Regarding the Hardware Announcements at WWDC 2006

Notebook Market Share

Steve Jobs mentioned near the beginning of the WWDC keynote that Apple’s share of the U.S. notebook market jumped from 6 to 12 percent between January and June this year. Some of this was due to pent-up upgrade demand from Apple’s existing notebook customers — PowerBook and iBook sales slowed in late 2005 in anticipation of Intel-based models. Apple would have seen a jump in notebook sales in the first half of this year even if they had announced next-generation PowerPC notebooks instead of Intel-based ones, simply because owners of older PowerBooks and iBooks were waiting for something new.

But from my own anecdotal observations, Apple’s notebooks are at ground zero in the switcher battle. Certainly some switchers are buying Mac Minis and iMacs, and some will buy the new Mac Pros, but I think the MacBooks are getting a disproportionate share of the sales from new-to-the-Mac switchers. All hail the Boot Camp “even if I don’t like the Mac OS I can just install Windows” safety net. (For example, I’ve stopped counting the places where I’ve seen MacBooks recommended for students heading to college this fall.)

It’s also possible that Jobs was just being selective with his stats here, and that Apple’s long-term notebook market share numbers have been at or above 10 percent before. Still, though, it’s hard to see this trend as anything other than good news for Apple. I’ve written before that raw “overall market share” numbers often aren’t fair to Apple, because they count millions and millions of PCs sold at the very low end of the market where Apple chooses not to compete. Notebook market share is much more indicative of the overall interest in the Mac platform.

The Mac Pros

The Mac Pros look like terrific machines, but they clearly weren’t much of a surprise. One downside to Apple’s switch to Intel is that it’s going to be clear from here on out what type of CPUs are going to be available in the next upcoming hardware revisions from Apple, because Intel’s (and AMD’s) CPU roadmaps are available far in advance. Apple can, of course, still surprise us with brand-new hardware enclosure designs, but they’re not likely to ever again offer a big surprise at the system architecture level, like they did with the original Power Mac G5 announcement at WWDC 2003.

In some ways this puts Apple on the defensive with announcements like this one for the Mac Pro, and makes it harder for them to make a splash with new generation hardware announcements. Everyone knew Intel-based Mac Pros were coming — the Power Macs hadn’t been revised for months and all the other products in Apple’s lineup had already made the transition to Intel. WWDC is a natural forum for announcing new pro-grade hardware, because developers (and their compilers) eat CPU cycles like candy. If, for some reason, Apple hadn’t been able to announce the Mac Pro last week, it would have been disaster for them PR-wise. I didn’t even list “Intel-based replacements for the Power Macs” on my WWDC predictions because it seemed too obvious, like predicting that Jobs would be wearing a black shirt.

They had to announce new pro-grade hardware, the machines had to be very fast (which was harder in this case than with, say, the MacBooks, because the Power Mac Quad G5s aren’t exactly slouches performance-wise), and they had to be competitively priced. It’s on that point that the Mac Pro announcement was at least somewhat surprising. Phil Schiller, introducing the new hardware, specifically mentioned Apple’s goal of “busting the myth” that Mac hardware is more expensive than comparable hardware from other PC makers. To that point, Schiller compared the Mac Pro against a comparable Dell that cost $1000 more; surely that was an extreme comparison, but the point stands: I don’t think anyone would have batted an eyelash if Apple had set the price on these new Mac Pros $500 higher. The actual prices strike me as very aggressive.

Nomenclature

In addtion to completing the architectural switch to x86 processors, the Mac Pro also completes Apple’s “Mac” nomenclatural consolidation. Gone is the “Power” prefix from “PowerBook” and “Power Mac”; in is the word “Mac” in every computer Apple makes.

Every computer but Xserve, that is. I half-expected Xserve to be renamed “MacServe” just to complete the transition to an all-“Mac” lineup. The logic behind the renaming is obvious — while nearly everyone agrees that in and of themselves, “PowerBook” and “iBook” are better-looking, better-sounding names than “MacBook Pro” and “MacBook”, it’s better for the overall platform brand to put all the hardware under the “Mac” umbrella.

But then why not the Xserve, too? Clearly it’s not just because “MacServe” sounds bad, otherwise we wouldn’t be stuck with “MacBook Pro”. One explanation could be that Apple’s marketing executives just don’t care enough about the Xserve to demand a name change. That doesn’t ring true to me, though. It probably is true that the Xserve is much less interesting to Steve Jobs than any of Apple’s other computers, but it’s not like the Xserve is lost in a labyrinthian Dell-like product matrix: Apple sells two notebook brands, three desktops, and one server. That’s it.

My bet is that it’s because the Xserve is the one machine Apple sells where they expect a significant number of customers to run an OS other than Mac OS X, full-time. And now that they’re switching to Intel chips, that number (that is, the number of Xserve customers running an OS other than Mac OS X Server) is going to go up, not down.

[Update: Initial reader feedback says I’m wrong about this; that the vast majority of Xserves in production are running Mac OS X Server. And so maybe the reason for not using “Mac” in the product name is that “Mac” just isn’t a strong or respected brand in the enterprise server market, and/or that the conservative nature of the enterprise market is such that it’s best not to dick around with name changes — changing the name might move it off the approved product list and require a new evaluation.]

One last just-for-branding-nerds thought regarding Apple’s hardware naming is that “iMac” now sticks out ever-so-slightly in the context of Apple’s new naming system. The other Macs are all “Mac something” or “MacBook something”; given those other names, just plain “Mac” would seem like a better fit for the all-in-one desktop machine. There’s certainly a lot of built-up brand equity in the “iMac” name, but that was true for “PowerBook”, too, and Apple dropped that. The way that “iMac” makes sense as a name — where by “sense” I mean in that “hard to describe exactly why you think what you think” way that most branding issues devolve to, ultimately — is by thinking of it not just as a member of Apple’s Mac family, but as a member of Apple’s entire product family — it’s a bridge between Mac hardware and the iPod, and, to some extent, between Mac hardware and Apple’s iLife software.

Apple’s “i” prefix is really rather curious, if you think about it. Originally, it ostensibly stood for “Internet”, in that the original iMac was introduced as the “Internet” Mac. But that connection between the “i” and “Internet” quickly faded away, and the “i” has more or less come to mean “fun consumer-level product from Apple”, which really has no logical connection with the letter “i”. The most famous iProduct of all — the iPod — has nothing whatsoever to do with the Internet. (iTunes does, but not the iPod itself.) In this larger “i” context, “iMac” fits perfectly, and what seems odd is the fact that the non-pro MacBooks lost their “i”.

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