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  • Apple Ascendant in the Twilight of the PC Era

    July 3rd, 2013

    It wasn’t so many years ago that many of you no doubt felt that Apple was fated, or condemned, to occupy a niche status in the PC market. With worldwide sales, and U.S. sales for that matter, in the single digits, how could it be otherwise?

    Sure, Apple would regularly release new versions of OS X and new hardware arrived several times a year, but it was still pretty much status quo as far as the computing world was concerned. Creative people used Macs, by and large, the rest of the world used PCs, and nothing could change that state of affairs.

    Except…

    The change may have started here: In 2005, Steve Jobs announced that Apple would switch from Motorola/IBM PowerPC chips to Intel’s x86 processor family. The news came at the WWDC, and I’m certain developers didn’t relish the idea of having to rebuild their apps for a new processor family. But Apple did take steps to smooth the migration, including bundling a utility, Rosetta, which allowed you to run PowerPC apps on Intel Macs with good performance. Rosetta was discontinued when OS X Lion came out, but that’s another story for another day. In any case, the full transition was completed by the summer of 2006, months ahead of the announced schedule.

    There was a happy side effect that went by almost unnoticed until a certain app appeared that allowed you to run Windows apps on a Mac. That had been done before, but the translation from x86 to PowerPC took its toll, and performance was barely acceptable. But now with Macs running native on Intel, things changed. Between Parallels Desktop and Apple’s Boot Camp, you could run almost any Windows app with performance barely distinguishable from a real Windows PC; other virtual machine solutions from VMWare and elsewhere came later.

    Sure, games worked best with Boot Camp, but this cross-platform environment made it far easier for people to migrate to Macs. Any performance advantage of Windows over the Mac was, except for somewhat lesser graphics performance at the time, erased. Same processors, same memory chips, so why not?

    In recent years, Apple would regularly announced that roughly half the people buying new Macs at an Apple Store were new to the platform. For the most part, Apple’s sales grew ahead of the overall PC market. Even when Mac sales declined somewhat in the last quarter, they declined far more for Windows PCs.

    And now there’s a report from NPD Group that, in the U.S. retail market, the MacBook Air holds a 56 percent share of the thin and light note-book space. This is the category that is now dubbed “Ultrabook” by Intel, and it represents a particularly innovative area of PC hardware, at least when it’s done right. Clearly Apple knows the way, because they are selling an awful lot of MacBook Airs. But the NPD Group’s survey only covers the first five months of the year. Apple refreshed the MacBook Air lineup in early June, with somewhat better performance and improved power efficiencies; the later the result of using Intel’s Haswell chips, along with a beefier battery.  Suddenly a Mac note-book delivered essentially the same battery life as an iPad, and things are destined to get better when OS X Mavericks appears. No doubt sales increased noticeably as well.

    In yet another surprising development, when you price an identically equipped Ultrabook against even the $999 MacBook Air, you’ll find that Apple’s price structure is extremely favorable. When it comes to a touch-enabled Ultrabook, which is required to get the best user experience from Microsoft’s Windows 8, Apple has a significant price advantage. How could that be?

    Well, Apple has realized that using a touch screen on a regular note-book represents an awkward and potentially painful reach for users. Apple’s touch features are limited to the trackpad, where they appear to make the most sense. This is an area where PC makers will add features not because of their value, but because they have something extra to boast about in the spec sheets.

    To add insult to injury, Apple’s profits from the Mac platform are reportedly higher than the combined profits of the next five PC makers. Sure, some of them sell more units than Apple, overall, but PCs are hardly much of a profit source to most any company aside from Apple. At a time where many were skeptical that Apple planned to invest significantly on Macs, there’s a spanking new Mac Pro on the horizon with a unique cylindrical form factor that is intended to render the age-old and traditional PC minitower obsolete. Some will argue that there should be more internal expansion, but if there are enough external devices and breakout boxes that support Thunderbolt 2, maybe it won’t matter. Clearly Apple put a lot of time, energy and development dollars into recreating the Mac Pro.

    As to OS X Mavericks, the feature changes are largely focused on the needs of serious Mac users, who depend on the platform to actually get work done. The Finder enhancements, which actually aren’t especially unique as file browsers go, are particularly useful. iCloud Keychain works for both consumers and businesses, and if it’s reliable, will reduce or eliminate much of the drudgery in creating secure passwords and actually being able to have them recalled whenever you need to log in to something. There’s not much visual flash in Mavericks, but the under-the-hood changes also promise improved performance and better battery life.

    In contrast, how does Windows 8 improve performance, power efficiency, and more important, productivity? Maybe it’s more efficient for note-book batteries, but the convoluted touch features, and the awkward means to use them, hardly make anyone more productive.

    I won’t predict when the PC era will be largely history, except for a small number of power users. But Apple has clearly taken the right approach in enhancing the Mac platform, and meeting the needs of both consumers and content creators.



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