The Mainstreaming of the Mac

There’s been lots of talk since Apple’s event last week about the reception to the new MacBook Pros, especially among the Apple commentariat. It’s fair to say the backlash against these new devices is stronger than for any MacBook announcement I can remember and yet it’s mostly coming from two particular sets of people – those who use heavy-duty creative applications such as Photoshop and those who develop for Apple platforms. This is easily Apple’s most vocal audience and so such a response must be at least a little disheartening. But it’s also worth remembering that Apple – and even the Mac in isolation – has long since gone mainstream and is bigger than these groups. Apple’s challenge now isn’t serving this hardcore base but pleasing the much larger mainstream Mac user base without alienating the power users.

Apple’s increasingly diverse base

I wrote a post a while back about the counterintuitive liability Apple has in its growing customer base. On the one hand, this customer base is a huge asset, especially given the upgrade cycles for devices like the iPhone and the ability to sell services to a captive group of users. But on the other hand, the increasing diversity of this base can also be a liability, because Apple now has to please many groups in a much less homogeneous base than in the past. The problem is the public image of Apple among many in the media and beyond continues to be of a company that serves mostly creative professionals. This perception has led to a lot of misguided commentary over the past week, both about the damage Microsoft’s Surface Studio could do to Apple’s Mac base and about the perceived shortcomings of the new MacBook Pro line.

Apple’s Mac base today

The reality is that Apple’s installed base of Macs today is likely around 90 million. That’s up enormously over the last fifteen years or so – it was around 25 million in the early 2000s. As that base has grown, it’s diversified considerably. Just visit any college campus to see row on row of MacBooks in lecture rooms and study halls. These aren’t creative professionals and they’re not even using their MacBooks for particularly resource-intensive tasks. But, of course, there are still creative professionals and Apple developers who use Macs for work. So it’s worth thinking about what percentage of the overall base these users might represent.

Here are some data points:

  • In 2013, Adobe estimated it had an installed base of around 12.8 million users of its Creative Suite software, with another 250,000 on Creative Cloud. Around 40% of this revenue came from what Adobe described as creative professionals, with another 25% coming from other creative people in businesses, 10% from creative people using it at home, and 25% from education
  • Adobe currently has around eight million Creative Cloud subscribers (this is how Adobe now sells its creative suite, including Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere, and so on)
  • At WWDC this year, Tim Cook announced Apple had 13 million registered developers

If we put these numbers together, we get a picture of 8-13 million users of Adobe’s creative products and another 13 million or so Apple developers. Of course, of those Adobe users, a good chunk will be using Windows versions rather than Mac versions. At the absolute outside, though, it gives, at most, around 25 million total users in the two buckets that have been most vocal about the MacBook Pro changes, out of a total base of around 90 million, or around 28%. Realistically, that number is probably quite a bit smaller, perhaps around 15-20% of the total. Of these, not all will share the concerns of those who have been so outspoken in the past week. To look at it another way, Apple sold 18.5 million Macs in the past year, which might end up being roughly the same as the combined number of creative professionals and developers in the base.

In the end, the picture that emerges is of a base of Macs with the kinds of users that have been expressing concerns or frustration with the changes in the minority. The vast majority of the user base is in other categories, principally general purpose consumer and business users. How does the rest of the base feel about the new MacBooks? Well, of course, that base is much less vocal and less visible – the general purpose Mac user tends not to blog or host podcasts about Apple. They’re much more likely to quietly keep using the products they have and occasionally upgrade to something new. The best place to look for their feedback is sales numbers for the Mac. Those have been down a little lately as the existing Macs have been getting a little long in the tooth and those in the know have been waiting for upgraded machines.

However, Phil Schiller said this week online orders for the new MacBooks were higher than they’ve ever been for a new product before, suggesting that some of this pent-up demand is being released now. Mainstream users – and likely quite a few from among the professional class of MacBook users too – are buying this new product despite the misgivings some power users have. We won’t know until at least three months from now – and probably longer – the actual numbers on how these MacBook Pros are selling. But my guess is those sales numbers will suggest the mainstream base cares a lot less about some of the subjects of the criticism from the past week and a lot more about a decent bunch of spec upgrades, thinner and lighter hardware, and some interesting new features.

Keeping the pro base happy

Of course, Apple can’t simply ignore the professional base – though these users may be a minority among the overall set of Mac customers, they are an important segment an,d as we’ve already seen, a vocal one. Pleasing them is important in its own right but also as a way to influence broader perceptions of the Mac and Apple as a company. Apple likely needs to do more here to mollify this base. For starters, it needs to update the desktop Macs, especially the Mac Pro, quickly. The current version of the Mac Pro suffers from being less upgradeable than its predecessor. With that being the case, it requires hardware refreshes more – not less – frequently. It might also be a reasonable concession to the complaints from this base to make it more upgradeable. I suspect Apple will have to think hard about how to please those who want a portable yet ultra-powerful machine, which is really the even narrower segment that’s been criticizing the new MacBooks. The portability/power tradeoff it’s made in the new machines seems to be fine for the mainstream, but that’s the one thing that seems to be creating the most problems for the hardcore base and that’s worth addressing.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

20 thoughts on “The Mainstreaming of the Mac”

  1. I wouldn’t hold my breath about Apple doing much for the Pro market. Apple’s strategy seem to be to move as many users as possible to the iOS ecosystem and its much higher margins and lock-in, and all those apps+content sales. And the Pro market’s requirement not only differ with Apple’s sexy+easy positioning, they actively clash with it (expandability, maintenability, … are anything but sexy+easy).

    The MacBook moving mainstream is not an isolated event. the Mac Mini has gotten steadily less expandable/serviceable, the Mac Pro isn’t being updated, tower Macs have been discontinued a long time ago, as well as servers despite assurances to the contrary.

    I’m starting to feel sorry for all those iOS devs that have no choice but to use Macs ;-p

  2. I don’t find regular users’ disappointment in the new Macbook Pro crazy considering how long it has been since a major upgrade. Effectively, with the exception of the touch bar, nothing has changed beyond what Apple normally does with speed bumps and such.

    What makes the real pro user so valuable is that the high price of Macs is really a fraction of what the pro has to spend on their set-up. Certainly not chump change, but justifiable when an audio or video tech, graphic artist, et. al., are likely spending multiples beyond that on additional gear. Regularly upgrading to new machines is often a no brainer (except for the need to lock-in or freeze certain systems once they are as bug and accident free as possible).

    In reality the things professionals need aren’t things that would take away from mainstream users, such as the ability to at least order a machine with more than 16 gigs of ram. Apple even kept the mini-jack supposedly because of pro users.

    But the idea of the Macbook Pro vs Macbook, or the MacPro vs iMac was what used to differentiate between Apple’s more mainstream users and those with professional needs. Are you saying this is no longer the case? Apple is now focusing on just mainstream and throwing bones out where they feel they can to the professional?

    If so, I seriously need to rethink my Macs as much as I already am rethinking my iPhone.


    [eta: as for new MBP sales that’s kind of a duh considering that sales have been in decline. No doubt people were holding off until they couldn’t anymore. And now that it is obvious that this is it, one has to keep work moving forward.]

  3. Jan, I agree with you.

    Many people, especially Windows users, incorrectly believe that Macs are used primarily by graphics professionals.

    But look at how many Macs are in use by post-secondary students… They are not for the most part “graphics professionals”.

    IBM recently announced that 73% of their employees have chosen to opt for a Mac as their next work computer, and that IBM was expecting that 100,000+ of its employees would be using Macs by the end of this year. Those employees are also not primarily “graphics professionals”.

    There are currently approximately 100 Million Mac users worldwide. Apple sells close to 20 Million Macs per year. This averages to about a 5 year life cycle per Mac, which makes sense.

    It is likely that real “graphics professionals” account for only about 5% or less of the total current Mac market of approximately 100 Million Mac users.

    Apple has obviously (and sensibly) prioritized the design, development, and marketing of its Mac products to the 95% of the market (the average Mac user), rather than focusing its products on the 5% of users (graphics professionals).

    The odd thing is that Microsoft has fallen for the common misconception that the majority of Macs are being sold to graphics professionals.

    Microsoft’s recently announced Surface Studio is a giant misstep for the company because: 1) it is an expensive product that is being marketed to a very small segment of users (Mac & Windows graphics professionals); and 2) it does not provide professional quality hardware and software for those professionals (read the quotes below from an Engadget article).

    With a price range of $3,000 to $4,200 the Surface Studio is obviously being marketed to professional artists. It is too expensive for most consumers.

    However, most professional artists are not planning to buy the Surface Studio. Engadget interviewed a range of professional artists, and here are some pertinent quotes from their article:

    “The majority of creatives we spoke to weren’t planning on moving over to the Studio.”

    “Anyone coming across from Wacom’s Cintiq or Intuos — and Apple’s iPad Pro — will understand that tilt and rotate is kind of important to the feel of drawing,” said Coello. The Surface Pen just doesn’t work well at sharp angles.”

    “The lack of customization makes me worry that the Surface Pro will never allow such tweaks, unlike Wacom’s offerings, which are very flexible.”

    “[It’s] large and goofy and seems like it needs more controls on there. Anything that could be done with the Dial could probably be done with a UI window instead, especially if I can use multitouch while using the pen.”

    “Our left hands are hovering over our keyboards constantly, and we’ve rigged up our primary art programs with a lot of custom commands. Having to take our hand off the board to use this little Dial thing — for the few things it would actually be useful for — would actually take longer than just tapping the keys that do more or less the same thing.”

    “A lack of power and upgrade paths (the Studio’s internals aren’t upgradable like on a tower PC) were deciding factors.”

    “more concerned about Windows 10’s stability with demanding software”

    “At $3,000? That’s a hard pass. It doesn’t offer nearly enough improvements over the machines we have, and even if it did, indie comic creators like us just don’t have that kind of disposable income to throw around.”

    “it’s just not something that is going to be replacing the complex chain of tools that make up my very specific workflow.”

    1. You do realize that graphics and visual arts professionals are not the only creative professionals that use Macs, right? There’s also audio, video, performing arts (both performers and designers), even choreographers, who use Macs in their creative processes.

      And a couple of those Surface Pro critiques you quoted are applicable to Macs, too.

      Just sayin’

      1. Look around you. Almost everywhere you go, whether in coffee shops, colleges, offices, or homes of friends and relatives, people who are using Macs in general are NOT creative professionals.

        Creative professionals make up a very TINY segment of our society.

        My point is that Apple is wisely focussed on the general Mac user, rather than gearing the Mac “specifically” for creative professionals.

        1. True enough. However, Apple has always had two levels of Macbooks to address this—consumer level and professional level. And professionals have always been able to count on Apple providing the things pros need, because they are willing to pay the higher price for it.

          The Macbook Pro was never the mainstream laptop. And those Macbooks in coffeeshops that were Macbook _Pros_ I guarantee were used by professionals of one kind or another. The rest (I agree were there) were regular Macbooks owned and used by mainstream users.

          Now if you are saying mainstream users have shifted and will be willing to spend the $2000 for Macbooks and so Apple no longer needs a pro line of Macbooks (the pro being the one who flinches least at price, but needs the features) that is indeed a change. And one I don’t think will work for Apple.

          But if both Kizedek and Naofumi are correct in their assumptions that this is not just the end of the Mac, but the beginning of what comes after the Mac and maybe even what comes after iOS, there may be hope.

          But the pro users won’t wait that long. If Apple truly believes “good riddance to them”, as you imply, that would be unfortunate.


          1. “And those Macbooks in coffeeshops that were Macbook _Pros_ I guarantee were used by professionals of one kind or another.”

            Yes, we see a lot of people in suits using MacBooks and MacBook Pros. And many professionals don’t wear suits, but they also don’t work in a “creative” business.

            “Professionals” (as in “Pro”) are not ALL working in the creative fields. In fact, creatives are a small minority of people who can be considered “professionals”.

          2. Well, right, that’s why I just said “professional” and not “creative professional”. ANY professional with professional needs of a Macbook Pro is by definition not mainstream, except maybe “mainstream professional” which is still a subset of users.


  4. Not to mention that Macs are used to produce the content on the web so adored by iOS consumer kiddies AND the fact that iOS apps are written on the Mac! The iOS consumer kiddies apparently assume that all that just appears out of the sky in a rainbow. The most worshipped generation in history is also the least aware of reality.

    1. You are obviously not aware that content (including coding) can be, and is, produced on iPads too.

      You are also obviously not aware that those tens of millions of iPads in use are being used primarily by adults… Not by “kiddies”. And many of those adults use their iPads for work (from airline pilots, to real estate professionals, to lawyers, to almost any profession you can think of).

      1. Some can be, but as an example, I produce HTML5 animations based upon timelines, and my experience, and that of the developers of the apps that I use says that there will not be and cannot be iOS versions due to the complexity of the inputs that that users of the apps are required to do in order to create an animation. I could show you but: 1: I am not sure you would understand what you are seeing, and 2: I am too busy creating content. I can take the time to write this response but thats all. Have a nice day.

  5. I keep hearing this argument from apologists that the Mac has a wider, mainstream audience now that they need to cater to, and therefore, they cannot give the niche “pro” market the same amount of concern. However, this mainstream consumer market is what the MacBook and Mac Mini are designed for. Those in-between the two markets have the iMac. But the MacBook Pro has PRO right in the name. It was supposed to satisfy and target that niche market so they can actually do their jobs. And aspirational buyers will always reach up for it, which expands its market by default. Instead, they made a slightly improved MacBook with a touch bar and called it Pro when it is not. This is what the MacBook should have become already. This mainstream argument you put forward excuses Apple for turning the Pro into a consumer machine at Pro prices. That’s not okay. If you call it a Pro computer, make it a Pro computer. Thin and light are for consumers and light-workload users bouncing between meetings and coffeeshops. Pro users are not so mobile and would sacrifice thinness and lightness for power even if they did have to unplug and be on-the-go for a spell. When the underpowered one-port MacBook came out, everyone excused it for being so underwhelming because it was the consumer machine. Now the underpowered MacBook Pro came out and everyone is excusing it for being a consumer machine, too. Just take “Pro” off and call it “MacBook Medium” because Apple is diminishing the meaning of the word “professional.”

    1. Aspirational indeed…

      It’s a good thing my wife does not allow me to buy an iPhone. Otherwise I would blast music next to a beautiful woman at the pool, go up three flights of steps and nail a perfect dive off the board. /s

  6. Fun thought experiment:

    Apple sold for $6bn of Macs in Q4 2016. Let’s say effective margin (not just manufacturing, but R&D, logistics, support, marketing, MacOS…) on that is 30%, that’s $2bn.

    Over the same period, Apple sold 45mil iPhones for $28bn. Now jack-less. Let’s say that jacklessness saves Apple $0.50 per iPhone, and generates earplug margin of $160 x 50% margin x 25% attach rate x 45 mil iPhones = $1bn total savings+margins.

    Profit-wise (which is the only thing that matters, especially to Apple), the entire Mac business is worth about 2 iPhone jacks.

    My estimates might be off (though only 50% margin on the earplugs is conservative, and 30% on the Macs might be high, but the 25% attach rate is up in the… air), but still… That puts the whole Mac business in perspective.

  7. Thinking about this some more today. This isn’t the mainstreaming of the Mac. It is the iPhone-ing of the Mac. They are pushing the Mac to a totally sealed environment like the iPhone, vs traditional PCs, including Mac, where the user could at the very least upgrade ram and internal storage as they grew with the machine. It used to be part of what offered Mac such longevity.

    Apparently pro users aren’t as appreciative of Apple’s efforts as they had hoped.


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