Apple to revive the Macbook, as iPad falters and IBM launches biggest Mac rollout ever

Apple is preparing to re-energize the Mac, and it has a surprising new ally in IBM. But Microsoft has a trick up its sleeve this week, too.

apple-mac-hello-again-oct-2016.jpg

This artwork Apple used to tease its Oct. 27 event harkens back to the original Mac and the launch of the iMac.

Image: Apple

Apple's computers -- the trucks of the technology world as Steve Jobs once characterized them --took center stage on Thursday, when Apple unveiled its latest Macs. The company has been infatuated with the iPhone and the iPad for the past several years, while the Mac has been friend-zoned.

But, with the iPad in a prolonged slump and iPhone sales stagnating, it makes perfect sense that it's time for Apple to shore up the Mac. It also doesn't hurt that IBM is offering a high-profile assist in the corporate market, where the Mac has only single-digit market share and enterprise deployments could turn the Mac into a growth business again.

IBM recently reported that it's rolling out Macs to its employees at a rate of 1,300 per week. It's part of a program that IBM started in early 2015, when it began offering Macs as an option to its 400,000 workers. The initial goal was to deploy 50,000 Macs to willing participants. A year and a half later, over 90,000 Macs have been deployed, and IBM's Fletcher Previn says the company will cross 100,000 by the end of 2016 -- making it the world's largest Mac deployment.

At the Jamf conference last week, Previn said 73 percent of IBM employees now want their next computer to be a Mac. IBM is happy to accommodate, because the company has found that Macs cost the company less to maintain. Last year at the conference, IBM said Macs were saving the company $270 per user. This year, it upped that number to $273 to $543 (depending on the model) per user over four years. Previn said PCs generate twice as many support calls and cost 3X in total. "And this reflects the best pricing we've ever gotten from Microsoft," he said.

The whole situation is pretty surreal for those who know the history of the technology industry, since it was IBM that outflanked Apple in the personal computer race of the 1980s by stealing away the corporate PC market and leaving Apple with a much smaller niche among creative professionals, schools, and cultural contrarians.

Today, moves like IBM's massive deployment are helping inspire Apple to reinvest in the Mac, after focusing most of its recent attention on iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Despite Apple's focus on its iOS devices in recent years, multiple reports (like this one and this one) have suggested that Macs have been making steady inroads in businesses.

SEE: Apple in the Enterprise: A Strategic Guide (A ZDNet/TechRepublic Special Report)

Apple hoped to shift some Mac users over to tablets with the launch the iPad Pro, but while it's seen respectable sales, it hasn't succeeded in converting lots of professionals from Macs (or Windows PCs) to iPads. And overall, the iPad Pro hasn't been able to stem the iPad's long decline in sales.

For Apple's fiscal Q3 2016 that ended in June, iPad sales fell below 10 million units for the first time in 20 quarters (Q3 2011). This was the lowest ebb in a three-year slide from a high of 26 million iPads sold in Q1 2014 (which ended December 2013).

Meanwhile, Mac unit sales hit an all-time high in Apple's fiscal Q4 2015 (August to September 2015), but they have lagged the last three quarters as Apple delayed in updating its Macbook Pro and Mac Pro lines. Its new MacBook line, which replaced the popular MacBook Air laptops, has also seen muted interest -- despite its impressive design -- mostly because it only has a single USB-C port. It also hasn't helped that users have been confused by Apple still selling older MacBook Air models alongside the new MacBook.

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Image: Statistica

Apple will clean up the product line with the new MacBook and MacBook Pro models that are expected to launch on Thursday. We're not expecting new iMac and Mac Pro desktops yet. The big question will be whether the new attention to the Mac is a temporary move to shore up a part of its business, or if Apple sees moves like IBM's big rollout as a signal that it can look to the Mac for growth if it reinvests in building better computers.

Of course, that means swimming upstream, since the worldwide PC market continues to slide. While the US market -- where Apple is strongest -- has shown signs of life, most of Apple's growth would have to come in the enterprise, and it would have to come by taking market share from Windows-based PCs. And, don't forget that Microsoft is holding its fall hardware event on Oct. 26, which is the day before Apple's confab, and we're expecting the launch of a Surface all-in-one PC (to compete with the iMac) and other new Microsoft-branded devices.

For the truckers of the technology world, this is a big week.

ZDNet Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

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