Apple's Mac future resides in the cloud

Regardless of what new systems are announced this week, there is only one way forward for the Macintosh platform.

Image: ZDNet

Absence makes the mind speculate. At least, that's the case for industry observers waiting to see what happens with Apple's overall Mac strategy this week.

My ZDNet colleague, David Gewirtz, believes that Apple's lack of innovation in Mac product releases over the last several years seems to indicate that the platform is running out of steam -- that effectively, the company has "given up" and has ceded mobile PC computing to its competitors, namely Microsoft.

I think "given up" is a bit too strong of a descriptor. I think the correct term is closer to "transitioning away from".

Apple has, since the rise of the iPhone and the iPad and the App Store ecosystem, been deriving most of its income from mobile device products, not Macs.

See also: Apple accidentally leaks MacBook Pro with OLED toolbar, Touch ID

From a pure revenue generation perspective, the Mac has been a relative figurehead of an appreciative but dwindling customer base. Sure, it's a business that is worth billions of dollars, but in comparison to everything else the company does, it's 11 percent of the overall revenue, which is roughly $25 billion out of a $233 billion total, according to Apple's last 10-K filing with the SEC.

Yes, it's a business worth maintaining. But is it a business worth expanding on and putting substantial development efforts into? No. Small, iterative changes have been made to macOS over the last several years, not major ones. All the important OS development has gone into iOS.

Seeing what kind of hardware improvements and industrial design changes are introduced into the Mac line this week should give us a strong indication of what the company thinks about the platform going forward.

My bet is on consolidation -- elimination of certain product lines, emphasis on lowering the number of Mac SKUs, with a few design changes thrown in. Nothing drastic.

This is not to say the Mac platform doesn't have value or will be left to wither on the vine. There's a certain niche crowd of content creation professionals that do a lot of work on them.

Apple's main enterprise business partner, IBM, has deployed over 90,000 Macs in its ranks. That makes it something of an enigma in the Fortune 500, but IBM is a very unique and extremely innovative company with a lot of brilliant people doing some amazing stuff.

I know, because I worked there for five years.

IBM's main workflow, document sharing and messaging business application is IBM Notes/Sametime, rather than Microsoft Exchange/SharePoint/Skype for Business.

Many of its homegrown internal apps, including Notes itself, are written in J2EE and other highly portable Open Source stacks. Not .Net or any of the other (legacy) Microsoft tool sets.

IBM also has its own systems management suites, its own public cloud, its own data platform, and all the other things that would be needed to replace the Windows/Microsoft stack.

Well, most other things. Working on and handing over service delivery products to clients in Open Document format with Lotus Symphony rather than Office 365 was easier said than done. I have no idea what IBM actually uses now.

When I worked there through 2012, I ran all that stuff on Red Hat Linux, which was the platform of choice for services delivery personnel at GTS for doing secure work for our most important clients. Porting that J2EE stuff to Mac is fairly academic.

However all that stuff is a massive resource hog, and you do need a pretty hefty machine to run it all. I remember Notes alone would suck up my entire 4GB of memory on my company-issued ThinkPad, and I had to shut it down to get any other work done. If you had a 2GB machine, woe be you.

IBM is proof that the Mac can be used as an enterprise desktop computing platform -- if you're IBM. Good luck if you're the rest of Corporate America.

So, other than the vast Big Blue cube farms of Armonk, is the Mac a dying platform? Yes. And no.

By virtue of the fact that macOS is currently the primary development platform for iOS means that the Mac has to stick around for at least a while. So, the real question is: How long a while?

If Apple were to transition to something else -- such as an ARM-based computing platform similar to what the iPad and iPhone uses -- a bunch of things would need to happen.

Four years ago, I postulated on what those things might be. Some of this has already come to fruition: the "Hurricane" core used in the A10 SoC is definitely fast enough to run Mac workloads in 2016, especially if Apple were to mint chips that had four or more such cores in them.

Cross-compiling apps on the Mac App Store to run on such a theoretical machine would be relatively simple. It is well within Apple's technical capability to make such a machine now, one that could run native iOS and re-compiled Mac apps.

There are technical as well as other benefits as to why this can and should be done. I don't think we will see a computer like this rolled out this week, though.

I do think Apple has undergone this OS-porting process and has developed much larger scale A-series chips. But not for productizing in the immediate future -- not in the way we conventionally think about end-user devices, anyway.

Let's bring IBM back into the equation. Apple and Armonk are in a long-term relationship that brings in IBM's expertise in software development, as well as datacenters, and a host of other things that are only known between the two.

But we know what IBM has been historically good at, so let's assume it can bring all its talents to bear to this partnership. That includes microprocessor design, supercomputing, artificial intelligence and big data, natural language query systems, the whole ball of wax.

It is in Apple's interest to assert total control of the development stack and associated hardware DNA. Right now, the Intel-based macOS is still something of a liability.

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Releasing ARM-Macs into the wild would just extend that liability to the ARM platform. Eventually, there will be open platform systems running on ARM that could also be "Hackintoshed". You can bet on China for that.

To prevent something like this from happening, it makes sense for all future software development for iOS to occur in the cloud.

Whose cloud? Well, IBM's Cloud. And Big Blue has more vacant datacenter space spread across the world than it knows what to do with. Apple is certainly not going to trust that to a competitor. Not even Amazon.

Moving to a cloud-centered development approach benefits not just Apple and IBM, but also the developers. It means you can minimize your hardware investment in Macs -- buying less powerful devices since the cloud is doing all the heavy lifting -- and open up the potential for iPad Pros being used as developer systems, since effectively it would be a thin client.

From a provisioning and dev/test perspective, using cloud resources to do iOS development, compiling, version control, load testing, all of those things is a developer's dream. The cloud also adds many other services and resources that local Mac systems and small developer shops would not normally have at their disposal.

It also opens up the potential for new iOS developers who never owned Macs in the first place -- or in markets where obtaining Macs or even powerful enough PCs is difficult or too expensive.

So, is the Mac going away? Not today. But it becomes far less necessary for Cupertino to keep it alive going forward as the industry moves into more of a cloud-centric future.

Is the Mac's future in the clouds? Talk Back and Let Me Know.


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