What OS X Yosemite says about the future of the PC

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.


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?


"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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Short take: Steve Jobs Post PC world w/ mobile apps & devices dominating

    while a single PC "box" forms the digital hub (for an individual or family) is being proved a correct vision for the future. Even the new MS Surface Pro 3 was presented as a mobile "tablet" and NOT as a desk bound PC. (Docking stations might be a minor option for owners of this device, IMO, expecially priced at $200.00 for this accessory.)

    It takes a visionary to see the future and Apple was blessed with Steve Jobs. (And, some might argue cursed as well.)

    However, be that as it may, the WWDC keynote was impressive with new, borrowed and improved OS concepts that will form the foundation of the Apple ecosystem for quite sometime.
    • We're not 100% there yet...

      I still use my PC, primarily for gaming. My wife uses her iPad for almost everything, but eventually gets frustrated with some of the limitations of the iPad, browsers specifically, and has to turn on her PC, granted its a once a week function.

      Being an IT professional, I hate being tied down and locked out, so I have 2 windows tablets, a Venue Pro 8 and a Lenovo Helix. Even with her iPad and PC, the wife will bogart one of those two in order to get on a full version of Chrome to fill out some online form or browse some webpage that isn't working for her on the iPad.

      We are close, but not 100% to the point to where the average user no longer needs a PC. Instead it has been regulated for the average user to a specialty household appliance. Brought out when needed, like a blender or food processor. You don't use it every day, but when you need it, its there.
      • I thought it was interesting...

        ... that Ed said the killer feature of Windows 8.x is "effortless synchronization capability." Then, he said that Apple is "more limited" because you have to use Apple devices to achieve this. But you also need to be running Windows 8.x on all of your devices if you go the Windows route. So, you can either run all Windows 8.x products or you can run all Apple products in order to get the same capability. Either way, you're limited to one vendor platform.

        Personally, I think the desktop is becoming less and less relevant for the vast majority of people. Increased interoperability between our portable devices will only accelerate this process. The vast majority of people don't care what OS is running on their devices. They only care that they're able to run the apps they want. These continuous computing announcements just removed one more minor advantages Windows 8.x devices had over using Apple portable devices. The Apple iCloud Drive announcement is probably more relevant for people who still need desktop file sharing.

        The bottom line: This doesn't really change anything for most people. They're going to continue to use the portable platform that has the apps they want to use, regardless of which desktop they use.
    • It takes a visionary

      to make sure that each customer buys several expensive devices, that basically do the same thing from the same company.
      • Agreed

        and this should be the point really. Market share numbers of computers sold is impressive for some. That said "Windows PC's" numbers are a combination of HP, Dell, Toshiba, Acer, Lenovo,etc...and Microsoft vs Apple. No one seems to make this clear. Especially biased Microsoft bloggers.

        All that said market share numbers can't be spent. Revenue and profit CAN. Apple makes more revenue and profit off the iPhone than Microsoft does with all of its products combined. That is impressive. That is done by getting people to buy into the ecosystem and buy in all the way.

        WWDC showed one thing to the world if you were paying attention. We (Apple) have a fantastic ecosystem and we are doing everything on all fronts (OS X, iOS etc) to improve it.
        • Like Android vs iPhone (OS versus 1 Device)

          Outstanding assessment of the IBM-compatible PC market versus the Mac market!!

          It's easy for Windows to dominate when there are dozens of PC manufacturers around the globe making Windows machines when there's only one Apple and only four types of Mac computers (iMac, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini). OS X-based systems are also not available nearly everywhere like Windows-based systems. Your local Target may carry a lot of things but an iMac isn't one of them (well, at least not yet. The two companies have been talking about Target internal mini stores for a couple years now).

          The numbers have to be put into perspective. I can see how someone might misconstrue Apple's self-back-patting in the desktop market but if you pit just one Windows product against an OS X-based device I'd wager that it would beat out or at least rival any other PC manufacturer's product.

          To put Apple's success into even greater perspective here's a quote from a Forbes article from 2012:

          "One Apple product, something that didn’t exist five years ago, has higher sales than everything Microsoft has to offer. More than Windows, Office, Xbox, Bing, Windows Phone, and every other product that Microsoft has created since 1975. In the quarter ended March 31, 2012, iPhone had sales of $22.7 billion; Microsoft Corporation, $17.4 billion."

          Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/08/19/apples-iphone-is-now-worth-more-than-all-of-microsoft/
    • I don't know....

      ..mabe it's just me, but all this 'new' stuff feels a bit like selling Emperor's New Clothes...

      Maybe continuity could be nice hadn't it been limited to priviledged few for obvious reasons. I know everybody loves when their stock is rising but if it's only the stock which is rising then.....
      • New clothes?

        I think it's the Emperor's old clothes, repackaged.
      • Pot Meet Kettle

        "...limited to the privileged few for obvious reasons."

        You mean like those that purchased a Nexus but can't take advantage of Samsung's 'S' line of software features like S-Voice, S-Note, S-Health, etc? Or the privileged few that will get to use Amazon's Firefly service in the new Fire Phone to make quick purchases but be cut off from the Google Play store, Google+, Gmail, YouTube and other Google services?

        The argument that Apple is only for the privileged is complete crap. Each system has their own respective ecosystems that only allow certain features based on who you go with.
    • I think Ed was a little off his game today.

      I know what Ed meant, or was at least what he was getting at when he said "PCs and Macs are no longer at the top of the food chain", but that's actually a terrible analogy, or at least a terrible way to put things because its actually wrong.

      Its not that Macs and PC's are not at the top of the food chain, its the fact that there is a "food" chain now where there was practically only Macs and PC's before. If your simply talking about which has the most recent best increases in sales, what product line is selling better, as if that is an IT food chain, well..then ya, I guess. But in IT generally, the PC and Mac are still the king of the beasts, or the white sharks, or the grizzly bear. Lets say the super computers are like humans in the food chain.

      Its just the fact we never had much of a computing food chain before. There were your PC/laptop configurations, and not a whole pile else to make a big deal about. I think most would have to agree, simply on the obvious comparison, a smartphone or tablet is simply not the same kind of carnivore of the computing world that a powerhouse PC or Mac is.

      It dosnt mean that the vast multitudes of smartphones and tablets do not have a critically important place in the food chain. As biologists will very quickly tell you, once a food chain is up and running successfully, knock out any one major player, large or small in stature, but important in the chain, the whole thing can go awry for quite some time until something happens to stabilize it again.

      What Ed really needed to say is, "There is now a definite food chain in computer hardware, and it no longer begins and ends with PC's and Macs. The chain has now become reliant on its millions of smaller players in the chain to work the way it does today".

      That's real.
      • Honestly

        Zdnet loses a bit of credit letting Ed, a know Microsoft fanboy and apologist even write this post. I knew once I saw the author of the piece that is was going to slam Apple any way it could. I should have not read it. Anytime Ed or Paul Thurrott write something about Apple it will be dripping with anti-Apple comments.

        Ed and other pro Microsoft bloggers keep bringing up Market share numbers, about the only thing they have left these days. You can spend market share, but you can spend revenue and profit. Apple almost has enough cash on hand to equal Micorosofts market cap. The iPhone alone makes more revenue and profit than ALL Microsoft products combined. The iPhone is only 51% of Apple's revenue and profit if that tells you anything.

        To the only point Ed really made, Apple not supporting Android. I say so what. By covering Windows PC's with their cloud products, Apple probably covers 98% of cloud usage. Most people use the cloud for file storage from computers. Yes they view stuff in cloud storage on mobile devices but most of the real usage is from a computer. Not covering Chrome books won't hurt anything. Also Microsofts Android products are constantly bashed as being junk compared to the iOS or Windows versions. Having Android support is nothing but a bullet point for Microsoft.
        • Mixed Message

          Excellent point!! It is funny that he cites Windows dominance but then vilifies Apple for not supporting Android for cloud storage. Well, if Apple is covering their own devices plus the so-called most dominant OS in the world then Android shouldn't really matter, should it?

          Besides, who's Android are we talking about? Samsung's Android, HTC's Android, LG's Android or, way out in left field, Amazon's Android?
  • But....

    OS X "Yosemitie" = $0

    Windows 8, 8.1, 9.0 = $100-$200
    • If you are going there, at least get your math right

      Windows 8 for upgrade = $120
      Windows 8 to 8.1 = free
      Windows 8 to 8.1 Update = free
      Windows 8 to 8.1 Update 2 = free (presumed according to Mary Jo Foley)
      TCO for 1 year - $120

      For new PCs homebuilt = $140 (system builder OEM version)
      Windows 8 to 8.1 = free
      Windows 8 to 8.1 Update = free
      Windows 8 to 8.1 Update 2 = free (presumed according to Mary Jo Foley)
      TCO for 1 year - $140

      For new PCs OEM = $0
      Windows 8 to 8.1 = free
      Windows 8 to 8.1 Update = free
      Windows 8 to 8.1 Update 2 = free (presumed according to Mary Jo Foley)
      TCO for 1 year (for OS) - $0

      You, nor I, nor Ed know anything about Windows 9 pricing at this point. So that's FUD.

      So it's not $600 for 3 versions as you suggest, it's somewhere between $0 and $140 one time.

      Apple charged for every version of OS X up to Mavericks, and now gives it away because they can afford to when they are charging what they are for a new computer. They have forced obsolescence after a few releases either leaving you to run an older 'uncool' version of the OS or go buy another new Mac and therefore buy a new copy all over again. It's a nice business model, but it only holds up when you own the whole enchilada.
      Michael L Jones
      • Exactly right

        When the profit margins on Apple hardware are over 40% then who cares if Apple give the OS away for free. They know that it can only be installed* on machines purchased from them with those high profit margins, so they're getting your money either way.

        * I realise you can install the Mac OS on a 'Hackintosh', but these are the reserve of Apple nerds.
        • Can you point equivalent hardware

          For smaller cost?
          • No, but I can point you to better hardware at 'smaller' cost

            Try here: http://tinyurl.com/abszybc

            What you'll find are things like touch screens, and removable batteries, and docking stations that you can't get -- at any price -- on Apple. And you'll pay less!
            x I'm tc
          • You can't be serious with that question

            I sold my Macbook Pro which I had paid $2500 for it and got a far superior Touch Screen Ultra with superior graphics, faster processor, more memory, SSD drive (512G) and Windows 8 installed for $800 less! My new machine runs rings around my 1 year old Macbook Pro. Desktop differences are even more dramatic!
          • You Can't Be Serious

            You can't be serious with that question because you forget the Apple + COOL factor. That is why people will put up with a 40% profit margin for a product that doesn't have better hardware or performance. You know Apple is COOL if they spend 3 billion of that profit that all the cool kids gave them to buy Beats. I guess the white ear buds didn't have the cool factor anymore to show that you were a special kind of person and now you have to be wearing a pair 300 dollar huge-ass ugly headphones to be cool. God, Apple put a fork in it, you're done
          • The old adage, nothing is free

            You pay for it in the cost of the hardware. You can try to build a hackintosh, sure, but you will run into the same issues a lot of MSFT OEM's do.

            You pay a premium for a few steps below top of the line hardware for Macs, your OS cost is rolled into that. Granted you also get something you cannot really with windows, and that is direct OS support for the hardware instead of 3rd party drivers, but that's only for the internal systems. Any peripherals and you are back in the same boat.