As I work in IT and support both Macs and PCs, I consider it part of my job to stay up on the latest news with regard to Apple. A few days ago, (3/21/2016) I watched the live stream of Apple’s event, in which they rolled out the iPhone SE and the smaller iPad Pro.
By many accounts, this was a bland event, as Apple has trained us to expect breakthrough products at these events. However, there was one moment that really stood out for me. It happened about 45 minutes into the presentation, when an Apple exec said the following:
“There’s a second group of people that we’d love to reach with the new iPad Pro. Windows users. You may not know this, but the majority of people (who) come to an iPad Pro are coming from a Windows PC. A desktop, or a notebook. Now of course, we all know, Windows PCs were originally conceived of before there was an Internet. Before there was social media. Before there were app stores. And this is an amazing statistic. There are over 600 million PCs in use today that are over five years old. This is really sad. It really is. These people, yes, could really benefit from an iPad pro. And when they see the features and performance and capabilities of a product like the iPad Pro designed for our modern digital lifestyle, well many of them will find it’s their ultimate PC replacement”.
Never mind the fact that Macs were also originally conceived of before there was an Internet, social media, or app stores. We can also ignore the fact that bulk of these aging Windows PCs can connect to the Internet, access social media, install more apps than are available for the iPad, and have lots of capabilities that the iPad Pro doesn’t.
Putting aside the absurdity of claiming that an iPad is a direct replacement for a desktop class computer, what I find most interesting is that with the exception of the Apple vs. PC commercials that ran from 2006 – 2009, Apple has used very positive messaging that focused on the benefits of their own products. Apple positions their products as status symbols, and typically pulls new customers toward their products in an aspirational way. The “sad” statement, is very different. Rather than positioning their updated iPad as something to aspire to, this message seems to be very negative – even condescending. Apple seems to be saying that there is something wrong with people who continue to use old PCs.
Statistically speaking, I am the target of this statement. The PC that I’m typing this on is 7 1/2 years old. It was only a mid-range machine when I purchased it, costing about $750 including the flat panel monitor. However, the processor is not drastically slower for day-to-day use than a processor in a new computer. Two years ago I spent about $140 to add more RAM and a SSD, which drastically improved its performance. It is more responsive than a typical new computer with a conventional spinning drive. I expect this PC to continue to meet my needs for at least another two or three years.
However, there is nothing sad about my continuing to use it, and if it died tomorrow, I couldn’t possibly imagine replacing it with an iPad.
What might cause Apple to shift from a positive, aspirational message to one of derisiveness? Why are they making the effort to try and portray older PCs as relics of a bygone era? Why is it sad that people are continuing to use computers that are clearly meeting their needs?
My contention is that Apple is worried about both the slowing product replacement cycle across the industry, and commoditization within their product categories. This is a scary prospect for a company that derives the vast majority of its revenues from hardware sales.
The overall replacement cycle for computers is slowing down tremendously. There are a few reasons for this, but I believe that a major factor is that software bloat has largely leveled off for basic applications – i.e. running Windows, Office, and a browser. While it used to be the case that new versions of Windows or Office placed a significantly higher load on machines than their predecessors, this is no longer the case for most users. Businesses and individuals who used to need to replace their hardware every three years have started stretching their replacement cycles to four years, five years, or even longer. Two years ago I surveyed the faculty I supported who were due to have their four year old computers replaced, and 43% of them asked if they could just keep using their old computers.
Yet Apple is counting on this replacement cycle to drive sales of new iPads. While millions of people have certainly supplemented their aging PCs with iPads, the overall market for iPads seems to be plateauing. Just as with PCs, iPads themselves aren’t being replaced at the pace that Apple would like for them to be. For many customers, even those seeking status, there are fewer and fewer compelling reasons to upgrade with each iteration. The iPhones and iPads are maturing, and Apple seems to be exploring new tactics to stimulate growth.
Competition within the Android phone market, combined with the cell phone industry’s move away from subsidized purchasing, is putting increasing pricing pressure on the iPhone. There is currently a selection of not just usable, but very good Android phones in the $200 range, which couldn’t be said a few years ago. As more and more people pay cash and see the actual cost of their iPhones for the first time, it becomes harder and harder for many of them to justify not just replacing their iPhones, but spending significantly more than they would for an Android phone.
I certainly don’t think that Apple is in any danger of going out of business. I fully expect that they will continue to be the most profitable player in the industry for many years to come. Apple has a tremendous amount of cash, their products are extremely popular, and their customers are willing to pay a premium relative to the technical specifications of their products that is unheard of in the rest of the tech industry.
However, the negative message does seem to signal some insecurity on the part of Apple. It will be interesting to see if this is a one-off statement, or represents a change in Apple’s messaging.