Rumors of Mac ultralight, tablet: Part 2

Are new form factors being prepped in Cupertino, following on the heels of the iPhone and new iPods? Maybe so. But a look at strategies during the Jobs era predict that Apple may pass on an ultralight and mini-tablet.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Stories are circulating online that Apple may soon release some new form factors: a small multi-touch-savvy tablet (the Newton reborn) and an ultralight notebook. These are products that many Mac users say they want. But will they really buy them?

In my previous post, I looked at these rumors and offered several market and operational reasons why Apple might go slow on these categories.

Now, I will take a look at two longstanding strategies of the Jobs era that might weigh against a quick introduction of a Mac ultralight and tablet. (Of course, anything is possible with Steve Jobs and Apple, so I expect to be proven wrong at any moment.)

The first strategy is Apple's bifurcated product strategy, where the market is divided into professional and consumer lines; and the second is the concept of the digital content hub.

Focus. Can one company have too many products? Apple offers a wide range of products, from consumer electronics to robust servers, from an OS to professional and consumer application software. But for all its width across the Apple website, this product line is a far cry from what it once was.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, Apple's hardware lineup was very complicated. There was a vast number of SKUs and product lines. Some products had their own branding, such as the Performa line, which was aimed at education.

Many of these machines competed against each another in different market segments; sometimes machines aimed at one segment weren't allowed to be sold into another because it might cannibalize sales from this or that division. Sometimes machines were simply rebranded, with identical hardware but with different software bundles and names. It was a mess. (Back in the days, Peachpit Press' Macintosh Bible used to have a guide to the Performa models that spanned many pages.)

On the engineering front, this situation created expensive problems for partners and customers. Often Apple would introduce costly proprietary connectors, ASICs or acceleration engines. The expectation was that these parts and ports would be expanded to other lines. However, many were only used on a single generation of machines or even a single line. With so many changes in hardware, Apple and developers had a tough time testing for compatibility.

In 1998, Jobs cut through the knot. He divided the market into 2 segments and 2 product categories: professional and consumer, and desktop and notebook, respectively. And that was it for the most part — customers decided where they fit into this four-box grid.

For the most part, the company still holds to this strategy. For consumers Apple offers the MacBook and the iMac; for professionals: the MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro. When a new model comes out it replaces the older versions, with the product name staying the same. While some lines may offer several sizes of screens, in the case of notebooks and iMacs, the basic spec sheet for the line is the same.

Still, Apple on occasion offers models that fall outside the grid. In this list I would include the Power Macintosh G4 Cube, the eMac and the Mac mini.

All of these products were aimed at a specific market segments: the Cube to executives wanting a desktop computer with more style; the eMac to the education market; and the Mac mini to switchers who already have a monitor and keyboard. (Note that I don't include the Apple TV here. It's really a smart peripheral and not a general use computer.)

The reported ultralight notebook and mini-tablet device would be targeted at specific markets and would be outside the grid.

For the most part, the Macs outside Apple's strategic grid haven't been as successful as the ones inside. So that history might work against Apple moving forward on niche products such as the ultralight and mini-tablet.

The Digital Hub. At the Macworld Expo in January 2001, Steve Jobs introduced the concept of the "digital lifestyle," where the Mac would be the "digital hub" that delivered and received content to and from a variety of content peripherals, such as cameras, printers and now, flavors of iPods.

Part of this strategy is content creation. Users of Macs are expected to create content, especially rich media content, and Mac hardware and its OS have been engineered to provide an excellent experience for content creation. In addition, Apple offers extensive content tools for both professional and consumer markets.

But how well would an ultralight or tablet computer fit into this content-creation hub strategy? The tablet is way outside the model. (It's hard to figure out where tablet computing is really headed. Analysts point to medical applications but my doctor has desktop in her office and uses a small desktop on a cart in the examination room.)

Still, the ultralight might fit into the strategy. However, the goal of an ultralight is hyper-mobility, which would likely mean a compromise on the performance needed for content creation. Customers would have to weigh the ultralight's weight and cost and see if there's still a value when it comes to creating content.

In the past, Mac users have voted for performance. However, the market keeps looking upscale towards luxury.

Perhaps Apple will want to keep its increasing number of switchers in the enterprise executive suites happy with an ultralight notebook. Anything is possible from CEO Steve Jobs and Apple Inc.

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