The Mother Eats Her Young: iPad vs. MacBook

“If I were running Apple, I would milk the Macintosh for all it’s worth — and get busy on the next great thing. The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago. ” — Steve Jobs (Feb 19, 1996)

Cannibal!Could the iPad really cannibalize the MacBook line into extinction? Could there be a resurgence of the desktops? Let’s see where it all goes.


Good ideas are seldom fully defined in a single article. There’s never enough room (or reader patience) to explore every aspect of an issue. It’s really a collective body of work that defines a technical phenomenon, and I’d like to explore one launched by Ben Bajarin. His thesis is: “Notebooks are the Past, Tablets are the Future.

Ben’s idea is that:

  • Notebooks are compromise computers, a place holder waiting for the tablet technology to arrive.
  • Touch is the new paradigm.
  • A powerful desktop is a better companion to a tablet than a technically compromised notebook.
  • A more practical mix for families is tablets for members and a single desktop for heavy lifting.

I could add that as the iPad matures, it will become a more capable content creation tool, especially when you think about convergence products.

Ah, convergence. The new buzzword.

It’s Tim Cook’s Fault

It all started at the April 24 Apple Financial Results Conference Call when Tim Cook pooh-poohed the idea of the physical convergence of the MacBook and iPad line. Here’s just one sequence to follow:

1. Apple’s CEO: No Convergence of iPad and MacBooks This is what started it all.

2. No FridgeToaster for You: Let the iPad Evolve Wherein I argue that any forced convergence would cripple the natural evolution of the iPad.

3. Video Spoofs Tim Cook’s Convergence Putdown: Froaster A company, Brydge, is building a convergence product, a handsome keyboard system for the iPad, posts a playful putdown of Apple’s reluctance to think about convergence.

4. Notebooks are the Past, Tablets are the Future.. Ben Bejarin argues that we’ll really have divergence. The notebook, in our case the MacBook line (MBP, MBA), will die off in time, and the desktop will re-emerge.

More Questions Than Answers

The problem, right now in 2012, is that this notion of the demise of the (compromise) notebook is just a glimmer in our eyes. It started for me when I realized that a 15-inch MacBook Pro (with a meager Core 2 Duo) was awkward and heavy to travel with plus it didn’t have the oomph I need to do my daily work at TMO, especially when I needed to run Parallels Desktop. So I sold it back through Apple’s recycle program and used the proceeds towards a 27-inch iMac with a quad core i7 and a 256 GB SSD. That Mac gets the job done for me. I know others who have gone that route.

In general, however, there’s still significant momentum for the MacBook. It amounts to over 70 percent of Apple’s Mac sales, and Apple is selling MacBook Airs at a brisk pace. There are businessmen, writers, and others who are on the move and can’t get their work done with an iPad with its current limitations, including the lack of a visible file system and massive local storage. It’s not hard to see why sales are great, and Tim Cook acknowledged as much in his comments to investors.

One could argue that we are in an era of transition. The MacBook is holding the fort until the iPad matures and flourishes. The legacy MacBook won’t go away completely until we can do almost everything we need to do on an iPad, whatever course, form and size it takes.

Part of that early transition process, even if Apple can’t play there, is a product like the Brydge iPad Laptop. Consider it a flirtation with the future.

Apple’s Vision

Like Stevie Nicks, I keep my visions to myself. But I do try to understand Apple’s vision. Lately, it seems that Apple has been all about the idea of mobility and the cloud. That’s created some vague heartburn for some of us professionals who know how important it is to maintain local control over one’s personal data. For example, our family has about 7 TB of rotating storage and another 384 GB of of SSD storage. It’s never going to be safely stored in any cloud. I use Apple’s iCloud for its intended purpose, syncing only, and I know that others feel this way. I like cloud services, but I steer away from cloud storage.

That’s why there’s been some angst about the idea of Apple terminating the Mac Pro and the desire to see Apple, if they do, continue with a no compromise home-server, a heavy lifting desktop without a built-in display. The Mac mini, of course, doesn’t cut it. (I’m not suggesting that Apple will kill the Mac Pro; I’m just saying that Apple has us worried. The last update was mid 2010.)

Just as we’re on a possible path for the iPad to potentially replace the MacBooks and a focus on mobility with the iPhone, it would be ironic if Apple gave up on the idea of an affordable, desktop home server to tie it all together. This notion that the Mac is just one of several different but equal devices flies in the face of the laws of physics. An iPhone is never going to be your 21st century home’s ultimate memory alpha.

If we look at the cloud, instead, as a harmonizing force, something that allows us to sync important pieces of data rather than the entire archive, then the reliance on a conventional notebook is removed. Instead of “my MacBook goes everywhere,” we have, “My data is accessible everywhere.” In turn, the necessity to have a full blown portable system that can do everything, but is less capable than a desktop, goes away. In a sense, like the developer who factors code, we’re factoring our lives. Major processing power stays put, married to massive storage, but our data is available everywhere, thanks to Wi-Fi, 4G and broadband on a device that fits the occasion: iPhone or iPad.

Yet, if we look at the contribution of Macs to all of Apple’s sales (by revenue), it certainly seems that the entire family of Macs is being squeezed out. Is this because Macs last so long? Few people buy a new iMac every year, but a new iPad every April seems doable. There is distraction and illusion here. When we’re ready for a memory alpha upgrade, will Apple be ready too?

AAPL Revenue by segment

Image Credit: Silicon Alley Insider

Equally ironic is that Microsoft, left behind in the tablet market, may be feeling that Windows 8 on ARM tablets is the future. The notion of the Post-PC era probably has Microsoft in a tizzy. What if desktops get oh-so awesome thanks to new quantum technologies and there’s no Windows X product to exploit that. Fate can sometimes be cruel.

Apple’s Market

There’s no doubt that Apple has plunged headlong into the consumer market, refusing to be constrained by the enterprise world. In that consumer market, it’s practical to think about family members not being able to afford one of everything. A daughter in college needs a MacBook Pro with a SuperDrive, a son in grade school needs an iPad, one spouse may be happy with an iPhone. The other may want an iMac for video work on home movies. It’s good to deliver broad spectrum products. It’s good to let the market sort itself out and it’s good to let technology evolve, unconstrained. And it’s good to compete with yourself before someone else does. For now, nothing changes very much except the evolution of the iPad.

iPad LaptopVision of the future or stopgap for a few? (Image Credit: Brydge)

So where are we? I agree that the underlying signs suggest that the classic MacBook may be squeezed out as the iPad moves from infancy to its teenage years. The desktop could certainly make a comeback as we realize that we don’t have a notebook to carry the load, but just how Apple thinks about that and how the desktop will morph is anybody’s guess right now. Perhaps the home’s single server, also managing the functions of a mid 21st century home, will reside in a closet, faceless, managed with a 17-inch iPad. Perhaps it’ll take another Steve Jobs to envision the Next Step, a quantum leap, and then the desktop (an obsolete term now) plus iPad pairing will shake out in a way that will seem obvious — when it happens.

These are fun times and fun things to think about. However, as an aside, I should mention that I wrote this article with BBEdit and a MacBook Air. It was the right tool for the job in the spring of 2012.


Chicken Image Credit: Shutterstock.