What future for the Macintosh?

With Apple’s smartphones and tablets making so much money and taking up so much media bandwidth, one has to wonder: Is there a future for the Macintosh?

We’ll first take a look at broad trend numbers and try not to molest them too much. As we saw last week, they’ll confess to anything when under torture. After that, we’ll explore the significance of recent changes in the Mac ecosystem: the new MacBook Air and the Mac App Store. Finally, we’ll extrapolate a bit and attempt to answer the question in this note’s title.

Mary Meeker, the Wall Street analyst who recently left her Morgan Stanley pulpit for a Kleiner Perkins perch, just updated her highly-regarded Mobile Internet Trends presentation. From her 56 slides I extract this one:

2011 is the year when PCs will cede the market momentum lead to smartphones and tablets. The disparity between the old guard and the new Really Personal Computers become huge in 2012 and 2013.

This comes sooner than expected: Only four months ago, while she was still at Morgan Stanley, Meeker had this forecast:

The takeover wasn’t supposed to happen until 2012, but, as this review of Gartner and IDC numbers shows, the growth of mobile devices far outpaced the PC in 2010.

For Apple, the smartphone/tablet takeover happened even earlier. I just looked at the Q1 2010 numbers (for the September to December 2009 period):

And this was before the iPad.

For the same quarter this fiscal 2011 year, the iPhone and iPad brought in $15B vs. a “mere” $5.4B for the Macintosh line:

Let’s not forget the iPod Touch. It represents about 50% of the iPod’s $3.4B, with the total for all iOS devices representing 65% of Apple’s revenue. (I have no Apple TV numbers.)

This past year, the Mac business went down percentage-wise, from 28.4% of Apple’s total to 20.3% this past quarter, and operating margins are certain to be smaller than the almost obscene 60%+ Apple gets for its iPhone ($620 ASP against an estimated $180 BOM).

With these numbers, why bother with the Mac? Last October, Apple held a Back to the Mac event whose purpose was to answer that one question: Why bother?

In the first place, the Mac is a $22B business, #110 on the Fortune 500 list. Second, it’s growing nicely. See the numbers above: +23% in dollars (and 22% in units), with a stable ASP of $1313. That last number is the envy of the PC industry. Because of netbook sales, the industry-wide ASP hovers slightly above $530. (This is the net revenue to the manufacturer, not the retail price.) That’s why the largest PC maker, HP, makes only 5% in operating profit on their $10B quarterly sales. For HP, the Why Bother question applies. I’m curious to see what the new CEO, Leo Apotheker, will do about the low-margin commodity parts of HP’s lines of business.

Macintosh products, on the other hand, have avoided the ‘‘race to the bottomthat plagues  PC clones. The business is big, it’s growing faster than the rest of the industry, and it makes more money.

Then, last quarter, something changed:

Desktop unit sales were flat (-1%) while laptops took off (+37%). Compare this to the 2009 vs. 2010 units numbers in Apple’s 10-K (the yearly filing):

Back then, desktops were growing faster than laptops. So what happened last quarter? The answer appears to be the new MacBook Air.

To confirm this, let’s transport ourselves to a typical Apple Store. We’ll start in September 2010. The older MacBook Air is relegated to a low-traffic area of the store. It’s not “moving.”

Now look at the same store today. The Science of Shopping says the ‘‘high-value” area must be the first table on the left, because, statistically, that’s how we navigate stores. There we see six MacBook Airs: four 11” models and two 13” configurations.

Why the change?

The attractive price is part of the answer: The base 11” model sells for $999, low by Apple standards. But performance is the more important factor. The older generation Air was considered neat but sluggish. For the new machines, the slow hard drive was replaced with an SSD (Solid State Drive), and the word of mouth quickly spread: The new MacBook Air is fast! It boots up (and wakes up) quickly, plus it has a longer battery life, improved display… The former also-ran was transformed into a best-seller, especially the smaller 11” model (I’ll call it a neatbook in reference but not deference to Apple’s edict against using the n-word: netbook.)

Thinking of the Mac’s future, we don’t risk much when we assume SSDs will replace hard drives on laptops. Apple is on a drive to drive the drives out — at least in the mobile segment of the Mac line. (We’ll see how this manifests itself when the “Pro” configurations get refreshed later this year.) SSDs are still expensive but for how long? And how will Apple’s billions ($3.9B at last count) in advance purchase agreements with its suppliers impact prices?

We now move to the Mac App Store.

The Mac App Store was launched on January 6th and, but for a few bugs, appears to be a success. My first impression: Nice…it helps the small-scale developer who otherwise can’t get shelf space.

True, the App Store is a boon to developers — the creators of Pixelmator, a well-crafted, easy-to-use Photoshop subset, made one million dollars in revenue in three weeks. But that’s not the Store’s only — or even most important — benefit.

Let’s start with the convenience for the user. As with iTunes tracks and iOS apps, the Mac App Store circumvents the usual e-commerce obstacles. The site, the download, the payment system, the installation and updates…the workflow is smooth. No serial numbers, no DVDs, no waiting. And you can install the same applications on more than one machine by simply confirming your Apple ID, no further payment required.

And let’s talk price… Mac software prices are coming down. A sharp-tongued friend of mine “hopes” Adobe opens a 24/7 War Room. Why? “Because the market price for Mac software just got divided by three.” Nuance and exaggeration aside, he’s right. When Pixelmator was launched in the second half of 2007, it was priced at $59. Now, much improved, it sells for $29 on the App Store (albeit “for a limited time”) with a free upgrade to an upcoming 2.0 version.

Apple sells its own productivity apps (word processor, presentation, and spreadsheet) for $19.99 each. It’ll be interesting to see if, how, and when Microsoft or even Adobe use the App Store and how they’ll price their products.

Now, an IQ test. This…

…or this…

Both are available today. Which do your prefer? The $199 DVD (protected by a serial number) that you buy at the physical store and install on a single machine, or the $79 product you download and install as you see fit on any of your machines?

The difference in price is, of course, the main attraction, but freedom from serial numbers is also important. When I switched machines using the Migration Assistant, everything moved over without a hitch, files, applications, settings, even the desktop background…or so I thought. A few weeks later, I fired up Aperture and, unlike the rest of my applications — even Microsoft Office — it demanded a serial number. A foraging expedition produced the Aperture 3 DVD, but that didn’t placate the cerberus because that was an upgrade DVD. I needed to come up with the SN for Aperture 2. I erased the program and bought Serial Number Freedom — and legal multi-machine installs — for $79.

All of this leads one to wonder if Apple will rid its stores of “boxed” software, thus fulfilling another of their goals: fewer SKUs, a simpler store.

So, what’s the future for the Mac?

There’s the promise of “regularity,” apps that only use published APIs. This is both a controversial topic and a way for Apple to redeem past sins. Restricting hacks could mean less room for developer creativity, but it will also mean a more reliable system and, for Apple, more freedom to make changes “under” the applications once enough of them are “regularized.”

This takes us to a more speculative train of thought: Moving to the ARM architecture.

When you experience the 11” MacBook Air on a relatively slow 1.4 GHz Intel processor, you can’t help but wonder how it would feel on multi-core ARM hardware. Porting an OS to a new processor is no longer rocket science, but moving third-party applications is much harder — unless they’ve been distributed and regularized in such a way that makes the transition smooth and transparent.

Then we have the next OS X version, dubbed Lion. Last October, Steve Jobs emphasized the point that Lion’s simplified UI borrows the “magic” of the iPad. We’ll have to wait for the product, slated for a Summer ’11 launch, but that didn’t stop my friend Peter Yared, a serial entrepreneur and sharp blogger, to offer a suggestion: “Take that iPad-ified MacBook Air one step further. Look at the Toshiba Tablet PC; there’s a pivot inside the display’s hinge:

Twist the display and it becomes a tablet:

Imagine what Apple could do with this!”

As I was writing this note, I found Andy Ihnatko, a respected technology journalist, appears to be thinking closely related thoughts in this MacWorld piece.

I worry about the complications: OS + UI + mechanical challenges but…Apple might have the people and guts to pull it off. We’ll see.

End notes:

No MicroNokia kremlinology today. I’ll write about it in a few weeks, after the dust settles. In the meantime, you can look back at past Monday Notes such as last September’s Nokia’s New CEO: Challenges or last February’s Mobile World Clusterf#^k. And, of course, Elop’s Burning Platform memo, highly unusual in its brutal frankness.

As always, look for penetrating analysis on Horace Dediu’s Asymco. And for another type of “penetrating” commentary and BS detection, see Brian Hall’s The Smartphone Wars — they both rose to this week’s challenge.

Apple’s bet on publishing

Apple’s upcoming subscription plan is making large publishing companies hysterical. Rightfully so. Some of them built a complete business model for the iPad based on a commercial agreement that is now being revoked. Apple is not only changing the rules, but it does so in the worst possible way — in their usual cold My Way Or The Highway manner. But one of the most interesting aspects of the maddening change is the strategic thought behind Apple’s move.

Let’s rewind the tape.

When publishers began to create content applications for the iPhone and the iPad, they found the in-app purchase feature was the perfect monetization tool: one click on the “buy for $0.99″ button… another on “confirm”… Done. Simple, seamless, friction free. And a 30% cut for Apple’s content delivery and payments services.

Weirdly enough, breaking its well-known controlling habit, Apple left open the possibility for the publisher to sell subscriptions directly to the reader. From the app, the user who wanted to buy a subscription was redirected to the publisher’s website. There, bypassing the iTunes payment system, the publisher collected the required personal and billing data. This direct connection to the reader was so attractive it drove many publishers to build their own subscribers recruiting machine on it (some even take inspiration from wireless carriers and  subsidize iPads in exchange for a two years subscription).

In the treacherous transition to digital, retaining control over subscriptions is crucial. Magazines, whose historic readership is mostly based on subscriptions, insist on preserving this model in the digital world. To get an idea of the subscriber’s importance, consider the following: a newsweekly will spend $150-200 to recruit a print subscriber through tons of direct mail, gifts, special offers and incentives. For a yearlong subscription, all bonuses included, the per-copy price could go as low as 30 cents, while the newsstand price will be around $4.00 or $5.00. The explanation for the gap: advertising money, which represents the bulk of the industry’s revenue. A subscriber is, by definition, a regular consumer; it is part of a well-defined readership that won’t require a complex supply chain able to adjust the number of copies shipped to European airport kiosks or Chicago newsstands.

For daily newspapers, the equation is more complicated. With a few exceptions, their subscription base is not as strong as the magazines’s. This makes dailies more sensitive to copy sales fluctuations influenced by the news cycle, the look of a front page or even the weather. And, above all, the advertising market likes regularity. In the digital world, those who choose the paid-for model therefore want to gather as many subscriptions as possible. Forget the clever the single copy micropayment system, for digital publishers, subscriptions are the Holy Grail. A strong subscriber base will provide: a) a recurring revenue stream, b) a more attractive delivery medium for advertisers who like the subscription’s predictability and, c) cash “float” because subscription fees are paid upfront. In addition, the smartest publishers use CRM to increase the per-subscriber yield and sell ancillary products.

For publishers, regardless of price consideration, subscribers and their related data are critically important.

The bad news hardly came as a surprise to many of us who found strange that Apple allowed content providers to bypass its transaction system for the most promising part of their revenue stream. In the long run, how could Apple limit itself to its 30% cut on a $0.99 purchase, and leave a $100 or $150 yearly subscription unmolested? It was just a matter of time before Apple decided to plug this revenue leak. The grace period was probably the time needed to build a subscription system able to match the App Store’s global scale.

Apple could have acted nicely and notified publishers that, sometime in the first half of 2011, it intended to deploy a new version of its App Store along with its own subscription system — with the unpleasant effect of closing down the direct subscription loophole. Publishers would have bitched and moaned, but the parties would have negotiated a deal in which the Cupertino guys would have yielded one sixteenth of an inch to frustrated but resigned contents providers (come on guys… we all know it had to end that way). This is just a matter of balance of power. Apple will soon be a $100 bn/year company and the combined revenue of the US publishing industry both for magazine and dailies is less than $60bn.

No kid gloves in Apple’s secretive world. Three months ago, without explanation, Apple began withholding approval of new apps using the subscription loophole. Wondering publishers were left without answers.

Then came terse emails recalling the §11.1 of the App Store Review Guidelines :

11.2     Apps utilizing a system other than the In App Purchase API (IAP) to purchase content, functionality, or services in an app will be rejected

with the following the punch line :

For existing apps already on the App Store, we are providing a grace period to bring your app into compliance with this guideline. To ensure your app remains on the App Store, please submit an update that uses the In App Purchase API for purchasing content, by June 30, 2011.

Bam! Publishers, consider yourself “served” — as in subpoena, not service…

Needless to say, most media companies went ballistic. On this side of the Atlantic, anti-trust watchdogs have been called in. Last week, the French National Daily Publishers Association (SPQN) — encouraged by the Finance Minister Christine Lagarde(!) — said it will ask the Competition Authority to look into the matter. In Belgium, the Minister of Economy is prompting an inquiry into Apple’s possible breach of the law. The European Commission’s involvement is likely — and should not be overlooked by Apple.

Multiple lawsuits by antitrust bodies or trade associations could be seen as pointless: it will take years — in a market that moves at lightning speed — and it will burn huge sums in attorneys’ fees. On another hand, it could be a way to obtain better conditions in the App Store subscription system: a better rate than the usual 30% and, even more important, access to user data.

Frustrations aside, Apple’s move is not the end of the world. For the App Store, if Cupertino relinquishes control on a minimum of consumer data, the damage is bearable. As for pricing, a well-managed transaction platform with big volumes could cost as low as 15% of revenue, or less. If customers want the comfort and the ease of use of the App Store, fine. It would be foolish to ignore them. Simply, as a rule of good management, a premium platform should be reflected in the retail price: a subscription priced at $99 on the publisher’s platform should be set at $119 on the AppStore — this is similar to the situation where a MacBook is more expensive than a comparable Wintel laptop.

From a broader standpoint, Apple’s move could even result in an opportunity for publishers. Apple’s Apps system is fantastic for software or games, but not necessarily for content applications (see previous Monday Notes on the subject:  iPad publishing: time to switch to v2.0 , Rebooting Web Publishing Design , Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper” ). In fact, an HTML5 website, designed for the iPad and the iPhone could be a good solution: it could give access to any kind of store — proprietary or multi-titles such as a kiosk — in which publishers will retain control over every critical dial. For media store development, the technology is on the publisher’s side. Scores of vendors are about to propose one-click payments, from PayPal Mobile Express check-out to… cell phone carriers working on systems where users buy online and are charged on their mobile bill.

In other words, there is life outside Apple.

One of the most interesting questions is Apple’s underlying strategy. In a nutshell, Cupertino is betting on “many small” rather than on “few big ones”. Let me explain. Publishers, such as The New York Times, Condé Nast or Le Monde are good at managing subscribers; they purposely maintain sizable staffs and they want to replicate their know-how online. On the contrary, small publishers can’t come up with the resources required to go after subscribers. The new App Store is designed for them. Suppose a group of 15 good reporters, focusing their work on high value editorial. Monetizing their work is a headache. Now Apple comes and says:

“Guys: our full-feature App Store will take care of all your hassles. For a flat 30% fee of your sales made on iPhone and iPad (and maybe on Macs though the new Mac App Store), we take care of: content delivery, its referencing, the back-office, the payment system, and we wire the money to your bank account every month.  And, Hey!  If by any chance you want to sell ads within your app, we can do that too in return for a 40% fee. All you need to do is to focus of what you are good at –producing a sharp e-publication, whether it is a tech blog, or a nicely designed architecture magazine — and price it wisely (preferably low, forget about the physical newsstand). We take care of the rest. One more thing. Consider what we did with the iPod, the number of iPhone and iPad sold last year [see Jean-Louis' column below],  you get the picture: we are aiming at global domination for content delivery mobile devices.”

Say Apple makes this pitch to a respected blog making a mere ARPU of $2 per visitor and per year from ads. Will it resist?

Inside Apple’s numbers

On Monday last week we hear Steve Jobs is taking another medical leave of absence and, on Tuesday, we get a look at Apple’s numbers for Q1 2011 (which is actually the last quarter of 2010).

Brian Hall provides this crisp summary:

• Sales: $26.74 billion, up 70.5% year over year
• Profits: $6 billion, up 77.7%
• EPS: $6.43, up 75.2%
• iPhone: 16.24 million units, up 85.8%
• iPad: 7.33 million units, compared with Wall St. consensus of 6.15 million
• Mac: 4.13 million units, up 23%
• iPod: 19.45 million units, down 7.3%
• iPod touch: More than 50% of total iPod sales
• Gross margin: 38.5%, compared with guidance of 36%
• Revenue guidance for Q2: $22 billion
• EPS guidance for Q2: $4.90
• Gross margin guidance: 38.5%
• Apple stores: $12 million average revenue per store, up 69% from Q4
• Cash and marketable securities: $59.7 billion, up from $51 billion in Q4.

MacWorld put together a more detailed but still digestible review that includes a history of quarterly profits since 2007, as well as units and revenue numbers by product line. Very well done.

For the official word from the mother ship, we have Seeking Alpha’s transcript of the earnings call where Tim Cook, Apple’s COO, and Peter Oppenheimer, CFO, read prepared remarks and answer carefully choreographed questions from analysts.

And if you’re ready for some long form reading, we have SEC filings. For the quarter just ended, there’s the Form 10-Q (55 pages). For the entire fiscal year 2010 ending last September, Form 10-K (116 pages…).

You don’t have to read them all–or at all, it’s an acquired taste–but if you decide to indulge, take a moment to feast your legal eyes on the faux handwringing in the Risk Factors section (a.k.a CYA Central). Then head for the good stuff, the Management’s Discussion and Analysis section starting on page 28 in the 10-K, and page 20 in the 10-Q. Company execs use the MD&A to walk us through the key elements of the business.

From that sea of words and numbers, I’ll extract three trains of thoughts.

First, the significance of the iPad business.

14.8M iPads were shipped in just nine months. This in a previously marginalized or verticalized category: Tablets. By comparison, the first iPhone didn’t reach 10M until it was a year old.

Looking at quarterly iPad unit sales:

• 3.3M units for the launch quarter ending in June
• 4.3M for the following three months
• 7.3M units for the period just reported.

At last year’s D9 conference Steve Ballmer dismissed the iPad as “just another PC”. (This is standard Microsoft decorum. In 2007, he scoffed at the iPhone.) Well, then, if the iPad must be counted as a PC, it just captured 7% of the global PC market last quarter.

This explains why Acer and Asus, leading netbook makers, are rushing tablets to the market and why Lenovo, another PC titan, is starting a mobile division. All in all, 80 tablets were announced at CES a few weeks ago. The iPad is about to get some serious competition but, based on the 7.3 million units shipped last quarter, most forecasters feel confident in predicting 30 million iPads or more for the year.

Deloitte, the large accounting and consulting firm, now calls 2011 The Year Of The Tablet. They, and other market research firms, don’t agree with Ballmer. They put the iPad in a new category: Media tablets, and they see Apple’s share as somewhere between 87.5% (where do they find that .5%?) and 90% of the market. (I’m not sure the media tablet moniker will stick. These devices already let you do much more than “consume” media.)

Last quarter’s iPad revenue, $4.6B, is almost as large as the Mac’s $5.4B… and this is after only nine months while the Mac will soon be 27 years old. (For another Monday Note: the Mac business, growing by 22% last year, versus 14% for the entire PC industry, with a closer look at the MacBook Air’s impact, present and future.)

The 10-Q also gives us revenue-per-unit:

• $629 for each iPad
• $649 per iPhone

(Company execs quote ASPs of $600 and $625 in the call transcript but they’re probably excluding ancillary services and accessories.)

The iPad’s lower ASP may seem counterintuitive, but recall the iPad’s introduction last January when the $499 base price took everyone by surprise. Pre-launch speculation pegged it somewhere between $800 and $1,000. It felt like a turning point, it looked like Apple wanted to remove price as an excuse for not buying, that they wanted to occupy as much terrain as quickly as possible. And they did, with a barrage of ads that started soon after the launch and are still going on.

This was followed by two more aggressive price moves, the $99 Apple TV and, more important, the $999 MacBook Air.

Apple’s overall Gross Margin has declined from 39.4% last year to 38.5% last quarter, but that’s better than the 36% level the company had predicted in October. In other words, the more assertive prices seem to have worked: Revenue grew 70% year-to-year without harming profits, which grew by 77%.

(Again, we’ll leave the iPhone’s $649 ASP for another Monday Note, probably around the time of the Mobile World Congress, next month in Barcelona. If we are to believe Apple Insider, Apple has become the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer — by revenue. As Apple execs “neglected” to brag about beating the incumbent, we’ll wait for Nokia’s quarterly numbers coming out in a few days, January 27th.)

The second point: The Apple Stores.

In FY 2010, revenue across all Apple Stores was $9.8B. This is 15% of Apple’s total sales, with 317 stores open at the end of the reporting period, 44 more than the year before.

But I want to know the revenue per employee. Obligingly, the 10-K mentions 26,500 “full-time equivalent” employees by the end of FY 2010. A simple division yields $370K per employee. There were significantly fewer employees at the beginning of the year so we can safely assume a full-time employee brings in about $400K/year, a ratio that must be the envy of the entire retail industry.

While I’m at it, I also want to get an idea of the Gross Margin for Apple’s retail business. I have a French peasant view of the world: Forget the revenue numbers, its the Gross Margin that really matters, those are the dollars that feed you. We know the operating profit–the 10-K says it was $2.4B, 24%–but what about the Gross Margin?

It’s moderately complicated. If this isn’t your cup of numbers, please skip to the result.

We know Apple’s overall Gross Margin, 39.4% last year; we have numbers for indirect sales and retail, $55.4B and $9.8B respectively. How do we extract retail’s GM? We’re facing one linear equation with two unknowns: the GM for indirect (non-retail) sales and the GM for retail sales. Weighted by their respective sales volumes, they compound to the known 39.4% total Gross Margin number.

I use a simple trick: I assume two components for the retail GM. First I apply a “standard” retail discount. For this exercise, I use 30%. Once I’ve done that, the discounted number becomes of the same nature as indirect sales. The second margin component of the retail GM is therefore equal to the (unknown) indirect GM.
Having “fixed” one variable, the retail discount, we now have one linear equation with one unknown, the indirect Gross Margin, x:

Retail Sales * (30% + 70% * x) + Indirect Sales * x = Total Sales * 39.4%

or, with actual sales numbers, in billions:

9.8 * (30% + 70% * x) + 55.4 * x = 65.2 * 39.4%

Now, copy the line above and paste it into WolframAlpha:

and you’re done:

Isn’t this fun?

The result: 36.5% GM for Apple’s indirect $55.4B sales and, after compounding the assumed 30% retail discount, we arrive at an approximate 56% GM for Apple’s retail stores.
(No warranties expressed or implied.)

Thus, each Apple Store employee can dine on 56% of $400K. That’s $224K. Probably enough to pay salaries, rent and HVAC…and leave change for the shareholders.

That was last year. In the quarter just reported, Apple’s retail business grew 95% year-to-year to $3.9B. Using Apple’s historic seasonality (4xQ1 for the full year; 5xQ4 for the following year) we can project at least $16B for Apple retail in FY 2011.

That’s 16% of the $100B revenue number Apple could approach this year…

Much has been said about the Apple Store as a sterling example of everything that can go right in retail: record sales volume per square foot, traffic numbers, profitability, aesthetics (more at Apple’s architecture firm: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson), and customer service.

Most important, the Apple Store proves Apple’s ability to execute on a global scale.

Which leads me to my last point: The Silence of the Lambs. Wall Street Analysts.

If you go back to the earnings call transcript, there’s a conspicuous absence. There’s no mention of Steve Jobs.

The supposedly aggressive Wall Street analysts didn’t ask a single question about Steve’s medical leave of absence, its nature, duration, Apple’s contingency plans. How come?

The answer in a single word: Access.

A few years ago I asked a journalist friend about a sycophantically fellatious piece that a colleague of his had written for a respected business daily. The writer had followed a key software executive as he toured the company’s R&D offices around the world. In dulcet, reverent tones, the journalist reported how the missus dominicus spread the gospel, blessed projects, and occasionally, but rightfully, disciplined errant local chieftains.

‘How come?’, I asked. ‘This isn’t reporting, this is simply disgorging the party line!’

His response: ‘It’s all about access. This is a huge company that’s an important source of news, great fodder for the paper and its journos. It’s a quid pro quo. In order to get access to the top execs, to get the juicy tidbits, sometimes you have to strap the kneepads on…’

Before its earnings call, a company decides which analysts will be allowed to ask questions. The opportunity comes with an understanding. If you don’t do your part, your conference call line will never open again, you’ll have lost access.

And we can’t blame Apple: All companies do it. At least the ones that bestow enough prestige.

Nonetheless, I don’t buy the criticism of Apple’s decision to keep a tight lid on Jobs’ medical condition. In the first place, no less than ex-SEC commissioner Arthur Levitt believes Apple has met its legal disclosure obligations.

Further, Apple’s behavior is consistent. Critics might find it unpleasant, but they shouldn’t be surprised. Fault-finders would lead a happier and more productive life if they recognized that this is the way it was, is, and always will be.

Speaking of which, of modus operandi, one of Steve’s signal achievements is the management team and culture he’s installed since he took the reins in 1997 and engineered Apple 2.0. The vision, the panache, the demanding aesthetics, the (more than) occasional swish of his rhetoric rapier could obscure the fact that he’s built one of the best–perhaps the best–business machines this industry has ever seen, run by a uniquely competent and cohesive management team.

But yes, there is only one Steve. We all hope to see him soon on stage or driving around Palo Alto. (Don’t ask about the license plate.)

PS: Thanks to John Gruber, I found this advertising executive’s insightful homage to Jobs and Apple, saying things like:

‘Yeah, it’s just some metal, plastic and silicon. And, yes, Apple makes a lot of money. But those two observations miss completely the point of Apple. It’s about inspiration, hope and an embrace of the future and humanity’s place within it.’

The full text is here.


LimpingMe: Apple’s Cloudy Service.

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Friday morning, I stop at Il Fornaio to get my last caffeine fix of the morning. Once arrived at the office across the street, I realize I “lost” my iPad. Not to worry, I’ve done this before. Find My iPhone will tell me where it is. It worked a couple of months ago when I left an earlier 3G iPad at a California Street burger joint. When I came back, 10 mins later, the iPad was gone. I fired up the iPhone app and saw the lost puppy still was in neighborhood. I got in my car as I saw the iPad move South on El Camino Real, ending up around a Hobee’s restaurant. Going there and asking around got me nothing. I remotely locked the iPad, displayed a message asking to call me. No joy. I then wiped it, that is erased its contents from my iPhone. Only a consolation, but an important one.
Still, thanks to the presence of mind of an IT consultant who was asked to unlock an iPad “found in a bus”, I was reunited with my tablet a few weeks later.
Interestingly, Apple recently made Find My iPhone a free service. Before, you had to be a $99/year MobileMe subscriber. This is another confirmation of Apple’s business model focus, anything and everything in the service of the real margins engine: hardware.
Still on the positive side, Back to My Mac, another MobileMe service, was recently and discreetly improved: it now works through (most of) aggressively firewalled corporate networks. This makes Screen Sharing (an Apple VNC implementation) even more useful.

So, MobileMe works, right?

Let’s see, I must have forgotten this iPad on the counter as I picked up my latte. It’ll be just a minute, I’ll log on MobileMe and confirm its location. No such luck, the system doesn’t know me anymore. Breathe three times, slow down, this is just a typo. Nope.
Same on my iPhone. Foraging around, I notice the App Store update tells me something like my password is locked because of a security problem.
Sigh. I go back to my computer and click on the Lost Password link. I land on a page offering to email a link to a password update page to my alternate email address. Done. I answer questions, set up a new password, log out and back in to my Apple ID account. No problem, I’m recognized again.
But back to MobileMe, no joy. I’m still locked out.
Another path to the Apple ID password restoration page, answering more questions. Success. New password. Out and back in. Success.
But no, I’m still locked out of MobileMe and can’t locate my iPad.
I still get MobileMe mail. But not for long. When I try and change the password to the latest one, I’m out. And reverting to the old one doesn’t work either.

One could see this as a banal security incident. Perhaps someone tried to log into my account and tripped the alarm system. I ended up on the phone and on email with a competent and pleasant support person and, around dinner time, I was back in business with a fresh temp password, changed to a new one of mine and a new secret question this morning. What’s to complain about?

Unfortunately, many things.

Let’s start with iDisk. A great idea if you want to share and synchronize files between machines. In practice, things can turn mystifying as some but not all files stubbornly refuse to synch between computers. I went to Apple’s support pages on the matter for guidance and to related discussion forums for empathy and reassurance about my mental state. Those dives weren’t entirely comforting. I tried progressively aggressive remedies and ended up having to nuke the entire set up — after careful backups — and rebuild the connections. Today, things work nicely, but I no longer try to sync “the most recent version” of a file, the burns still hurt. I just store and retrieve as I move from one machine to another as I write pieces like this one.
Unnamed Apple friends roll their eyes and tell me to go Dropbox myself. Not the Drop Box in my Public folder but the very successful backup and syncing service. The company is well-financed, supported by noted philanthropists such as Accel and Sequoia.
Still on Cloud services, we have, not to be confused with the iWork suite for Macs and iPads. Not even a hobby. Contrary to the likes of Google Docs, Office Live and other Zohos, won’t let you edit documents online.

MobileMe other offerings involve photo galleries. They work nicely but expensively. For $200/year one gets MobileMe and 60Gb of storage. For $100/year, Google will get you 400Gb and the free Picasa/PicasaWeb combo, which also works nicely. Actually nicer as it accepts bigger uploads than MobileMe.
For Web sites, MobileMe can be combined with the free iWeb desktop application, they work really well. But iWeb was left behind in the latest iLife iteration, no update. And, contrary to Google, MobileMe won’t host your domain name.

iTunes is a terrific product. Without iTunes there would be no iPhone, no App Store, no Ratatouille on my iPhone. And yet, it gives us a glimpse of how disjointed Apple’s Cloud services are. From time to time, for no stated reason, I’m asked to reenter the security code on my credit card. A security precaution or a bug? Amazon asks once and my credentials are valid in the US as well as on, for example.
Not with MobileMe. This morning, after a full update of my Apple ID account, including the credit card security code, I’m asked again for it on iTunes when I re-synced my Apple TV which started by declaring my Mac wasn’t authorized. This got me a “This Mac is already authorized” message when I asked iTunes for the connection. Same trouble on my iPad when I updated an application. The new and improved password was accepted, but I had to state credit card security number again, for a free update, mind you.

Continuing to iCal. In the Mac, there is a Preference panel for MobileMe. You state your Apple ID, a or adress and your password. (It used to be you didn’t need the suffix, just the first part, luser rather than, but that was too simple, let’s leave it to Google to accept spj for OK, you might think you’re done, you’re authorized. But no, if you have a MobileMe account in iCal, it doesn’t work. Hello iCal account, it’s again and my password is moimême.

In the process of working with the Apple support person, I got another peek at how disjointed things appear to be in MobileMe. This individual explained that the new password validation process didn’t do anything. Yes my Apple ID account appear to work with the new password but, for unexplained reasons, the update didn’t propagate. I got a couple of emails to verify my information and was (no longer) surprised to see that the screen snapshot the support tech emailed me had obsolete information. I also fell into a Secret Question trap: Yes, you can design the question and the answer. But better make sure you remember everything down to the last detail. In particular, the answer recognition is case-sensitive: “boarding school” will get you locked out if the correct answer is “Boarding school”. Making progress in the obstacle course, I now have a simpler one word answer with an unforgettable capitalization.

MobileMe was launched in 2008, with a little bit of grandiosity: the new service was offered as Exchange For The Rest Of Us. That proclamation was quickly withdrawn. In August 2008, I wrote a less than laudatory Monday Note piece on the new service’s difficult beginnings. Sacrebleu! I shouldn’t have done that, such an infraction got me a robust personal attack from a Guardian of the Apple Faith who frequently posts on one of the dedicated Apple blogs. The individual, who otherwise produces very good, thoroughly researched pieces, applied his skills to a long litany of my misdeeds. That was good for my soul but didn’t do anything for the disquisition. So it goes: slam the man if you can’t take the argument apart.
In this vein, as an experiment, David Pogue, the NY Times tech expert, once wrote a two-part review of an Apple product, one laudatory, the other critical. You can guess what happened: rabid Apple fans latched on the negative half and labeled him anti-Apple; others, who object to Apple’s products or ways, focused on the positive half and accused him of having sold his soul to Apple. (See David’s piece here. A little tip of the hat to the NYT geeks, and to their bosses who didn’t get in the way: when you hit the Shift key twice on a NYT page, you see paragraph signs, like this ¶. A right click will get you the URL to that paragraph, as the relevant one on Pogue’s piece. Neat. Well… It doesn’t always work.)
Back to the MobileMe early days, Steve Jobs apologized to MobileMe users a bit later and extended their subscriptions.

Two and half years later, things are better, but MobileMe still looks disjointed, half-hearted, not very competitive. And certainly devoid of the flair and finish of most other Apple offerings.
When Steve returned to Apple, the difference between Mac 1.0 and Mac 2.0 was the team of computer scientists Jobs brought with him from Carnegie Mellon, Xerox Parc and Inria. They successfully remade the Mac OS into a modern operating system. Today, much engineering effort seems to go into securing the lead Apple got with iOS. Think hardware margins.
It would be a shame for Apple to leave its Cloud flank unguarded by not enforcing the high standards of OS X and iOS in its Cloud services.
Steve secured Apple’s independence from carriers for iTunes, the App Store and installed apps on its devices. A similar independence or preeminence in Cloud services is equally strategic.
Put another way, it’s a great opportunity.

We’ll review Google’s array, or disarray, of such products in a future Monday Note once the dust from this past week’s three announcements (books, Chrom Web Apps and Chrome OS) settles.

Mac App Store: Soon But Controversial

by Jean-Louis Gassée

This year, three wishes were on top of my list: A smaller, lighter MacBook, an app store for the Mac, and a curated iOS app store. I got two out of three. The 11” MacBook Air works quite well when the passenger in front of me fully reclines his seat; and Apple, following its own iOS example, did indeed launch a Mac App store. We’ll have to wait for curated help finding our way through the hundreds of thousands of apps for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches, but there’s always next year.

The Mac App Store, announced October 20th, is still in the Coming Soon state, likely to open its ports mid-to-late January 2011. Mac developers have been able to bring their offerings to Apple’s altar since the beginning of November and, last week, we got a new set of Mac App Store Review Guidelines (see the PDF here). No real surprise, and a nice conclusion I’ll quote in full:

Thank you for developing for Mac OS X. Even though this document is a formidable list of what not to do, please also keep in mind the much shorter list of what you must do. Above all else, join us in trying to surprise and delight users. Show them their world in innovative ways, and let them interact with it like never before. In our experience, users really respond to polish, both in functionality and user interface. Go the extra mile. Give them more than they expect. And take them places where they have never been before. We are ready to help.

Except for the tired “surprise and delight” marketing BS, it’s a crisp envoi, a sendoff to a fresh set of tasks and opportunities. And, as befits anything Apple does, the Mac App Store kicks up a new and improved set of arguments.

Unavoidably, we have the C-word heat: ‘Steve Jobs is a Control freak. After Closing the iPhone ecosystem, he wants to exert the same dictatorial control over the Mac. Yet another Walled Garden’. The following Fair and Balanced extract from the Wikipedia Mac App Store article lays it out:

The centralization of downloads in the Mac App Store have caused controversy among apple developers in the blogosphere. It has been criticized for creating a monopoly since users are encouraged to get their applications from one specific place. This creates a hard situation for programmers that might feel like they can’t afford to stay outside apple store. Apple also charges a fee for programmers to publish their applications in the store. In order to host an application a user need to give 30% of the applications sales price. This is way more than the 8% that software providers like Kagi, eSellerate, or FastSpring charges. The developers doesn’t only have to pay for selling their apps but also to develop them. Special tools are needed that can only be licensed from Apple. Developers have also criticized Apple for cutting their connections with the customers when App store is being used, since they have to follow Apples rules it’s impossible to use for example Shareware versions and control how updates are done.

This hasty, one-sided—and badly written—piece is a good illustration of Wikipedia’s limits. As a counter, I’ll hasten to point you to the much more complete App Store article. The latter exemplifies Wikipedia at its best: Wide, deep, accurate, filled with numbers and links to other sources.

The main beef against the Mac App store seems to be that it will hurt developers. In an extension of the iOS App Store authoritarian regime, developers will lose the freedom to sell their software as they please.

That’s simply unfounded, and counterproductive paranoia: Mac software will continue to be sold (and sellable) on shelves and on Web sites. But who gets to approach these venues? Small, independent app developers have a terrible time getting shelf space in retail stores. Making money by selling one’s wares on the Web isn’t an easy task either. See here a 1995 Dilbert strip that depicts the hard life of an application developer trying to raise VC money. Fifteen years later, having moved to The Dark Side, I can assure you VCs haven’t gotten more generous…unless you write code for the Apple or Google app stores. In 2008, Kleiner Perkins, the famed Sand Hill Road VC firm, launched a special $100M iFund dedicated to iPhone apps. Two years later, the iFund has doubled in size. Knowing we VCs aren’t non-profit charities, one has to assume we see the victims of app store monopolies making lots of money, of which we’ll get our customarily modest share.

When the Wikipedia piece professes to lament Apple’s 30% take, it shows a deep misunderstanding of the money one needs to sell application software on the Web. You must build and run a commercial site, and, if you’re too small to get a commercial Visa or PayPal account, you also pay a commission to Kagi and similar agents. Then you have to attract customers by spending advertising dollars and buying Google AdWords. That’s why Google’s rich and you’re not.

Microsoft can afford to get shelf and Web space for Office, but a small developer who’s written a neat text editor, or a Website design tool, or a small $10 UI-tweaking utility has a hard time making a living.

At least for today.

Tomorrow, just like with Android and Apple smartphones, the most expensive process will be writing the app, and the occasionally irritating part will be the review process.

Yes, there will be a loss of “freedom.” Today on Macs (and PCs) you can sell code that modifies the machine at any level. It can yield very useful results, or it can wreak havoc, there are (almost) no limits. Tomorrow, the Mac App Store will impose restrictions. Some will irritate, some will be acceptable. We’ve seen Apple back down from some of the more aggressive interpreter restrictions for iOS apps, for example. But your neat $10 utility will find customers, updates will be managed, payment processing won’t be a problem.

And there will be other beneficial effects. Most Mac applications install with a simple drag and drop to the Application folder or icon on the Dock. Uninstalling is equally simple: Drag the app to the Trash and you’re done…most of the time. I won’t name the apps that are, in my experience, the worst offenders but suffice it to say that they sprinkle my system with bits that are very hard to cleanly uninstall. And, just like in Windows, removing one application might maim another program from the same vendor because they both rely on the same module. This is likely to disappear over time as Mac users contrast and compare app installation and updating behaviors inside and outside the walled garden.

It’ll be interesting to watch how prices evolve, if they do. The iPad version of Pages, Apple’s Word processor, sells for a mere $9.99. On the Macintosh, Pages is part of the iWork suite which includes Numbers (a spreadsheet) and Keynote (Steve Jobs’ own presentation software) and sells for $79, or a Family Pack (5 licenses) for $99. Will those prices stand? Perhaps, especially if Apple wants to make room for Scrivener or DevonThink, to name but two examples.

And what about Microsoft? Today, Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 retail prices ranges from $149 to $279, depending upon the version and number of licenses (two for the priciest).

Do we think Microsoft gives less than 30% margin to the total wholesaler + retailer food chain? Of course not, the distribution network’s take is traditionally much higher, sometimes exceeding 50%. Which is to say even Microsoft will like the Mac App Store “strictures”. We’ll have to see how they whine if they’re rejected for infringing some arcane guideline…

This is a good moment to remind ourselves of Apple’s true nature and goals: Apple is a hardware company. For all the beautiful noises they make about software, they don’t care much about making money from it. Software is a means to an end: Hardware margins.

Microsoft puts a code on the Windows disk to protect its OS revenue. Have you seen a license number on an OS X disk? No, you can install it on as many machines as you like…Apple machines, that is. A multiple install from a “single” disk might be in breach of the formal licensing agreement, but unless you’re manufacturing Mac clones, I doubt Apple’s attorneys will be looking for you. (They seem to be very busy fighting patent wars.)

The “blogosphere controversy” blithely ignores the only source of money that matters: The paying customer. Does the new Mac App Store benefit the user? Easier everything: buying, installing, updating. On the iOS platform, there have been more than 7 billion downloads from a library of more than 300,000 apps. We’re probably not going to see such numbers on the Mac version. There are far fewer applications, a smaller installed base (in approximate quarterly numbers, think 3 million Macs versus 15 million iPhones), and alternate venues for selling applications. Nonetheless, even if the new app store has a more modest debut and subsequent growth, it’ll be a good vehicle for smaller developers who struggle with the inconvenience and cost of today’s channels. It might even have the effect of attracting new developers to the OS X platform.

A controversial idea indeed.

And as for Steve Jobs’ controlling manners, who’s complaining? Customers, shareholders?
Oppressed employees? See the Stockholm Syndrome at work below:

The iPadification of OS X – Part II

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Two weeks ago, I argued that iOS will evolve into the operating system for future incarnations of iMacs and MacBooks. The comments on the article provided abundant food for thought, so much so that I decided to argue the opposite point of view: Yes, OS X and iOS share some bits of DNA…but that’s irrelevant. No, iOS will not evolve into an OS X replacement for future iMacs and MacBooks.

The OS hairball is ugly enough as it is. Why try and merge two feature sets, two philosophies? More lines of code inside the OS. That’s what the world needs!

Take a look at this:

And now this:

Same company, but two very different views of personal computing.

Today’s Macintosh is the result of more than a quarter century of evolution, refinement, fixes, and additions. It’s highly functional but complicated, perhaps needlessly so. Ask most Mac users if they know what this Finder button is for:

Or ask about Exposé, Spaces, Stacks in Grid or Fan view… The first two are helpful for advanced users who work with a large number of documents and windows at the same time. As for the Grid and Fan, I’m not a fan, I think they add new modes without providing a payoff for the investment in learning.

Or try the joy of writing UNIX commands in a Terminal window:

defaults write showhidden -bool YES

defaults write QLEnableXRayFolders 1

Both are cute and harmless. The first causes the Dock icon of an app to become translucent when the app is hidden. The second adds a clever flourish to the Quick Look of a folder, letting you peek at the folder’s content through its semi-transparent cover.

See Mac OS X Tips for more such neat, well-crafted features that you can add and subtract almost ad infinitum—if you have the need or the lust. Or, depending on the type of user you are, the tips present a mind-boggling array of functions, buttons to click, keyboard shortcuts to memorize, uncountable ways of doing things that aren’t always coherent.

That said, Apple’s personal computers are doing just fine, Consumer Reports and others invariably rate them high, their market share grows year after year. One is tempted to resort to a post hoc ergo propter hoc justification: Adding features adds market share.

Looking at the iPad’s Home screen, we see the other extreme. Apple’s tablet is so “transparent” that most users, this geek included, forget that it doesn’t have a windowing system. Yes, it has a Dock, but there’s no Finder, no windows, no file system, no sidebar. Just icons, applications that launch and quit without delay. Downloading and installing applications is simple (although finding them isn’t always easy. I think the App Store needs curation and better discovery tools; see a past Monday Note on this very topic here).

We iPad users lead a simpler, cleaner life. Why would we want the bewilderment of a slower, more complicated OS? The answer is as old as mankind: Because we want to have it both ways. Intuitive and simple but loaded with features,  “optioned-out” says the car salesman.
We want both postures: Leaning back to watch NetFlix, and leaning forward to type these Monday Notes.

Today, that’s not really possible. Going back to the example I cited two weeks ago, adding a docking keyboard to an iPad creates awkward ergonomics. You have to lift your hand and reach out and touch the screen to move the insertion point in your text. So, then, can’t we have a Magic Trackpad next to the keyboard, or a keyboard with an integrated trackpad, like a laptop? For the time being, the answer is no. As discussed here, the iPad doesn’t “know” what a pointing device is, it doesn’t have cursor control. A hypothetical clamshell iPad, with a laptop-like folding keyboard and trackpad wouldn’t help. More

Apple’s Next Macintosh OS

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Operating systems don’t age well. Some have better genes than others or they have more competent caretakers, but sooner or later they are stricken by a cancer of bug fixes upon bug fixes, upgrades upon upgrades. I know, I lived inside two OS sausage factories, Apple and Be, and was closely associated with a third, PalmSource. I can recall the smell.
The main cause of OS cancer is backwards compatibility, the need to stay compatible with existing application software. OS designers are caught between yesterday and tomorrow. Customers want the benefit of the future, new features, hardware and software, but without having to jettison their investment in the past, in their applications.

OS architects dream of a pure rebirth, a pristine architecture born of their hard won knowledge without having to accommodate the sins of their fathers. But, in the morning—and in the market—the dream vanishes and backwards compatibility wins.

Enter the iPhone.

The iPhone OS, iOS, is a Macintosh OS X derivative…but without having to support Macintosh applications. Pared down to run on a smaller hardware platform, cleaned up to be more secure and tuned for a Touch UI, iOS is the dream without the ugly past. Tens of millions of iPhones, hundreds of thousands of applications, and billions of downloads later, this is a new morning without the hangover.

And now we have the iPad, another iOS device. (I’ll omit the newer Apple TV for the time being.) 8.5 million iPads were shipped by September, a mere six months after its introduction. The installed base will reach 14 to 15 million units by the end of this year.
To paraphrase the always modest Apple PR boilerplate phrase (“Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s …”) the iPad re-ignited the marginal tablet category.

After more than 30 years of stalled attempts, the tablet genre has finally gelled. We see a flurry of tablet announcements from Asus, HP, Samsung, Dell, Archos, and many others, using Windows 7, WebOS, and Android. Surprisingly, we have yet to hear a pundit declare 2011 ‘The Year of The Tablet’. It’ll come.

On the other hand… Apple held a Back to the Mac event at its Cupertino HQ last week. As the name implies, Apple wants to make it clear that it’s still committed to personal computers. (You can see the full keynote here…but that’s 90 minutes. A tongue-in-cheek, adjective-laden 104 second montage gets to the essence here.) The iPhone may generate half of Apple’s revenue, but the event reminded us that Macintosh desktops and laptops are a $20B/yr business—a business that’s growing faster than the rest of the PC industry. Apple made a point of showing how the iPad, after taking its genes from the Mac, was feeding DNA back to its progenitor by way of the Touch UI that will appear in the release dubbed “Lion”, OS X 10.7.

During the Back to the Mac presentation, two prayers of mine were answered: A Macintosh App Store and a smaller laptop. The App Store has received the expected “walled garden” critique, but having seen how difficult it is for small Mac software developers to get retail shelf space or to make money selling their wares on line, I like the idea. A few days ago, I downloaded a neat little utility to silence the startup sound on my new 11” MacBook Air. How much did the developer make? Zero, it’s freeware; the programmer didn’t want to spend the time and money to set up a commercial site. How much would I have paid for it from a Mac App Store? Less than $5, more than 99 cents.

As for the 11” MacBook Air, Walt Mossberg, WSJ’s tech guru, penned an insightful review that’s neatly summed up in its title: “MacBook Air Has the Feel Of an iPad In a Laptop”.

So: A clean, fresh iOS; we’re not abandoning the Mac…What are we to make of these competing messages? My theory:

  • Today’s PC operating systems have advanced cancer
  • Personal computers as we know them are here to stay
  • Apple will move to something like an iOS Macintosh

Easier said than done. Steve Jobs remembers well the trouble Apple had getting apps for the first Macintosh, the painful failures of Lotus Jazz, the lame Mac software from Software Publishing Corp., creator of the best-selling PFS: series for the Apple ][. Ironically, some of the best software came from Microsoft—the word frenemy hadn’t been coined yet but retroactively fits. So, just like the iPhone App Store made the iPhone, the Macintosh needs a marketplace, an agora in preparation for the transition.

But a transition to what?

An evolution of the iPad? Certainly not something I saw at Il Fornaio, one of the local Valley watering holes. There, a very serious woman had her iPad standing on the official Apple keyboard dock, writing and, from time to time, raising her hand and touching something on the screen. As Jobs pointed out in the keynote above, it’s an ergonomic no-no.
Now, turn to the laptop. As one of my colleagues says: “It’s dark inside the box.” It’s what the machine does that matters, not what’s inside. Indeed. Imagine a port of OS X on an ARM, or A4, or AX processor, or even a Loongson CPU for that matter. If the right applications have been ported or adapted or, even better, created de novo for the platform —and made available through the App Store—would we object?

But, you’ll argue, “Aren’t these processors much less powerful than Intel’s?” Ask an iPad user: The machine feels swift and fluid, much more than a conventional PC.

Yes, there are no heavy-duty apps such as Photoshop or AutoCAD for the iPad. (AutoDesk publishes an AutoCAD companion app for the iPad and the iPhone.), but who knows? Adobe might be tempted to do for Photoshop what Apple has done for its OS: Scrap the past and build a modern Photoshop that’s written from the ground up.
Intel processors suffer the same type of cancer that afflicts operating systems. Their instruction sets and, therefore, their hardware, power consumption, and cost are beset by the tortuous need to stay compatible with existing code while offering an endless procession of new features. Intel has tried a fresh approach at least three times: the iPAX 32 in the early 80s, the Itanium (promptly renamed Itanic, a political compromise hammered out to keep HP’s PA architecture out of contention), and a brief fling with ARM called the XScale. Each time, the company (or the market) decided backwards compatibility was the way to go. Intel’s position is transparent: They believe that the might of their technology and manufacturing will bulldoze the cost and power consumption obstacles of the x86 architecture.

(We’ll note in passing that there is no Wintel in smartphones. For its Really Personal Computers, for its Windows Phone 7 devices, Microsoft is all ARM.)

Compare the bulldozer approach to what Apple did when it designed the A4, the “dark inside” of the iPad. Apple’s next Mac processor could be a multicore (or multi-chip) ARM derivative. And the company has proven time and again that it knows how to port software, and its support of the Open Source LLVM and Clang projects give it additional hardware independence. We all know the Apple Way: Integration. From bare metal to the flesh, from the processor to the Apple Store. Hardware, OS, applications, distribution… Apple knows how to control its own destiny.

Tomorrow’s MacBook Air might have even more of the “Feel of an iPad in a Laptop” that Walt Mossberg detected. The tablet and the laptop could run on the same “dark insides”, with the same software, and the same Touch UI interface. And, for a desktop machine, an iMac successor, we already have the Magic Trackpad for touch input.

(IMCO, the current Trackpad doesn’t feel magical enough: on the two devices I own, the touch input isn’t as reliable, pleasant and “second nature” as it is with existing mice or a laptop trackpads. I gave up after two weeks. I’m not the only one with that view, I’ve asked. And the local Apple Store doesn’t push appear eager to push the device either.)

All this doesn’t mean the x86-based Macs would disappear overnight: high-end Mac Pros, for example, might continue for a while as they do today for applications such as Logic Studio or Final Cut.

If this sounds farfetched, one question and an observation.

The question: Would you bet the longer term future of your $20B Mac business on an endless series of painfully debugged x86-based OS X incremental releases? Or would you rather find a way to move that franchise to a fresh hardware/software platform fully under your control?

The observation: Last week, the other Steve, Ballmer, was on stage at the Gartner Symposium. There, he was asked about Microsoft’s “biggest gamble”. Without missing a beat, as this forceful public speaker never does, he answered: “The next revision of Windows.” Not Windows Phone 7, not the Kinect game device, all near and dear to his heart, but Windows 8. (See here and here.)

He, too, is thinking about the future of the PC business.

PS: As I edited this note, I found this TechCrunch post dealing with the same iPad-Mac convergence.

Science Fiction: An Apple-Curated App Store

In an alternate universe, Apple has announced the App Store Guide and Blog. Choice morsels from the PR material follow.

“We came to realize that a quarter million apps meant worse than nothing to Apple users”, said Apple’s CEO. “I get confused too! Reviews are often fake, lame, or downright incompetent. PR firms have been caught astroturfing reviews, publishers have resorted to flooding the App Store with shameful clones of successful applications. I won’t let one of Apple’s most important, most imitated innovations sink into anomie.”

[Remember, this is sci-fi.]

“So…Today we’re proud to introduce the Real App Store Guide, written and maintained by Apple experts. We’ll review new and existing iOS apps. We’ll tell you which ones we grok (and that grok us) and give you the straight dope on the offerings you shouldn’t touch, even if they’re free. In our Guide, you’ll find a series of paths: For the Traveler, the Gamer, the Music Lover, the Graphic Artist, the Oppressed Enterprise Windows User, Teachers, Parents, Doctors… The Guide will also feature a blog, a running commentary on the iOS App landscape with intelligent answers to cogent questions. And in keeping with our usual standards for decorum and IQ, the blog will be moderated…”

And so it is, the App Store is fully curated, at long last.

As always, this doesn’t please everyone…at least on the surface. In reality, the usual naysayers are thrilled: More pageviews! Ryan Tate jumps on the opportunity and frenetically fires at Steve Jobs’ inbox, trying to start another late night email séance. But this time the Emailer In Chief doesn’t bite.

Customers, on the other hand, like the Real App Store Guide. Users can finally find their way through the twisted and confusing maze of programs. They learn to adjust for a particular writer’s opinions, much as we’ve all learned to compensate for the biases of, say, movie reviewers. The blog gives civilians a forum where they can argue (politely) with the named authors of the reviews—there’s no anonymous corpospeak here.

App authors…some of them aren’t so keen on the idea. The ones that get tepid reviews are understandably furious and threaten lawsuits (in vain…their attorneys are told to re-read the App Store T&Cs). With a modicum of care with words, that’s what the Guide’s editors are for: Safe negative opinions. More

Thus spake Steve Jobs: The PC isn’t dead yet

Daniel Lyons, the Newsweek tech writer notorious for his Fake Steve Jobs blog, penned an epistolary piece last week (R.I.P., Macintosh) in which he asks and answers the question: “Is Apple ignoring its signature line of computers and laptops? Yup.”

The columnist claims that with the iPhone and the iPad as the Dear Leader’s new pets, Steve Jobs has kicked the Mac to the curb (or kerb for our British readers). Lyons backs his claim with the following evidence: Apple’s 2010 WWDC was focused on the iPhone OS only; there were no Best Applications awards for the Mac, only for iPhone/iPad apps; and, drum roll, the iPhone OS was renamed iOS (the name is licensed from Cisco, just as the iPhone moniker was).

Lyons may be onto something, but in his desperate quest for page views at Newsweek (itself kicked to the curb by its soon former owner, the Washington Post Company) our columnist has yielded to the crass motives and hyperbole he loves to lampoon.

Yes, Steve Jobs said the PC (including the Mac) isn’t “the future”, but he didn’t go on to euthanize it.

Let’s go back to the evening of June 1st, 2010. We’re at the D8 conference discussed here last week. Steve Jobs is interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher; you can find the entire 95-minute video here.
(Sorry, iPad users, it’s Flash…but, wait…nevermind. Although the interview shows up as Flash on my antique personal computer, when I watch it on my iPad, behold!, the site detects the iPad client and spews an H.264 video stream. We can take this as a sign that the WSJ doesn’t want to miss the advertising revenue of 100 million iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad devices out there, and as a preview of what other sites will do, as well. And perhaps it’s a problem with my old desktop machine or older eyes, but the video look better on the iPad than it does on my PC.)

I’m watching the video as I write this. It completes and, in places, corrects my recollection of the event. Whatever one thinks of Steve Jobs—and the video won’t change many minds—the conversation contains a number of gems, such as Steve’s pithy view of the enterprise market (between 28:30 and 29:15), his take on the Adobe controversy, his pronouncement of carriers as “orifices” (that was a few years ago, recalled by Walt for laughs), the importance of editorial functions (Jobs doesn’t want us to “descend into a nation of bloggers”), how he looks at his job (around 59:00), and more. I know an hour and a half is a lot, but pay attention to what’s said and not said and, just as important, the face and body language.
The bit about the future of the PC comes between minutes 45 and 51. There, Apple’s CEO lays out his vision of the post-PC era in a string of very carefully weighed statements, interspersed with personal insights into the changes in user interaction brought about by the new very personal devices.

As Apple unties the software platform from the iPhone, one can imagine a number of iOS-powered devices in its future. Apple won’t necessarily follow HP’s example, but the latter has made it clear that they’ll use the newly-acquired Palm WebOS in devices such as printers. This is a high volume business, one where the traditional embedded software is user-hostile. Just imagine a Palm Pre screen grafted onto a printer. More

Very Personal Computing

The center of financial gravity in the computing world—the Center of Money—has shifted. No longer directed at the PC, the money pump now gushes full blast at the smartphones market. One of my colleagues, Bob Ackerman, calls smartphones the very personal computers. Measured by size and potential, they’re both smaller and bigger than today’s PCs.

The Math

Consider the numbers: HP, the world’s foremost PC maker, sold $10B of “Personal Systems” in its last reported quarter:

(turn “on” display image in your mail reader
to see the graphics)

Despite their premier position, HP isn’t making much PC money: $500M, 5% Operating Profit. (The full HP Q1 report in PDF can be found here.)

Now let’s turn to Apple’s most recent quarter. Smartphones constituted 40% of the company’s revenue:

When we add up the numbers, we see that the iPhone = Mac + iPods. And this rough calculation “misunderestimates” the weight of the iPhone OS. In the more mature iPod category, the iPod Touch (the iPhone without a phone) grew by 63% year-to-year according to Apple COO Tim Cook in the most recent earnings conference call. (Full Q2 2010 SEC filing available here.) More