What OS X Yosemite says about the future of the PC

Summary:If a lot of what Apple announced at this week's WWDC seems familiar, that shouldn't be a surprise. Increasingly, the owners of big computing platforms are building features designed for a multi-device world. And in that world, PCs and Macs are no longer at the top of the food chain.

Apple's WWDC keynote today included a cornucopia of feature unveilings, mixed with a few dollops of tech-industry trash-talking and the occasional brag.

As I watched Tim Cook and company lay out their roadmap for the next releases of OS X and iOS, one slide struck me as especially meaningful.

Cook bragged a bit about the last year for the Mac product line and then threw in this update for the 6,000 or so developers in the room.

mac-installed-base

If an Apple watcher from 1998 could have jumped into a time machine and ridden into 2014 to see this presentation, that number would be downright breathtaking. A total of 80 million Macs in use would have seemed like an impossible dream at the turn of the century. But today, it's vaguely disappointing.

Consider the other numbers Cook tossed out:

  • 200 million iPads sold in the past four years
  • 500 million iPhones sold in less than seven years

For two products that are mere pups compared to the 30-year-old Mac, those are big numbers. Collectively, they outnumber the entire installed base of Macs by nearly an order of magnitude.

To put that 80 million units in perspective, that's equal to the installed base of Windows Phones today. You know, the scrappy little mobile platform that's clawing its way into a distant (some would say hopeless) third place behind iOS and Android?

Apparently, third-party developers are perfectly happy to develop for a platform with an installed base of 80 million. Especially when the average selling price of those devices is $1,334, as it was in Apple's most recent quarterly SEC filing, and when most of those sales are going to wealthy professionals in North America.

CNET: WWDC 2014 full coverage

The PC industry, collectively, sells as many units in one week as Apple sells in an entire quarter. On the other hand, Apple's quarterly iPad sales represent four times the volume of its Mac division, at an average selling price of $465 per unit.

Given those numbers, it's no wonder that many of the new features Apple announced for OS X Yosemite, due this fall, aren't PC features at all but are designed to make those Macs work better with Apple's mobile devices—like the ability to send and receive phone calls and messages on a Mac connected to an iPhone.

I watched the entire presentation with interest. The cornball jokes onstage were occasionally over the top, but it's clear that Apple has been working hard to make the experience of using its products better, especially for the super-valuable customers who have gone all-in with Cupertino's offerings.

It's also clear that the Mac is no longer top dog in Cupertino; the iPad is the alpha device these days.

That's strangely at odds with the economics on the Windows side. Even in a down year, the total number of Windows PCs sold worldwide will be around 300 million, according to the latest figures from IDC. And the installed base of all PCs, Windows and Mac, is somewhere north of 1.2 billion.

In all, Macs represent roughly 7% of all PCs in use worldwide today, although you wouldn't know that if you took your census in the press section at WWDC.

A few takeaways from today's keynote:

1. The PC (Mac included) is no longer first among equals.

These days, tablets and smartphones have replaced PCs as the primary tool for the masses. PCs (including Macs) have become specialized tools for professionals, which is why most reporters at the WWDC were using MacBooks, not iPads.

But the PC is no longer the primary device in many households and offices, where tablets have taken over as the go-to device and the PC sits off in the corner. For many, the PC has become the device you use only when you absolutely have to: when you really need a keyboard and mouse, or when some web site that runs on Flash or Java rears its ugly head.

With the Surface Pro, Microsoft is trying to carve out its own share of that premium market, the one with average selling prices of $1300+. But most of those hundreds of millions of PCs sold every year fall well short of that target price. 

2. Apple is cozying up to Microsoft in the cloud.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a critique of Apple's cloud strategy . Today's announcements directly address most of the concerns I laid out in that post. The new iCloud Drive includes options to store and sync up to 1 TB of personal files at very aggressive pricing. But something is a little off about Apple's tagline. Can you spot what's missing?

icloud-any-device-v2

"Any kind of file. On all your devices." Except Android, that is, which is mysteriously missing from the listing shown here.

Apple and Microsoft have carved out a cool detente on the cloud, with Apple promising to ship an iCloud Drive synchronization client for Windows and Microsoft already shipping OneDrive and Office clients for Apple's platforms. But your Samsung smartphone or Nexus tablet? Sorry, not supported.

3. Continuous computing is the future.

I was delighted to see Apple's focus on making its devices work together in continuous fashion. As you move from iPhone to iPad to Mac, you can continue working on the same document. I'm not the only observer who expressed skepticism over how well this feature will work--Apple has a long and checkered history of overpromisng and underdelivering in this space.

But it's the right direction, for sure. The killer feature of Windows 8.x, as far as I'm concerned, is that effortless synchronization capability, with bookmarks and browser settings and logins and documents and Wi-Fi credentials and app preferences all roaming more or less effortlessly between Windows devices. Apple's approach is more amibitious; it's also more limited, given that it depends on the customer owning a top-to-bottom stack of Apple-branded gear.

Apple competitors, please feel free to build your own version of this continuous computing capability. We'll all thank you for it, and you probably don't have to worry about being sued for infringing patents.

4. Software is dead. Long live apps.

One of the biggest new features announced today for iPad developers is the ability to tie apps together with extensions that will allow communication and data sharing between third-party apps. It's another feature borrowed, smartly, from Windows 8.x, which has supported app contracts and extensions since Day 1.

Increasingly, the desktop software industry is turning into an exclusive playground where a handful of players can compete and where, sadly, malware and crapware are king. Apps, sold through stores and sandboxed in operation, are safer for buyers and easier (if not more lucrative) for developers. The more powerful they get, the sooner we can reduce the anarchic desktop software industry to a niche for content creators and IT pros.

We can argue endlessly over the difference between post-PC and post-post-post-PC computing. But at the end of that unsettled argument you'll find a couple of facts: PCs still have a place, even if it's no longer at the center of the universe. And increasingly the differences between platforms are being reduced to subtleties as each platform owner incorporates features (like cloud storage and document creation) that used to be the province of separate apps.

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple, Microsoft

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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