We don't need better Macs. We need more powerful iPads

Cupertino is allowing vertical markets to slip away to their competition in favor of appeasing its dwindling Mac fanbase.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
(Image: ZDNet)

The primary purpose of any developer conference within the technology industry is to create a forum for the host to establish a clear roadmap for developers writing software so that they will better understand how their applications can be built to take advantage of that company's platforms.

If you are a developer, you want to see tools. You want to see fresh APIs, and you want to see fresh hardware that your applications can really take advantage of.

You want to see what is relevant to you that helps you make money with your software or value-added products. Not necessarily what is shiny.

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However, because these are companies that are public facing, with stocks that are tracked on Wall Street, developer conferences have pivoted toward being more of a dog and pony show, especially the keynotes and the self-praise that these companies shower upon themselves for reaching sales and shipment milestones.

Apple is king of the developer conference keynote. Sure, Google and Microsoft are also experts at them and are students of the same school. But Apple perfected this.

The hyperbole thrown around at Apple keynotes are so ridiculous and effusing that I even created a drinking game to go along with them.

This year's WWDC keynote was no exception. However, I kind of got the feeling that this particular installment was Apple's turn at "Please clap" for product announcements. It was a lukewarm reception at best.

We saw modest improvements to WatchOS. We saw an updated MacOS. We saw long-awaited augmented reality APIs for iOS that are a few years behind what Microsoft and Google are doing. We got to see a glimpse of iOS 11, which has some nice but minor UX improvements.

The hardware, as usual, took center stage. We were shown HomePod, which is an expensive Siri-connected speaker that competes with Amazon Echo and Google Home at twice the price.

We got a lukewarm refresh of the iPad Pro, a bunch of spec-upgraded iMacs, and a wallet-busting, workstation-class iMac Pro, which starts at $5,000 and competes with high-end content creation and engineering systems from HP, Lenovo, and Dell.

In my estimation, the Mac refreshes received a disproportionally amount of time focused on them, considering that -- as a product line -- the iMac only accounts for about 9 to 11 percent of Apple's revenue, and its overall market share in the content creation market, which is what the super high-end iMac Pro is addressing, has dwindled to almost nothing.

Nobody is using Macs for high-end engineering, 3D modeling, or medical imaging. Those workloads have for the most part gone the way of Microsoft Windows, and to a lesser but more focused extent, Linux. I know this because my brother works in that industry and has seen that market shift in person. And I know what his peers in Hollywood are up to as well.

The iMac Pro -- and the yet-to-be-seen, forthcoming Mac Pro refresh -- is addressing a market that just plain does not exist. These are symbolic machines designed to run software workloads that do not really run on that platform anymore. This is a machine designed for rich fanboys.

It is the personal computer workstation equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron. It's meant to look pretty and show off to people that you have a lot of money. There will undoubtedly be some takers. It may even sell out in extremely limited quantities.

But like a million dollar hypercar, you'll never unleash the full potential of the thing on the highway due to the fact you sit in traffic constantly and everyone else is doing 70mph. To get that car really cooking, you need to be a sheikh with your own racing track and ideally your own fuel refinery.

Sure, there's still plenty of Macs left in publishing, but you don't need a terabyte of RAM and 12 or 18 Xeon processor cores to do magazine layouts or even high-end paint stuff. The $1,500 to $2,000 iMacs are fine for that. So are the MacBooks. Of course, those workloads are almost entirely dominated by Windows now, too.

Do you know what high-end content creation and engineering types really want? Touchscreens. Styluses. Stuff that runs on powerful PC convertible devices like the Surface Pro 4, the Surface Book, and Surface Laptop, so they can actually draw on the thing.

You would think that would be the perfect market for Apple. This is a vertical segment just waiting to be exploited. But there are no touchscreen/digitizer capable Macs. Only iPads. OS X High Sierra, for all the attention that it got at WWDC, has no touchscreen APIs.

But the iPad is woefully unequipped to run real vertical market apps. It doesn't have enough CPU horsepower, enough memory, and isn't hardened for field use.

It would be theoretically possible to make up for this deficiency by having the cloud do the heavy lifting. That technology is real and Apple has the money and expertise to make something like that work.

But Apple's cloud is not business or vertical-market worthy, and as a company, it has done an awful job in partnering with companies whose clouds actually are.

I was rather disappointed in the iPad lineup shown at this year's WWDC. I was hoping that we would really see iPad really go "Pro," with larger memory configurations and much more powerful CPU/GPUs. Apple's iOS 11 is absolutely up to the task now, but the iPad hardware is not.

Yes, the higher refresh screen technology is nice from a consumer standpoint, but what professionals really want is 4K or higher tablet screens. You need a lot of video memory and a lot of CPU and GPU horsepower to drive that stuff in real time. It's not easy to do this with embedded systems, particularly with ARM-based architecture and bus bandwidth, but it is possible especially if you leverage the cloud.

Apple's marketing-speak aside, the current crop of iPad Pros are really just a small iterative improvement over the late 2015 models. I myself considered giving the new 12.9-inch a pass this time around, as I was already fairly happy with my 2015 first-generation unit given the apps I actually use. I ordered the new one only because I write about this stuff, and Amazon offered me $400 in credit if I traded it in.

If I didn't actually write about this stuff, I definitely would have let it go. So, yes, I bought the new one, but under protest.

The artists and content-creation people who I know in the entertainment and publishing industry were hoping for something from Apple that had a larger screen with higher resolution, more powerful processing, and is touch-capable.

But many of them have already moved on to Surface devices, including the Surface Studio -- which, in many ways, is the Mac Pro or the iPad Pro that Apple should really have built.

If they do use iPads now, it's for light work, and it isn't their main device. Apple has an iPad Pro that really isn't built for Pros and can't run Pro workloads.

And that is indeed very sad. But, hey, please clap.

Are you excited about the new iPad Pro or are you giving it a pass? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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