than Apple had originally intended, and had signaled through intentional leaks. But when it finally did ship, it emerged as a thing of relative perfection compared to other Apple products and especially to most other wearables.
The new 12-inch MacBook is the pinnacle of Apple’s manufacturing perfection for computers, despite people’s complaints about it bearing just one USB-C port. Even if you hate the keyboard (and I’ve gotten used to it), it works precisely as advertised.
Apple’s hardware engineering all feeds back across its product lines. While other firms have distinct divisions that become “silos,” in which there’s very little cross-product interaction, one of Steve Jobs’ key managerial missions was to prevent silos from forming. It makes micro-management from the top very easy, but it also means that two or more parts of the company aren’t solving precisely the same problem.
The 12-inch MacBook’s absurdly tiny main board and overall design is absolutely informed by the iPad. The engineering to create terraces of batteries in the MacBook will likely be used in future iOS devices. Apple bought a chip-design firm and continues to acquire technology around it so that it can use its own designs across its products.
The same companies, parts, and product lines make all of Apple’s products, and all feed back together across them. While the iPad was secretly being designed in a lab for years before its release, the MacBook Air was strutting out there in public solving problems that led to solutions in a mobile device.
Apple doesn’t drop everything to design new Macs. They fold in the lessons learned from everything they do to make new ones. The new Mac Pro’s unique design—some love it, some think it looks like a fancy garbage can—didn’t gobble up massive resources at Apple. There’s nothing in the hardware that pushed any envelopes; it was a design and manufacturing challenge of the sort Apple constantly solves. And it was a “gift” to developers and professional users, to show they were still thinking about them, which I’ll say more about in a moment.
As for software, you’re not going to find me saying that all is rainbows and unicorns. However, because of the parallel trees of development across OS X and iOS, along with similar trees for its other products (the Airport Extreme Base Station and Apple TV, and so on), much of the work that goes into improving system releases is across platforms.
The issues that I and others complained about in iOS 8 and Yosemite, some of them fixed since January, are at a higher level of software development, which consumes a much smaller percentage of the whole. Sometimes, it’s presentation; sometimes interaction; sometimes cloud services. iCloud problems aren’t a Mac problem, although sometimes it’s OS X that’s at fault in a sync.
But software troubles aren’t solved by focus. They’re solved by good management, good processes, and enough time. Apple rebuilt its management in 2012, leading to Jony Ive taking over interface development alongside industrial design. This resulted in two years of software turmoil, as fundamental engineering and top-level user experience was changed. We all cried out for a pause, and Apple’s WWDC 2015 announcements of iOS 9 and El Captain (OS X 10.11) indicate it’s ready, too: They’re maintenance releases, with only one major new flagship feature—in iOS. (That would be simultaneous app usage on certain iPad models.)
Not having the Mac, as Mims would prefer, would have reduced some of how thinly Apple was spread. But this transition is over, and Apple is back into a building stage, in which it reaps the rewards of the software engineering performed since 2012 and new hardware released in the last two years: the Mac Pro, the 5K iMac, and the 12-inch MacBook.
This would be the worst time of all for Apple to stop making Macs.
The Mac is not a typewriter
The Mac isn’t just a flagship product, despite its reduced share of revenue, and the reduced importance of personal computers in the universe of all computing devices. It’s the foundation on which everything Apple is today was built. It also remains the foundation of its longest-term, most loyal customers. Not fanboys, but women and men who have used a Mac for 10, 20, or even 30 years because it fits them best.
Yes, Apple regularly kills its darlings and pisses off its best customers. Dumping OS 9 for the NeXT-derived OS X—a necessary and painful step. Moving from the dead-end of PowerPC processors to an Intel architecture. Embracing Microsoft to bring Office back to the Mac, then developing its own productivity suite. Going all-in on “flat” design with Yosemite. Delaying a true Mac Pro refresh for years, then producing an aesthetically pleasing high-performance system. Releasing a laptop with—get this—one port!
Those core users were mostly the ones who bought the first iPhones, because no other smartphone platform worked well with the Mac. They bought the first iPads, because they liked the iPhone. It’s only in the last three years or so that Apple’s mobile audience has grown largely outside the universe of Mac owners.
Killing the Mac means a stake through the hearts of tens of millions or more users who grew up with that computer. It means walking away from thousands of software companies, including key partners like Adobe (part of the WWDC keynote).
But let’s pretend that even that isn’t important, and Apple could weather it.
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.
The Mac, at some level, is a highly profitable developer-platform division that happens to also serve consumers and businesses.
Apple abandoned its Xserve rack-mounted server lineup years ago, and even though its still offers OS X Server, it’s a very thin product compared to what most businesses need. Apple refocused on consumer, education, small business, and a few large companies that either let employees bring their own computers, choose a platform for their desktop, or require Macs as a business choice.
What’s more, graphics and video professionals represent a significant portion of Apple’s highest-revenue and highest-margin Mac sales, and also, not surprisingly, have disposable cash that they just might be using to buy iPhones, iPads, and Watches.
Forward in all directions?
Mims is right that Apple has a lot to fix. Despite its confusing Apple Music launch, WWDC showed that the company is dedicated to that task by putting the brakes on, and maturing, its three platforms—iOS, OS X, and watchOS.
Focus is great, but the Mac isn’t as much of a distraction as Mims wants it to be. Apple’s problem right now seems to be software and services execution, with more trouble still on the cloud side than fundamental on-device issues in iOS and OS X.
Mims suggests of the Mac line, “Apple doesn’t need this revenue.” That seems misguided. In terms of the ecosystem and goodwill alone, there’s a large halo. But beyond that, Apple will never again make the mistake of giving any other company the power to veto its future.
The Mac will abide so long as Apple doesn’t lose its way.