It’s nice to know that the Apple Watch reportedly hit record sales in the December quarter. It was a banner year, says CEO Tim Cook, except that we can only infer actual sales by looking at the total numbers in the “Other” category in Apple’s financials. From the very beginning, Apple opted not to let us in on actual Apple Watch sales.
Now it’s that industry analysts can’t make a few educated guesses, and maybe they are right that Apple sold an estimated 5.2 million of them during the holiday quarter. Those numbers are somewhat lower than Macs, but Apple is evidently way ahead in market share. After buying out Pebble, a smartwatch pioneer, Fitbit still has to lay off 6% of its work force due to soft sales during the December quarter. Sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatches are collapsing.
So maybe the market isn’t huge, but Apple owns it. It almost reminds me of digital music players, where the under-appreciated iPod took on all comers and won. The real question is where the smartwatch market is going and what Apple intends to do to take us there. Sales of over five million units in a single quarter is nothing to be embarrassed about, but there has to be a long-range plan that we know nothing about.
In the meantime, I understand why people might be skeptical of what Cook has to say about the Apple Watch since he won’t reveal the actual numbers. Sure, maybe it’s partly to spook the competition, but as I said, it should be possible for outsiders to look at Apple’s financials, maybe consult some dealer surveys, and get a pretty close indication of how well it’s doing.
The suggestion by some that it’s a failure doesn’t wash. Right now it appears the rest of the market is failing.
But even when the news is bad, Cook is good at putting a positive spin on a situation. Take the iPad, where sales dipped to 13.1 million units in the holiday quarter. The iPad continues to dominate a shrinking market, and it’s not that it will go to zero in a few years. Cook says there are “exciting things coming on the iPad.” I wouldn’t dispute what he says, and it may well be that it’s not just making it thinner and lighter, and maybe adding an extra display size to the product mix.
Exciting things? How?
Well, some tech pundits suggest that the iPad ought to be able to run macOS apps, because iOS doesn’t really do much to exploit its capabilities. For many, the iPad is still just a big iPhone without the telephone, and the iPhone 7 Plus phablet may be all the tablet many need. Remember that its percentage of total iPhone sales increased during the last quarter, causing constrained supplies.
But what if Apple could make it possible to run Mac apps on an iPad? Remember, that iOS is fundamentally a fork of macOS. It’s a portable operating system that can be made to run on different processors, so I suppose it’s possible to run at least some Mac apps in an emulation mode without much of a slowdown. Just remember the Rosetta app that, for several years, allowed you to run PowerPC apps on an Intel Mac without much of a performance hit.
Of course, an app written for a mouse-driven OS without a touchscreen may be a curious mix on an iPad, but Apple might find ways for it adapt somehow. Remember that some Chromebooks can also run Android apps, so this sort of thing is not an original concept.
The real question is, however, Apple’s long game for the Mac. Now that the ability to use an ARM processor and an iOS-derivative on a MacBook Pro for the Touch Bar and Touch ID has succeeded, where does Apple take this concept? As I reported in yesterday’s column, a Bloomberg report suggested that the Power Nap feature would be an ideal candidate for similar treatment. It would make a Mac run more efficiently, particularly during idle modes, or anywhere that low-level functionality can be diverted from Intel silicon.
Is it even possible that Apple might run more and more of the macOS on ARM, and only keep Intel around for compatibility and the ability to run virtual machines? That would be a costly solution, having to pay for two processors, although Apple can supposedly make A-series chips real cheaply. One estimate I saw priced the A10 Fusion processor at $26.90. Compare that to the hundreds of dollars Apple has to pay Intel for its hardware. While the A10’s cost is not insignificant, Apple earns enough from the sale of Macs to roll it in without a huge hit. I would also suspect that Apple will continue to find ways to make these chips more cheaply over time, yet still improve performance to the level of a high-end Mac desktop.
Intel has to be real scared, but Apple’s goal appears to be directed towards making its gear do things the competition just can’t match. Or can only approximate with difficulty.
Now it’s reasonable to be skeptical of what Tim Cook says, just as you should be skeptical of any pronouncement from a corporate executive. But Apple is definitely doing some fascinating things with its custom technology. Whatever you think of the Touch Bar, the way it’s implemented, with a second processor and operating system, has to make the PC competition envious beyond belief.