Introduction and new MacBook
Apple's line-up of computers was one of the things that put the company on the map. Back in 1984, Apple released the Macintosh, much to the amazement of the world. In 1998, the firm introduced a PC with a colourful body – a revolutionary idea amongst a sea of beige.
And in 2005, Apple started on its new design revolution which, over the past decade, has spread to almost every corner of the PC market, especially within PCs. Driven by the MacBook Air in 2010, Apple started a 'race to thin,' with manufactures designing new bodies of ever decreasing depth while their all-aluminium unibody desktops have spawned copies across the board.
Over the next five years through to 2020, it's clear that Apple isn't going to give up on the Mac line. Sales have, by and large, been outperforming the industry – which, overall, has been shrinking – for the past few years thanks to a slew of new hardware and software on a regular basis.
New versions of OS X are unveiled annually at various Apple events, usually to coincide with releases of iOS. Apple held a 'Back to Mac' event in 2010, showing the company's continued commitment to the platform in an age that was rapidly becoming post-PC, to use a term coined by late CEO Steve Jobs.
MacBook shows the way
Earlier in 2015, Apple introduced the MacBook – complete with no Air or Pro suffix – which signals where the company is going to take its products over the next half decade. Extremely light and extremely thin with an optional gold colour, the new MacBook isn't the fastest machine on the market or the most compatible – it has just one USB Type-C port – but it is a vision that will likely be adopted by the rest of the industry.
The new MacBook includes a Retina screen, a marketing term originally introduced in the iPhone, and similar panels will likely appear in the MacBook Air in 2015. It's conceivable, even, that as ports become less of a priority – after all, how many are actually used (anecdotally, I use just the charging port) – the Air line may be phased out, replaced by the MacBook alongside the Pro line for those who need a big screen and lots of power.
Within this, however, is the problem of cross-hardware differentiation: if the iPad 'Pro' features a large screen and has similar amounts of processing power to the MacBook then how would an everyday consumer choose between the two? There is a clear differentiator between the current iPad line and the Air range, but if they become any closer there could be some crossover.
Apple could also face an existential crisis from Microsoft's upcoming Continuum feature within Windows 10 that allows a phone to be used as a PC when plugged into a monitor. If it takes off, customers will only want one piece of hardware – a phone – and will not be willing to spend upwards of £800 ($1,000 in the US, which is around AU$1,250) on a laptop as well as £600 ($600, which is around AU$750) on a premium phone.
If this version of the future is realised, and it may well be, then Apple has a problem on its hands. All Windows 10 phones will run a full version of the operating system while iPhones and iPads run iOS, which is similar to OS X in many regards but is not a "full" operating system. There are, obviously, cross-platform apps, such as the iWork suite, but there would be no ability to do serious work in, say, Final Cut on an iPhone when it's being used as a laptop.
Thus far, Apple is betting that consumers still want differentiated devices: one for mundane tasks, one for work, and its five year plan is based on this assumption. And it may turn out the company is correct. Apple's iterations, especially in terms of laptops, are based around a distinct device that can be used for tasks that are not appropriate on a phone – creating documents, editing photos or videos – and consumers will likely still have a place within their homes for this kind of device.
Mac sales are still growing but are relatively low sitting at a little over five million units in most quarters, while OS X makes up a little under 10% of the operating system market. It is perhaps unfair then to compare Apple's strategy to Microsoft's – one is focused on a niche set of users who know they want a Mac and know what they want it for, while the other is based around getting Windows into as many hands, or on as many desks, as possible.
Three of a kind
Desk-based computing is one of the areas that Apple excels in with three distinct models that consistently rank at the top of their respective markets. The Mac mini, the cheapest way to get into the OS X ecosystem, has received a new design and internals over the past few years and this is likely to continue going forward, perhaps even shrinking in size. The price point of the Mac mini is its most compelling facet and Apple will likely keep it around simply because of this.
The iMac kicked off the 'all-in-one' desktop revolution that put the screen and internals in one unit, usually atop a stand, rather than requiring a separate monitor. Through serious hardware improvements, the top-end iMac now features a 5K display and comes with a tapered design that gives the impression of almost no depth, and this arc is likely to continue, especially in terms of how powerful the machine is. Some users have switched from the Mac Pro to a top-end iMac simply because the machine is so powerful. Through technologies such as Thunderbolt, and now USB Type-C, high-end peripherals can be plugged in and monitors can be daisy-chained.
The Mac Pro received a long overdue update in 2013, introducing new internals and a new design, giving high-end users a reason to spend £2,500 ($3,000, which is around AU$3,750) or more on a computer. The high-end was Apple's original market and some saw the lengthy period of time that it took the company to produce this latest model as an affront to its most dedicated Mac users, but the new hardware received positive reviews.
The Mac Pro was never going to be a machine that was updated annually – who wants to spend over £2,500 ($3,000, around AU$3,750) on a machine that's outdated within 12 months – and so there will likely be only one update within the next five years, dealing with the internals.
Apple's Mac line-up will likely look fairly similar in 2020, save for hardware updates. The MacBook Air may become simply the MacBook as internal hardware can be squeezed into a new body, while the MacBook Pro will remain a product on its own. The Mac mini, the cheapest desktop in the line-up, will stay fairly much the same with internal hardware upgrades, while the iMac will continue to expand into the high-end space occupied by the Mac Pro.