If Apple's Mac has any future, it's in the cloud

Is the Mac a dying platform? There is only one way forward for Apple's Mac and iOS developer platforms.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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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.

Read also: Maybe it's time for Apple to spin off the Mac as a separate company

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 a small fraction of the overall net revenue, which is roughly $25.8 billion out of a $229.23 billion total, according to Apple's last 10-K filing with the SEC in 2017.

(Image: ZDNet)

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 the Mac's OS over the past several years, not major ones.

All the important OS and hardware development has gone into iOS.

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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 Office 365, which has much more significant industry penetration.

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.

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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 is a while?

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

Six years ago, I postulated on those things. Some of this has already come to fruition: The Monsoon core used in the A11 SoC is definitely fast enough to run Mac workloads in 2018, 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. But there are definitely challenges to such a platform migration.

There would have to be substantial modifications to both iOS and Mac OS -- or whatever platform eventually merges or replaces both -- to be much more parallelized/multi-threaded (or even hyperthreaded) than it is now, and the apps that run on them would also have to be modified to take advantage of hyperthreading.

I don't think we will see an Apple computer like this at least for two more years, though.

I do think Apple has undergone this OS-porting process and has developed higher scale A-series chips with more cores and a multithread-optimized OS. But not for productizing in the immediate future -- not in the way we conventionally think about end-user devices, anyway.

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.

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.

Read also: We don't need better Macs. We need more powerful iPads

Whose cloud? Well, I used to think it should be IBM's Cloud. But now that I have had a few years to actually look at how well that relationship has gone for both companies, I now think that company really should be Microsoft, because it has so many more mature services to offer.

And let's face it, in terms of apps, Microsoft has contributed far more important business and consumer apps for iOS and Mac than IBM has despite the existing partnership. All the IBM partnership has really resulted in for Apple is the sale of iPhones and iPads to corporate customers.

Moving to a cloud-centered development approach would benefit not just Apple and Microsoft 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.

Take a look at what companies like Macstadium are doing by hosting Macs for developers in data centers. This is exactly what Apple needs to do with Microsoft and Azure.

From a provisioning and dev/test perspective, using cloud resources to do iOS development, compiling, version control, load testing, all those things are 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 Mac's future in the cloud? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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