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The Mac Platform Decline

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David Owens II:

To me, Thursday’s event signaled one thing for me, and maybe I’m completely wrong, but the Mac is officially over.
Apple, the MacBook Pro is not a pro-level computer. It’s simply not.

Ted Landau:

Apple’s desktop Mac lineup is headed for the graveyard. Dead. Done. Over.

It has taken me some time to collect my thoughts on the state of the Mac platform. My feelings have been developing over several years and I think after the October 2016 event, it's time to put them in writing. It's fair to say that I've gone through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

hello again

At the October 2016 event, Apple announced updated models of the MacBook Pro line while desktop Macs did not even get a single mention. At the time of writing, desktops have not been updated in at least a year.

  • iMac: Last updated 382 days ago
  • Mac Mini: Last updated 744 days ago
  • Mac Pro: Last updated 1045 days ago

Pro for Professional?

From where I'm standing, Apple are redefining (shrinking) their target audience for the Mac platform. If you feel left out by the latest updates and the neglect on the desktop, it's simple as Apple deciding not to serve your segment's needs. I know that it can feel quite personal to Mac devotees, like me, but it's simply business and strategy.

If we look purely at the revenue split, the Mac accounts for about 10% of Apple's revenues. It's entirely plausible that a decision was made not to invest in a declining ecosystem which does not represent the future in Apple's mind. I'm not judging whether it's logical or it makes sense to do that, I'm just making it clear that such a scenario, which would reflect the reality we're seeing, seems possible.

Tim Cook's thoughts on computers are clearly expressed in this interview:

I think if you’re looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one? Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones.

Yes, absolutely: the iPad Pro can and has replaced many people's computers, including Macs. But in the near term, it simply cannot replace it for a small minority with genuine high-end needs.

Outdated Hardware

Let me address the following point: Who needs anything more than a MacBook Pro? The answer is a very small segment of high-demanding users. Those are the people who have been waiting for a very long time to only be disappointed by the October 2016 event. Activities include heavy 2D / 3D post-processing, video editors, highly-demanding software development. While the base performance of laptops continuously improves to cover more use cases, some highly specialised workloads still require significantly more power.

I'm currently using a 6-core Mac Pro (2013) with 64GB of RAM. I'm developing code on a huge codebase and running a lot of demanding apps. I run out of memory on a regular basis and have the CPUs at very high utilisation throughout my work day. This workload is simply not possible on a laptop due to the thermal envelope (CPU-only TDPs of 130W vs 45W).

The Mac Pro is just embarrassingly outdated, still selling for the same price it did when it launched 3 years ago. The Xeon CPUs are 2 generations behind, the dual workstation-class GPUs are now significantly slower than a single high-end consumer Nvidia card. Brian Stucki notices:

Reminder: The current Mac Pro page brags about the performance with Aperture, a program that Apple retired 2+ years ago

Anecdotally, the people who need GPU perf now all use PCs: not because of the cost of Apple hardware but simply because the Mac Pro's GPU performance is not at all competitive. If we look at the fastest GPU configuration with a pair of workstation-class D700, this provides a total of 7 TFLOPS (3.5 TFLOPS per card). Over at the Nvidia camp, a single Quadro P6000 GPU has 12 TFLOPS, even the consumer Titan X Pascal can do 11 TFLOPS. So, a consumer Titan X Pascal is 57% faster than a dual D700. If you compare against dual Titan X Pascals, you would have a performance increase of 214%. For highly demanding GPU workflows, this sort of performance does matter.

After discussing the topic with a friend of mine, he remarked that he knows about a company who switched from an all-Mac setup to Linux and Windows machines in the span of a couple of years. For similar stories, you should visit some of the more prominent Mac Pro forums and see for yourself.

That's why professionals feel left out. As Jeff J. puts it:

Those complaining about Apple's current Mac lineup are not haters, they're lovers. They've spent 10+ years and 5+ figures on Macs.

The real kicker is that the ecosystem and platform where you might have invested 10+ years is suddenly disappearing from underneath you because you're not the target market anymore. On the software side, it seems that almost all updates are about feature integrations with iOS or collateral improvements from the shared base macOS and iOS share.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the Mac Mini. To the uneducated observer, the Mac Mini might seem like a very unimportant product but it plays a crucial role in companies that develop Apple software at scale to provide continuous integration. For example, Facebook have clusters of Mac Minis that continuously compile and test their codebase. There are dedicated companies, like Macminicolo, whose sole job is colocating those small computers running macOS.

Last time Apple updated the Mac Mini, it took a big step backwards: it removed the quad-core i7 CPU option with only a dual-core option. This ended up reducing multicore CPU performance by almost 37% which represents a serious regression. From the outside, it seems that Apple just does not want to cater to those needs.

Tradeoffs

According to the October 2016 event, Apple's vision of the Mac future is just MacBook Pros: a one-size-fits-all approach. Apple has even left the standalone display business which provides further signal about their long-term plans.

This one-size approach has fundamental flaws because we haven't reached the stage where the tradeoffs are acceptable to high-demanding professionals. Almost every choice we make in this life is all about tradeoffs: it's the same in hardware engineering. For example, making laptops thinner and lighter means sacrificing performance that you wouldn't if you did not have those constraints .

But when you need all the power you can get, you don't care about thinness of your desktop, you have all the space you need. In this particular case, you should be able to pick a different set of constraints. And that's where one-size-fits-all simply does not work: you can't put a 12-core Xeon CPU, a Titan X and 64GB of RAM in a laptop package as thin as the MacBook Pro.

Once upon a time, those of us in the Apple ecosystem could choose between different sets of tradeoffs according to our needs. But increasingly, Apple is tuning the tradeoffs to casual consumer needs across its entire product line, leaving professionals out in the cold.

Professional Ecosystem

Here's the most important question: If professionals don't make Apple enough money to be worth targeting, why should they invest resources to support them and create products for them? If that's the case, then there's no point in professionals complaining because Apple is actively choosing not to cater to their needs. We could argue that Apple has done the maths and concluded that losing professionals and focusing on consumers would be a net positive. Professionals might disagree with this stance but it's an entirely logical and sensible position for Apple to take.

The counterargument that I'll make is that if you lose the professionals, you’ll lose a significant chunk of innovation and content that keeps consumers in the Apple ecosystem. Those professionals are content creators and if they use Macs at work, they're more likely to use Macs at home and create for Apple platforms. Professionals are influencers and affect the computing choices of their immediate family & friends.

A lot of the best indie Mac apps happened because their developers were Mac users before becoming programmers. You could say that macOS is currently the platform choice for a large part of the developer community, especially web developers. This creates a large ecosystem of people who are inclined to further develop the platform and create software for it. A big reason why consumers like Apple is because they used to benefit from the spillover from their professional-level tools.

Sentiment

Sentiment about Apple from professional users has become almost uniformly negative over the past few years. This gloomy attitude is also reflected in the regular conversations I have with engineers who develop for Apple's platforms. If Apple alienates developers to such a degree that they will no longer develop for its platforms in their free time, they'll have a very real long-term problem. Furthermore, developers act as evangelists for the platform. And let's not forget that the Mac sits at the bottom of the pyramid: all the iOS, watchOS and tvOS software gets created on the Mac. Neglecting the Mac platform will have a knock-on effect on the wider Apple ecosystem.

Another worrying aspect is the perceived health of the Mac ecosystem. If professionals feel that the platform is slowly dying and not catering to their needs, they have less of a reason to keep investing in it which eventually starts a vicious self-perpetuating spiral.

The Future

I don't want the professional Mac platform to die a slow death of neglect but that's where things seem to be going. The scary part is that the Mac community is unanimous in their characterisation of the situation. The trust in the ecosystem, its longevity, continued support and innovation seems to have been lost. Even if Apple were to release updated desktop hardware tomorrow, a big if, it will still not be enough to completely eliminate the mistrust.

For more on the subject, you should go and read Michael Tsai's excellent blog post. If you're into podcasts, listen to Accidental Tech Podcast: The Escape Zone (193).

I'd like to thank Nick Lockwood for his feedback on this article.

If history has taught us anything, it's that developers can make or break a platform. Nick Lockwood:

Here is what I imagine Apple's decline will look like: It won't be poor sales, or loss of revenue. It won't be a shiny new iPhone killer…
It will be a switch from iOS developers using Macs at home to them using PCs at home and having a "work Mac" for commercial development.
Most will still use iPhones, but they won't write apps for them except to make money. Their personal projects will be for Web or Windows.
All of the $70 indie apps that made Mac and iOS fun to develop on will dry up. The only apps will be social networking clients or F2P games.
And that's all. Apple will still be profitable, and consumers will still view it as the premium brand, but devs will favour other platforms.

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  1. There's diminishing returns as you keep making laptops thinner and lighter. You reach a point where the tradeoff is no longer worth it for the vast majority of people. You could also argue we have reached that point already: a lot of people complain about wanting better battery life rather than thinner laptops.

  2. Remember Xserve?

  3. In the UK, the Mac Pro price actually increased by £500 due to currency exchange rate adjustments.

  4. I believe that's Apple's thinking right now. It's not that they deliberately don't care about professionals, it's just that in their version of the future, it does not make financial sense to target the high-end professionals.

  5. The discontinuation of Aperture is another example of this direction.

  6. There's now a chicken-and-egg problem when it comes to investing in the Mac Pro line. Many professionals with high-end needs have already switched away from it due to poor hardware, leaving a smaller userbase. This is makes it increasingly harder to justify further investment.

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