While Apple is far from the least expensive PC vendor and doesn't really like corporate buyers much (though this may be changing), it constantly amazes by doing a solid job of design and eventually solving most nagging problems. At its World Wide Developer Conference this week, it made a number of solid moves to improve its hardware line and begin ramping to Snow Leopard, Apple's next Mac OS Minor release (I'm not sure it will ever again do a major release). I was left wondering if we are seeing the decline of the PC as a platform and whether this sets a high bar for product refinement, presentation and margin protection for the industry.
Let's chat about Apple's moves into the second half of 2009.
Holding High Margins
While most PC vendors are fighting in the $600 price range, Apple's lines begin above this, and while it has suffered a drop in sales along with everyone, its margins remain enviably strong. I'm from old-school finance where margins are vastly more important that revenues, and Apple remains the gold standard here.
To make the premium argument, Apple has to market solidly and build products people will pay more for. The new laptop line is consistent with that philosophy. While there are products like the Dell Adamo and HP Voodoo Envy that fall into the Apple class, Apple has an entire line ranging from the MacBook to the MacBook Pro and its flagship MacBook Air. It does a flagship product better than most with elements of this offering shared with the other products, so it pulls people to the line even if they can't handle the tradeoffs, and there are a lot, with the MacBook Air. In other words, it designs the line to pull people in and then hold them once they've arrived. Currently no other technology vendors, and few vendors outside of technology, do this as well.
While Apple still lacks a corporate "green" message, its products now compete with the best and are EPEAT Gold certified, the standard the rest of the market is striving for.
With its old line, the use of non-removable batteries was a problem both from a battery life and battery longevity perspective. Apple appear to have addressed both with battery life up to seven hours (figure most users will get 3 1/2 given how unreliable battery life metrics are for everyone) and the battery should last for five years, suggesting the company has moved to something like Boston Power's technology as HP started to do earlier this year.
Overall, while not as exciting as if Steve Jobs had done it himself, it is a solid line improvement and it showcases a value in line with the premium price it carries.
Both Microsoft and Apple need to move their customers sharply to new versions. Apple will face pressure from Windows 7, and Vista is a huge ongoing exposure for Microsoft. Apple has done what Microsoft should have done: penetration-priced the upgrade from Leopard to Snow Leopard at under $30, which should assure that most of the base moves by year's end, particularly given what seems to be overall solid improvements.
Snow Leopard is a Maintenance Release, so major problems are not expected -- though folks might be wise to hold off a couple of weeks to see what the forums pick up once the product hits the market. Apple has not always been forthcoming with problems.
It appears to have made substantial improvements to Safari in performance, but has yet to showcase any work on malware for this product. Phishing attacks can work against any browser. Like Microsoft in the '90s, malware remains one of Apple's blind spots and probably remains a good reason to install Firefox and use it instead of Safari on a Mac.
General improvements in the UI keep the product competitive with changes in Windows 7, and it will release about a month earlier if it holds to date. That will allow Apple to move better on the back-to-school opportunity than Microsoft. There are no knockout punches, but solid improvements on all vectors and the strongest competitive positioning against a strong product from Microsoft since the '80s.
I don't think we've seen the end of the announcements surrounding the iPhone yet for this summer -- let alone this year --and I wonder whether the company is holding something back for Steve Jobs' expected return later on in the month. The iPhone may replace the iPod as the iconic device for this decade. I'll do a more in-depth post on this later in the month.
Unlike the Windows 95 launch when Apple didn't take the threat of a focused Microsoft seriously, in the coming battle, Apple is prepared for war and in good shape to wage it. I think it may be making a couple of mistakes, though, by not focusing on malware, which is now attacking through Web sites and in ways that expose users uniquely because Apple isn't taking the threat seriously.
In addition, by arguing that it has the most advanced operating system -- which it might not, nor am I convinced anyone really wants -- Apple is creating a problem. In the end, what Apple likely has is the most refined product line. I believe that actually comes closer to what buyers are truly looking for.
I'm also left wondering if we are truly seeing the end of the PC, for despite how good Apple's products are and its OS refinements appear to be, the iPhone is driving what seems to be the next big wave of change.