The Mac Will Thrive in The Post-PC Era

PCs aren’t going to go away. Macs aren’t going to go away. What’s going to change is the relative sales and opportunities for tablets compared to PCs and Macs. As a side effect, Macs will survive and flourish. PCs? Not so much.


It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Mark Twain

Lion money treeLast Friday, in Particle Debris, I took a look at a very good article by John Kirk, titled: “The PCs is the Titanic and the Tablet is the Iceberg. Any Questions?” The parallel argument was that The Mac no Longer Competes Against the PC. What was interesting was the reaction to the column. For example, the thrust of the argument was that because tablets can do so many more things than a PC in modern usage, and because the tablet potential is untapped and unlimited, tablet sales (primarily the iPad) will expand tremendously, eventually exceeding PC sales.

Of course that has market implications. With PC sales growth flat or declining and tablet sales exploding, the growth prospects for a PC-oriented company are gloomy. American enterprise depends on growth (for both good and bad reasons).

Nevertheless, some readers took the opportunity to become apologists for the PC and by implication, the Mac, noting that their days are not over. For example, I’m writing this article on a MacBook Air.

I want to clarify the discussion we had in that Particle Debris column with some assertions that are, as they say in the physics community, obvious to the most casual observer.

  1. The PC isn’t going away.
  2. Tablet sales (the iPad) will skyrocket.
  3. There is a difference between the relative utility of a device and its relative sales.
  4. The need for PCs and Macs will continue, but only by a much smaller segment of the technical community because…
  5. …the PC and Mac are still better at doing some unique things that creative people do.
  6. Eventually, PCs will constitute a smallish fraction of the total tablet sales, meaning that R&D in that area will dry up.
  7. The Mac will weather this downturn better than the PC.
  8. PC-oriented companies that try to perpetuate the PC by either building PCs disguised as tablets or by building ultra thin notebooks (Ultrabooks) to mimic the MBA will fail in that specific endeavor.

In other words, just because analysts predict that the iPad will start to outsell PCs in a few years doesn’t mean that a PC and a Mac aren’t better tools, today, for some jobs. But that’s not the heart of the matter here. What I think is a subtle side effect is the survivability of the Mac.

 Beat the Mac?

What I want to focus on here are points #7 and #8. As mentioned in the Particle Debris column, because Macs no longer need to compete against the PCs, Apple has design freedom that it didn’t have before. But even more important is the market segment that the Mac holds. That is, when people need what a PC can’t offer, they buy a tablet. When they need what a PC can offer, they are the exception, with special needs, and likely at the top of the financial pyramid. So they’re going to buy a premium PC. What is a premium PC? It’s called a Macintosh.

What Apple has done is distill the very essence of what most average people need to do into the iPad.  Beyond that are the very technical, demanding people.  So for the average customer, large by the numbers, the PC cannot compete with the tablet’s price, ease of use and utility. Worse, it can’t even compete with the Mac because the makers of PCs have driven each other into the basement of a commodity market of crappy, price-is-everything products.

It’s like the three laws of thermodynamics. “You can’t win. You can’t break even. You can’t even get out of the game.”

This is why Mac sales, while still a small percentage of overall PC sales, are growing. And so, I think it finally dawned on Microsoft what was happening, and they got on with their own tablet project called Courier. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky drove the Courier champions out of the company and insisted that, no, Windows is the way to go because people in his view, would rather run Windows software than start fresh with a new tablet OS.

Circling back to #8, trying to emulate Apple’s MacBook Air with Ultrabooks assumes that people see, in Windows 7 (and 8) and the infrastructure of Microsoft, what they need in an ultra lightweight notebook. In fact, customers are willing to pay more for the MacBook Air because they know they can take it into an Apple retail store, of which there are hundreds, and get a boatload of help. As a result, lowering the price of an Ultrabook, as a lure, doesn’t help. Style? check. Customer warm fuzzies? Nope. Apple continues to dominate in that ultra-thin notebook market.

MBA 2012Image Credit: Apple

So whether it’s a Mac Pro for science and computation, an iMac for the photographer, the retina MacBooks for mobile video professionals or the MBA for writers, Apple can expect the Mac to thrive amongst technical professionals for whom an iPad is unsatisfactory. But they often have an iPad as well, which is major irony.

Obi-Wan is Our Only Hope

The only realistic strategy to compete against Apple is to:

  1. Copy Apple’s iPad.
  2. Build content consumption tablets for $199.
  3. Develop tablet product infrastructure, as Amazon has already done and Google is trying to do with Google Play.

Apple will put a dent in strategy #1 in the courts.

Apple will put a dent in strategy #2 with a 7.85 inch tablet in October. Or so it seems.

Apple will put a dent in strategy #3 with the Apple HDTV that seamlessly works with Macs (Mountain Lion’s AirPlay Mirroring), iPads and iPhones. Suddenly the offerings of cable and satellite will seem expensive, awkward and out of sync with our iOS life. That will give Apple the edge against Amazon and Google. (Recall Google TV was a failure.)

The Tablet’s Three Phases of Truth

The reaction to the iPad by some is reminiscent of Arthur Clarke’s three phase of truth. Paraphrased:

  1. Phase I. The tablet is an underpowered novelty.
  2. Phase II. It’s a great product, but we can’t compete with Apple.
  3. Phase III. Tablets are the future. We’ll throw all our resources into our own.

The problem for any company not named Apple is that only Apple is throwing its immense corporate resources into the technology development of the tablet. Everyone else is just going through the motions. Or worse, trying to copy and then make excuses. The reason for that is that Apple has so nailed the cultural/technical meme of the tablet, failure to copy is suicide in the market. Copying, however, gets you into court. Talk about lose-lose.

Meanwhile, as the PC sinks into commercial oblivion, and Apple’s competitors struggle with their tablet products, the Macintosh will continue to sail along, the premium solution for people who, for now at least, need what a classic PC should have offered but never could.

That’s why Mac sales are growing in the Post-PC era. The pickle the rest of the industry is in is almost comical.


Money Tree image credit: Shutterstock. And help from Bryan Chaffin.