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Apple can have its iPhone and eat its Mac, too

Watching the discussion following Apple's Mac Pro briefing at the beginning of April has been interesting. Sometimes, extreme. It's ranged from those who suggest Apple needs to get out of the Mac business to those who'd love nothing more than for Apple to once again double down on the highest-end of the smallest niche. The best, of course, are far more nuanced.

Neil Cybart, writing for Above Avalon:

Apple's decision to change course and develop a new Mac Pro has received near-universal praise from the company's pro community. While developing a new Mac Pro is the right decision for Apple to make given the current situation, it has become clear that the Mac is a major vulnerability in Apple's broader product strategy. The product that helped save Apple from bankruptcy 20 years ago is now turning into a barrier that is preventing Apple from focusing on what comes next.

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

The iPhone hasn't suffered because Apple is focused on the Mac. New iPhones come out like clockwork every year. Apple has really gotten it down to a science in recent years. The Mac lineup, however — and the Mac Pro in particular — has clearly suffered from a lack of attention. Where did that institutional attention go? Surely much of went to iPhone.I'm not arguing that it's a mistake for Apple to devote more attention to the iPhone than any other product. Smartphones are the greatest opportunity in the history of mass market consumer goods, and also the greatest opportunity in the history of personal computing. The iPhone epitomizes everything Apple stands for. But it's a mistake to focus so much attention on the iPhone that other important products suffer.

Apple used to have one product: The PC. That became desktop and laptop Macs. Then, iPod. Next, Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.

No new divisions were added to handle those new products. No new companies-within-companies. Famously, iPhone was originally staffed up mainly with people from within Apple. Not so more recent projects, shipped and otherwise. But it does highlight how painful it is to grow from a company with one or two major products to a company with a half dozen.

iPod has been dying for years. It gets less attention because iPhone so completely replaces its core competences. Not so iPad for Mac.

Apple is a functional company with small teams and incredible focus. It's let Apple outlast pretty much every other company of its era and avoid almost all the pitfalls that have plagued its peers. But it's not without pitfalls of its own.

Directing resources with that much focus and attention one one product is amazing. On a few is manageable. On a half-dozen or more? You get iPod touch, Apple TV, and Mac Pro.

It's not that Apple should jettison the Mac business to prevent drag on the future, or focus less attention on iPhone. If a Mac doesn't ship during any particular calendar year, Apple's small, core customer base gets cranky. If an iPhone ever failed to ship, it would be absolute market calamity.

The problem, as I see it, isn't what Apple can or can't do at any given time. It's what the company thinks it can do and communicates it's doing with its customer base. The side effect of Apple's success is a growing product portfolio. The side effect of its secrecy is a tremendous amount of expectational debt.

No product should ever be more important to its customers than to the company that makes it. And importance can't be stated, it can only be shown.

Apple can have its iPhone and eat its Mac too. It just has to be honest about priorities internally and set external expectations appropriately.

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

17 Comments
  • I think that Apple can absolutely bring consistent updates to the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, and Mac if they shrunk the lineups more. For example, we don't need the MacBook and the MacBook Air. They should reduce the markup on the MacBook and sell as "the future at a reasonable price." I feel that would go over really well with customers. I could go into many more examples of how to shrink the lineup, but that would turn this into a novel. 😃
  • This is funny. If companies much smaller and much less profitable than Apple are able to handle more SKUs -i.e. Dell, HP, Lenovo, LG - then Apple can have a diverse product line. However, the rub is whether they are willing to adopt the management structure that they need in order to accomplish it. Google has a similar problem. They have Chrome OS and Android TV in the same division. The head of that division clearly prefers Chrome OS, which is why Google hasn't refreshed the Nexus Player <b>ever</b> (it was first introduced in 2014 and isn't even being manufactured or sold anymore) and there hasn't been a major new hardware release for the platform since 1Q 2015. They put all their efforts into Chromecast ... only to later find out that they needed to push Android TV all along because Android TV supports Google Assistant - which they badly need to compete with Amazon Alexa - and Chromecast doesn't. If nothing else, Apple needs a separate PC division. First of all, it is their legacy business - their original product - and it is something that would (or should) be used by serious technical and professional people .... including those who develop apps and services for Apple's other products. There also needs to be an iPhone division. Then a decision needs to be made whether the iPad goes in the iPhone division or the PC division. (I say the latter.) Then there needs to be a division for services (iCloud, iTunes, Apple Maps, Apple Music, App Store, the content side of Apple TV - especially since it will be made available on other hardware than Apple TV evenutally - etc.) and I suppose an "other" for iPod (the legacy mobile/smart product), Apple Watch, Beats hardware and Apple TV. And another division to handle "corporate" matters i.e. Tim Cook's environmentalism initiatives, management/construction of Apple's corporate offices, the Apple stores etc. Five visions. 5 VPs that report directly to Cook. It isn't that hard and the only reason why it hasn't been done is a combination of pride and inertia.
  • Two things. 1. Apple needs to reorganize itself into divisions that handle its main product lines just like every other big company. This problem isn't just limited to the Mac. Apple's software and services lags behind the competition also (and not just Google, Microsoft and Amazon but generally, especially considering that the competing services are multi-platform/platform agnostic) and could most benefit from its own division led by a software/services specialist (of course purloined from a competitor that is, you know, actually good at software and services). 2. What Apple needs to communicate to their consumers is the fact that Macs are never going to compete with PCs in things like variety, features, update cycles and raw power. In fact, Apple has NEVER been able to compete with Wintel (and WinAMD) on those things, just as they are similarly unable to compete in those areas with what Android offers. Apple is one company and they simply cannot match the efforts of half a dozen or more (Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer, Asus, Toshiba, Samsung) companies, all of whom are fairly large and have big pockets for their R&D departments, and all of whom can specialize i.e. Dell and Lenovo on enterprise PCs and servers, Asus and Razer on gaming rigs etc. If this did not bother Mac fans in 2005 - when there were MORE companies making Windows PCs and FEWER Mac models - and doesn't bother iPhone fans - who have absolutely no interest in such outstanding devices like the Asus Zenfone AR which has 8 GB of RAM, the same processor that is in the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and is designed for VR and AR applications, or the Sony Xperia XZ Premium which has similar specs to the S8 but a 4K screen - then why does it bother Mac fans today? Apple's thing has never been value (for the dollar), power, specs, customizability/expandability, versatility etc. Windows devices have had decided advantanges in all those since the late 80s. Apple's thing has always been design, usability, reliability, simplicity and - since the launch of the iPhone, iPad and app stores - ecosystem. People who prefer the Windows and Android offerings have to give all that up - notwithstanding the huge contingent of people who connect their i-devices to iTunes running on Windows and the Mac/iPad users who own Samsung phones - so people who want the Apple experience have to give up on the strengths of the other platforms too. That said, Apple probably does need to do what Lenovo and a lot of other PC companies do: allow people to make their Macs to order. If they were allow people with serious needs i.e. gamers and professionals in design, engineering, audio/video etc. to choose a CPU, memory configuration, graphics card etc. that would help. Or they could take a cue from Google's (failed) Project Ara modularization goal (for smartphones and tablets) and adapt it to PCs, making it possible to customize and upgrade Macs - especially Mac Pros and MacBook Pros - with any number of components - including those not made by Apple - so long as they conform to Apple's design specs. Intel, Nvidia, Samsung and the rest would jump at the chance to make motherboard/CPU, GPU, memory etc. modules for Apple's high income customer base. Qualcomm may even design an ARM CPU and dare Apple not to certify it! These are simple problems. Apple just needs to have the institutional will to solve them.
  • Thy need some desktop systems that don't cost an arm and a leg. They have an average computer. The Mac mini. But it's too expensive. It's over engineered to be super tiny. It's a desktop computer the tiny form factor is not necessary. The Mac Pro has a case that's super thick aluminum and has been carved. It's beautiful. But does beauty help them sell computers? maybe. Maybe not. They sacrificed upgradability for a smaller form factor case that is expensive to produce.
  • They have way to many products that are several years old. *Only* the iPhone is updating regularly. Even the underpowered (but still good) MacBook is over a year old. Heck, many customers could consider the MacBook Pro as not updated, as evident by the unexpected up-tick in old models.
  • The MacBook Pro is definitely updated, though some people wanted better specs however it wasn't possible at this time due to battery life limitations
  • This is just an excuse. Windows PC vendors, who suffer under a far less efficient and totally less integrated OS solution, deliver more powerful and full function system than the MacBook Pro. Apple imposes the design limitations on themselves by favoring aesthetic over function, so they shouldn't whine and complain about customer reaction and resistance. They build from the outside in, instead of inside out, and they sometimes have the whole house built before they realize they left out the bathrooms. As noted elsewhere above, smaller companies marshal far more SKU's and products than Apple does. I understand they pride themselves on this image of still be a garage startup and everyone takes a hand in rowing the boat - but that often looks like a mad dash to run from one product release to the next, almost helter skelter.
  • This isn't an excuse, and has been clearly noticed by consumers and the media: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/04/03/laptop-companies-lying-... From the link about battery life:
    "The consumer affairs publication tested 67 laptop models from Acer, Apple, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba and found the biggest offenders are HP and Dell, with Apple being the only manufacturer to meet its claims." Apple are very strict about their requirements for battery life in their portable devices, and as such, were only able to make the newest MacBook Pro as powerful as it is.
  • And companies responded by buying up the old Pro in droves.
  • That's not Apple's fault, they upped the specs as much as they could whilst maintaining battery life. That news article proves that other laptops pale in comparison for battery life, and many high spec Windows "laptops" can barely classify as laptops as they last such a short amount of time you might as well leave it plugged in, which essentially makes it a desktop
  • Companies see it as not the tool they need, and the old version was better: "Apple saw a surge of orders for older MacBook Pros instead of the new model" (MacRumors) https://www.macrumors.com/2017/04/06/mac-pro-may-not-ship-until-2019/
  • How was the old version better? Because it had legacy ports? It makes sense for a new Mac to have new ports
  • This is the most important priority between aapl and its long-time, loyal users, especially its professional, loyal users: be honest about intent.
  • Um... Oh, Rene... I tried to reply to a person's comment in this thread and got a massive jumble of text (I tried to post the offending error and was not allowed by the forum software. Sorry.).
  • I don't even replace my phone with each new iPhone iteration, much less my iPad, Apple Watch or MacBook. I am, though, perpetually curious about what's coming next, so while the attention that these product announcements or even rumors receive may not influence an immediate buying decision for me, they at least make for interesting reading.
  • Am i only the one who found last year's Macbook Pro refreshes slightly disappointing ? The new designs LOOK good , but I find the TouchBar useless ,and I dont like the removal of parts Also , does anyone know if Apple plan to bring back the 17 inch Macbook Pro . Im still holding onto mine , a L2011 model , which will be 5 years next month , but I still think its better than these new MBPs . 1TB SSD , 16gb Ram and an i7 . Good enough , until Apple decide to stop releasing MacOS versions for it . Then I guess , it might be time to look at a Surface Book , if Apple dont release a MBP 17 . ( pls release one Apple )
  • Apple has scarce resources like every other company. If it was as simple as hiring a few hundred extra engineers or reorganising the company's structure, you wouldn't have an article to write and for us to respond to. Apple has product weaknesses or extended shipping cycles in iCloud, padOS, Mac Pro, Mac Mini, Apple TV, the TV app, Apple Pay, AirPort, its pro apps, and social. Some of these are global issues, others are issues in several major international markets. Communicating realistic expectations to its customers doesn't make the Mac Mini a better buy, it just makes customers more certain about whether they should (a) wait or (b) switch. Some of these weaknesses could be addressed if the right companies were for sale -- such as AWS and DropBox. But they're not, and it's difficult to grow whole additional areas of expertise. Other weaknesses relate to talent scarcity. At the same time, a part of me wonders just how many extra engineers does Apple *really* need to get its entire Mac lineup onto a regular, sustainable update cycle that prioritises Apple-like properties such as reliability and power consumption but also doesn't lag too far behind the best available components? I think that if Apple at least refreshed and spec-bumped all its Mac components fairly regularly as better components reached suitable prices, it would stave off a lot of the Mac-related criticism even if full-blown re-designs were rare. Also, Apple sacrifices other criteria too much in its efforts to design its desktops to be thin or small -- the Mini, Pro and iMac could all be a bit bigger without being worse and this would make other design decisions easier, allowing more frequent updates.