The Mac Hunger Games and the Rapidly Fracturing Computer Marketplace

| Columns & Opinions

The personal computing industry is changing quickly. Again. Not long ago, there was a simple migration from PC and Mac desktops to notebooks. Then, Apple finally got the simple tablet right in 2010. However, basic tablets can’t do it all, and so Apple warmed to the iPad Pro concept. But the dust isn’t clearing. Rather the market is exploding in use cases, customer preferences and advanced technology.

MacBook-iPad side by side

What looked to be simple evolution has become not so simple.

It all started, around the turn of the century, with the terrors of race-to-the-bottom desktop PCs that ran Windows XP. That operating system was not very secure, but it was sufficiently complex that customers thought buying a new computer was easier than upgrading to a new OS. And to keep prices down, PC hardware was barely able to run the new Windows versions, so new hardware was imperative (and frequent) along the way.

Apple made good headway against Windows XP and Vista with Mac OS X, an OS that was generally more secure and easier to handle. The implementation of [Mac] OS X on sleek MacBook Pros lured many into the Apple fold.

Complexity Out of Control

In time, however, the sophistication of desktop and notebook OSes became a difficult challenge for average PC customers who tired of constant updates, complex GUIs, security problems, Registry issues and backups. The evolution of hardware technology with prefixes like “giga” and “tera” overwhelmed many. The Apple iPad in 2010 was just what the doctor ordered for millions of people. It looked like the iPad was going to eradicate the conventional PC.

Then something unexpected happened. The iPad was too simple. Too easy. It didn’t need upgrading very often. Its high security, which made it so safe to use, also crippled it when it cam to replacing the PC and Mac. Beautiful MacBook/Airs/Pros with keyboards continued to cannibalize iPad sales. They’re still doing it today.

Just when Apple thought the Mac was a dying breed, computer makers started figuring out how to use advanced technology to deliver strong solutions to each traditional market segment.

Hewlett-Packard took up the mantle. abandoned by IBM, Sun and SGI, to build superior “Z” workstations for the technical professionals. Microsoft, under CEO Satya Nadella, started acting like a very smart company. They waited patiently until hardware technology could deliver a competent touch screen, Intel-based tablet that could run X86 business aps. Lenovo and Google have jumped in with some interesting tablet and 2-in-1 concepts such as the Google Pixel C and the Lenovo YogaBook. Chromebooks are finding a place in education. HP has just introduced an awesome, amazing desktop for the consumer market, the Elite Slice, and injected it into a void left by the Mac Mini which has been left on its deathbed.

Just when it looked like the personal computing market was going to simplify, computer makers have found that there is, instead, a wealth of differing customer needs and diverse technical solutions that can fill those needs.

Decisions, Decisions

Every week I read an article by an author who wrestled with which device to take on a business trip, despairing that any once device could fill the complete bill. Meanwhile, markets that seemed dead because some computer makers wanted them to be dead have been, instead, reinvigorated and exploited by clever competitors—making product choices even harder. Tablets like the iPad have had to sprout multi-tasking, a pencil and keyboard to sustain viability. Amazing desktops combined with a new generation of 4K displays have breathed new life into CAD, research, science, architecture, and video production.

The smoke isn’t clearing. Not at all.

And now it’s Apple’s turn. Perhaps the long delay in refreshes to the Mac lineup reflects Apple’s struggle with the changing and fracturing markets. It will be interesting to see how Apple responds and which parts of this quickly changing marketplace Apple wants to engage and what approach the company takes.

Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of August 29th. What you need to know about 4K/HDR.

6 Comments Add a comment

  1. I really dig Particle Debris and the links to germane articles. I find your viewpoints interesting but I’ll have to disagree with some of these.

    I somewhat agree with your thoughts on the iPad but slowing growth is a long way from ‘dying.’ You still make a fair point though.

    Nadella is certainly an improvement over Ballmer but a company that loses it’s ‘golden key’ (or whatever it is) is not what I’d call ‘a very smart company.’

    Not so sure about the flying car. I mean, $300K and oh yeah, it just crashed. You need years of training for the license and airport access. Assured success? It’s a really cool toaster-frig though.

    I fail to see how the HP Slice is awesome. What new ground has it broken?

    I think the article on Baby Boomers is significant. I can see how many of those insights go hand in hand with much of what has made Apple successful.

    Keep up the good work. I really like most of your stuff.

  2. Paul Goodwin

    I find that a regular iPad (I have an iPad Air 2) fills the bill for a lot of work. As an engineer consulting with other engineers online using things like Webex, Box and others, the iPad is an almost ideal tool. I never really want for a keyboard, it wouldn’t add that much to my personal work experience, however, I can see where others would value it.

    The only negative to using an iPad for work in a web based environment is that there are still a lot of web page designs that aren’t very iOS friendly. Many time they offer apps which don’t have the full capability of their web based designed tools. And even their web based tools are nearly always deficient when running on a Mac or in iOS Safari. The world still doesn’t recognize the iPad as a serious engineering tool, and many site just won’t invest in making them Mad or iOS friendly.

    Many times I work with both the laptop and the iPad side by side. Each is very good at what it does, and having both pieces of hardware is many times far more productive than trying to accomplish things using just one or the other.

    How does that fit with this article? Well, the manufacturers keep trying to design this ideal holy grail of a piece of hardware. I’m quite sure it’ll be a long time before one “thing” will be better than having both tools in front of you.

  3. This is all really interesting to me. I find that my best-case use scenarios are very similar, I use a combination of several devices side by side, and I can’t imagine them all being integrated without it being incredibly awkward or compromising somewhere along the line. I expect Apple is aware of this too, and as Macs, tablets, and phones are all fairly mature at this point, it’ll be interesting to see what direction they take with their stuff.

  4. You’re honestly telling us that people are too stupid to understand unit prefixes? That’s your argument for what makes computers too complex?

    John, your contempt for the general public is sickening. Why don’t you tell us about how girls women just don’t have the mental fortitude required to understand how a water pump works. /s

  5. John:

    There’s a lot of material here worthy, of discussion, so let’s get to it.

    First, regarding the complexity and the fracturing of the computer market place, to the extent that there is greater distribution of devices for the same use cases, this is a story less about the devices than about users, and their experimentation and exercise of greater choice, in finding that right balance between functional capacity and access (particularly portability). In that heady mix, you then have the manufacturers, who, like Google and MS, have seen Apple’s success with an ultra portable (the iPad), and have leveraged their respective skill sets (Chrome for Google, the Surface with Windows for MS), to proffer devices that can compete in that space.

    What further complicates this, in my opinion, and renders some of the analysis (not yours) somewhat lacking, is that this complexity is less about a defined niche than it is about opportunity. The advantage of a true niche is that it can, not necessarily will, select for a specific type of device. This is what we saw with smartphones, to the detriment of Blackberry and other devices whose technology, form factor and limitations hailed from a previous century.

    An important distinction here is that the iPhone created, defined and then expanded its own niche, not unlike a rapidly expanding universe following the Big Bang, in which only the iPhone, and similar multi-capacity ultra portable computers that could also make phone calls, could compete, and thus left the detritus of legacy devices like the original Blackberry in their wake.

    The situation with traditional computers and their ultra portable competition, like the iPad, is evolutionarily distinct. This is a productivity space whose access points have been expanded, not by a new device, but by the cloud and its myriad spinoff services and technologies. These have created opportunity for people to work differently by accessing that space using whatever device is available and sufficiently functional to get the job done.

    Suddenly, we have new opportunity that can potentially be satisfied by a vast range of devices both extant and future, and less of a device-defined phylogenetic niche. No doubt, the opportunity still exists to dominate this space with a device-specific or device-type solution, however I suspect that this will not be met by a one size fits all solution. Rather, in my opinion, that competition will be won by a set of attributes or a feature set, namely an ideal balance of convenience (portability) and capacity (the range of productivity functions that device can fulfil). This will be a Darwinian competition of fitness for this work space whose winners will be defined by a diverse population of user needs, permitting the coexistence of of several device species that will occupy parallel niches. Under these conditions, I would not bet against Apple and the iPad, but see it as having a viable future.

    The Forbes piece on the Apple Store name change illustrates just how easy it is for pundits and Apple watchers, using overly simplistic analysis, to miss the significance and rationale of Apple’s decisions. This is not about aesthetics but a change in how Apple want to maximally exploit their interface with their client base, beyond mere shopping.

    The Guardian’s piece on the signature, ‘Sent from my iPhone’ reflects my own experience. In the beginning, I kept it simply to indicate that I was using an iPhone and not a Blackberry or other device, really as a lobbying tool to the IT wonks that they needed to accommodate other devices. Somewhere along the way, it became more of an disclaimer to my colleagues that I was working on the run with limited time. Still useful. Fascinating.

    Mark Lowenstein’s piece on Tech forgetting the Boomers is a nice diversion, but risks over generalisation. In my home, at least, I remain the tech source, even for my kids when they run into difficulty with their devices, network or apps. Admittedly, that may not be representative, but illustrative of the fact that much of this is driven, not by age, but by how intimately one engages the technology.

    Finally, Dan Moren is correct, Apple need to rethink iCloud, specifically in the context of their vision of a post-PC era that is device agnostic.

  6. daemon: I wasn’t referring to any kind of unfamiliarity with metric prefixes. I was, of course, talking about coping with complexity: computers with gigabytes of RAM (and operating systems with 75 million lines of code) and the need to reliably, consistently back up terabytes of data. This, combined with endless security issues, is a serious challenge for even modern, astute computer users. It’s overwhelming for many others.

    The Apple iPad solved that problem for many computer users.

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