by adam mathes
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The Case for Freeing MacOS

Professionals and power users have been upset with Apple’s high end computers for some time, but the last six months it’s come to a boiling point.

I don’t think much in the last round of updates will change that.

I’ve worked enough in big companies to understand the external perception and internal reality diverges a lot more than people know, so it’s hard to know how this happened.

I’m not particularly interested in the explanations – for me the interesting point is one of strategic misalignment and the opportunity for Apple to do something really bold to address it.

Why Pros Are Angry

Basically, if you want the absolute fastest processing and graphical power, you are hampered if you want high power, high thermal, desktop computing. Apple isn’t just losing on a price/performance perspective – in some cases it’s not even competing anymore. The 2013 Mac Pro essentially being not updated for years is the most grievous offense, but the more recent MacBook Pro without decent GPUs or keyboards and instead idiotic touch UIs is just offensive to those of us who actually work on computers for a living.

Exhibit 1 – The 2016 MacBook Pro

Exhibit 2 – The 2013 Mac Pro is ancient

Exhibit 3 – The 201x Mac Pro Announcement “coming next year-ish maybe!”

Exhibit 4 – The Hackintosh

Basically, people are unhappy, and often the best option is to make an illegal hacked up machine from parts that has better performance. Or just use a Windows/Linux PC with better components.

What Is The Point Of The Mac

Today Apple is, from a business perspective, an iPhone company.

The iPhone is the most successful consumer product in the history of consumer products in just about any objective measure. It is unclear if or when we will ever see another consumer product as successful in my lifetime.

Given what I understand of Apple’s functional internal structure (rather than business units) – one would expect all the other product lines to suffer as Apple puts more and more of their efforts into the business that makes all their other businesses seem small.

Interesting is that in my experience this is true even if benevolant management recognizes this as a problem and tries to adjust staffing / compensation / priorities to invest in other things. Because the potential rewards and recognition from working on “winning” supported projects end up influencing individual’s project decisions, this can be challenging. The rich get richer in that successful projects attract better talent. See also: The Innovator’s Dilemma

People like me look at the Mac as a general purpose computer with which to do interesting things (write, program, create art, type in terminal windows for a few decades). Historically the Mac has been Apple’s primary product that is created and sold at high margins.

The problem is that isn’t the Mac’s purpose anymore from a macro business perspective – it’s to support the iPhone.

The purpose of the Mac is to enable the creation of software and content experiences that make iPhones better.

And since the current market scale between laptops, smartphones, and new devices and experiences is unlikely to change, this is likely the reality for the next decade. There will be more smartphone users than computer users, and they will have a faster upgrade cycle. It’s a market that makes others seem tiny.

So it may be time to embrace that reality.

(Note that this equation changes if iPhones/iPads become platforms to create iOS software, but there’s been little to indicate that is planned in the near term.)

Apple Trucks

When computer products are compared to automobiles, the trite analogy now is that desktop and laptop computers like the Mac are trucks, while smartphones and tablets are cars.

Most people just need a car. Sometimes you might need a truck for specific purposes. Businesses need trucks.

The analogous problem here is that Apple’s car business is so large it seems almost irrational to care about the trucks.

But you need the trucks to make cars – they haul in the parts and people needed.

The problem is trucks have stagnated to the point where the truck drivers who bring the parts to assemble their cars are miserable and looking to buy something else.

The weird thing is Apple only allows Apple-trucks to bring them parts for Apple-cars, so when they stop buying Apple trucks, Apple cars suffer.

Commodify Your Complement

Many of the big successes in the tech business world have come from a strategy of commodifying your complement. The classic example was Microsoft creating a standard operating system that worked on a plethora of commodity computer hardware. Anybody could assemble PC’s, so fierce competition followed, which made PC’s cheaper and more prevalent.

Which was great for Microsoft, because every PC sold meant another Windows license.

Windows was the product, PC’s the complement that became further commodified – you could buy any IBM PC compatible system and run Windows and do what you needed.

Pundits suggested Apple follow this same course (and they briefly did in the 90’s with clone manufacturers before Steve Jobs returned) but it never really made sense because Apple computers weren’t about commodity hardware and solving all problems – they were about charging a premium for an integrated experience that worked (this was much harder in the 90’s, Windows “worked” on all kinds of hardware, but poorly.)

So it’s 2017 and I’m making the totally discredited suggestion Apple sell its OS and let hardware manufacturers compete in hardware?

Sort of.

Understand Your Complement

My hypothesis is that Apple needs as many developers using their software as possible to maintain dominance in smartphones and the next generation of hardware (AR, VR, whatever).

Their current high margin computers is making this somewhere between hard (programmers) and impossible (virtual reality developers, though the most recent WWDC keynote and external GPU enclosure is suggesting they are trying to take this from impossible down to hard.)

Let’s take things to one extreme for the sake of argument.

Free MacOS

MacOS is already “free” – Apple has stopped charging for upgrades. The cost of MacOS is just hidden in the cost of buying a Mac, and Apple wants everyone to have the latest version for ease of maintenance and market size for developers.

But what if MacOS was free and ran on commodity hardware (which it basically does, already, if you bend the law and make a Hackintosh.)

A few interesting things happen here.

The first is less direct Mac profits – via cannibalization of the existing Mac product lines.

But there’s some potentially offsetting gains that are better in the long run –

  1. More MacOS users – via decreased cost of hardware, increased hardware support
  2. Increased innovation on the platform – via (1) and more students, starving garage developers, hobbyists choosing MacOS
  3. Better, stickier app ecosystem on iOS and new Apple hardware – via happier, larger pool of developers
  4. Support for virtual reality, augmented reality, and other hardware-dependent hacking becomes easier
  5. The demand for Apple services (iCloud, Music, etc) goes up significantly, especially for current iPhone users who also adopt MacOS powered desktop/laptops

There’s less extreme iterations on this –

  • MacOS supports more hardware but licenses are only available with an iOS device purchase
  • MacOS licenses are sold to support some homebrew hardware but with limited/no customer support

Why Not

Crappy, ugly, commodity hardware is fundamentally “off-brand” for Apple, and the nature of enabling MacOS to work across more hardware fundamentally leads to experiences that are sub-optimal compared to the fully integrated Mac hardware/software stack today.

There’s also a serious strategic discussion of whether the potential gains offset the revenue declines and other issues.

It’s easy to pontificate on these things externally, it’s a lot harder to make these decisions when you have hard numbers in front of you and shareholders to be accountable to.

And it’s hard to cannibalize existing business lines as an executive, people generally fight tooth and nail for short term gains over long term strategy that has risks.

Why Yes

Apple is a beloved company that is having trouble coming up with its next hit.

Hits take time and Apple has a cash hoard that can buy time, acquisitions, or a few small countries, any of which might help them at this point.

Getting developers on their side – getting a small army of Apple lovers tinkering to make the best tricked out, hot-rodding Macs instead of Windows and Linux boxes – may be one of the things that has immeasurable “brand lift” (imagine the ads linking Apple II homebrew computer club users and today’s garage hackers doing AR on weird looking Mac hardware) and helps cultivate a new generation of developers.

And there’s something fundamentally “Apple” about making desktop computers simple, easy, and affordable. That’s what the Apple computer was, deep down, and everything good (Apple II, Mac, iPhone) that followed.

It may be that by giving more software away, Apple will make their software and services available to more people, make them happier, and improve long term businesses.

Or it may just lose them a lot of money – if it was an obvious win, they’d probably already be doing it.

Either way, I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro with abysmal keyboard and Touchbar and it’s insane to me that this is the best they can do.

If they don’t start shipping better hardware or freeing their OS, Apple will lose key influencers.

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