Apple breaks with secrecy to rebut negative narrative

Analysts dissect why Apple talked up future Mac products this week

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Matias Cruz

In a very unusual move, Apple this week renounced its usual secrecy about future products to counter questions about its commitment to the Mac, analysts said today.

At an invite-only meeting with a handful of Apple bloggers and reporters, two of Apple's top executives -- marketing head Philip Schiller and Craig Federighi, who leads software engineering -- acknowledged that the firm's strategy for the Mac Pro, the company's top-of-the-line desktop, had been a mistake. While a refreshed Mac Pro will not ship this year, Schiller and Federighi promised that one is in the pipeline.

Along with talk of the Mac Pro -- a niche item in Apple's Mac line, which in turn has been dwarfed by the iPhone -- the executives stressed that the company was committed to the professional part of its customer base. Apple will ship new iMacs this year, they said, some configured for the "pro" users at the advanced end of the spectrum.

Schiller was also adamant that Apple remains steadfast in its support of personal computers. "The Mac has an important, long future at Apple, ... Apple cares deeply about the Mac, we have every intention to keep going and investing in the Mac," Schiller told the reporters and bloggers, according to Techcrunch's Matthew Panzarino, who was there.

"It was certainly very unusual for Apple to reveal anything about future products," noted Jan Dawson, principal analyst with Jackdaw Research, who also characterized it as a "big break from tradition" for the company.

Other experts pointed out that, while secrecy is still Apple's go-to stance -- after all, less than a year after taking the job, CEO Tim Cook said he would "double down on secrecy on products" -- there had been hints that it was easing up.

"They've given more clarity on things that interest them," contended Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies, such as when Cook has been bullish, if only in generalities, about augmented reality.

So, what was so important that Apple departed from a public relations strategy in place for decades?

"Ultimately, there has been increasing unhappiness in the Mac user base," said Dawson. "This was a response to that negative narrative that's been building."

Dawson was talking about last fall when, after Apple rolled out new MacBook Pro notebooks, critics panned the machines as unsuitable for professional uses like video editing, engineering work and high-end design. Rumbles of discontent took hold in online forums, and were amplified by wider reports in the media that questioned Apple's commitment to personal computers.

Some of the critics focused on the economics: Although the Mac line recorded billions in revenue for 2016 -- more than $23 billion -- the portfolio was a small portion, less than 11%, of Apple's total.

"I don't think there was ever a question about Apple not caring about the Mac," said Bajarin, "but it didn't seem to be competing for the 'pro' community like they used to." Bajarin agreed that Apple's commentary was designed to combat the negative storyline, but compartmentalized it as primarily involving the Mac Pro.

Not everyone interpreted the turn-about in that way.

"I think they did this to keep Mac users interested [in the platform]," countered Patrick Moorhead, chief analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Windows and Microsoft and their partners are making it very, very interesting by leaning into very creative platforms both from the hardware and software sides."

Moorhead cited Windows 10's Creators Update -- the feature upgrade slated to start landing on PCs next week -- and its emphasis on 3-D content creation, and the Surface Studio all-in-one desktop as examples. His point: Microsoft's pitch to creative professionals, long an audience devoted to Macs, was having an impact. And Apple didn't like it.

"There are some very interesting options for creative types," Moorhead continued. "And Apple felt like they had to elevate their game."

That Apple did, Bajarin argued.

"One of the subtler things [about going public about the Mac Pro] was that they are really, really listening to the customer base," Bajarin said. "That customer base for the Mac Pro is a couple of million people at best, but Apple's saying, 'We're still listening to you,' then emphasizing that it is listening to customers and will take steps in the right direction."

Dawson echoed that in commentary published to his Tech Narratives website. "These pros are no longer the core constituency of the Mac, which instead is mainstream users," Dawson wrote. "However, they are vocal, and they're important because they're disproportionately influential as a result."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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