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Decline of the Desktop Mac

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Strolling the mall with my wife, I was looking for an excuse to visit the Apple Store, but instead I found a reason: the disappearing desktop.

“Where have all the desktops gone?” I asked her pointedly.

She looked inside the glass front and pointed. “They’re right there.”

“Well, yeah, but why are there so few? I need to investigate.”

She sighed. “Don’t buy anything.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I replied. “This is work. Anyway, no one in the know buys anything right before an Apple event.”

Well, not usually.

Inside, a quick count of Macs tallied just thirteen desktops, ten iMacs, two Mac minis, and a single Mac Pro. That contrasted with 36 Mac laptops.

If that disparity surprises, it shouldn’t. A look at a few other numbers tells the tale of the respective rise and fall of Mac laptops and desktops, and maybe what it means to you.

I asked a nice person in a brightly-colored shirt about the dearth of desktops, but he didn’t know anything, not even that there was a brightly-colored Apple event imminent. The invitations were privately sent out from far above the local Apple Store, and thus could not even be officially acknowledged below. That might explain from whence the store layout came.

Luckily, Apple must still divulge at least some information to the public, like Macs sold. Over the last decade laptop sales have been waxing, desktops not quite waning. While it is true desktop sales have seen some growth since the nadir in 2004, desktops have yet to match the sales record set in 2000. While that’s not exactly the end of the world, looking at models in percentage terms of Macs sold does seem a little more apocalypsish.

Those trend lines are no friend of the Mac desktop. For 2009, seven out of ten Macs sold were laptops, and in 2010 that ratio will likely rise to three out of four. While this may explain the single table of iMacs in the back of my local Apple Store, the question now becomes: is the Mac desktop doomed?

Steve Jobs once described Apple’s business model as an uncomfortable piece of furniture, a three-legged stool. What he was getting at is where the money comes from: Macs, iPods and the iTunes Store, and the iPhone.

This is Apple’s business model without the awkward furniture metaphor. Looking forward into 2010, the iPhone is surging, pulling along the iTunes Store, the iPod flattening out, and Macs are holding their own, or rather laptops are. In 2010, the desktop Mac will likely account for just a tenth of Apple’s net sales.

However, it’s important to remember Apple is a company that makes things, four major hardware product types, maybe five soon, but four now.

In 2009, desktop Macs, which include the Xserve, Mac Pro, iMac, and Mac mini had net sales of $4.3 billion on 3.18 million units. That works out to about $1,350 per desktop, and compares favorably with laptops at $9.47 billion in sales on 7.2 million units, around $1315 per laptop. There is no chance Apple is going to take that kind of money off the desktop anytime soon, but an increasingly portable world will continue to have consequences for desktop users.

I was there at Macworld Expo 2005 when the Mac mini was introduced, and five years later it looks pretty much the same, even the new server model sans optical drive. From the outside, the Mac Pro of 2010 looks a lot like the PowerMac G5 of 2003, even though one could arguably create a lighter, more portable mid-tower case with Intel inside. Not going to happen.

While internal changes are required, external redesign of Apple’s desktops would require R&D better spent on, say, a tablet. To that end, only Apple’s flagship desktop, the iMac, has seen, and will likely see, further refinement. From polycarbonate to aluminum and glass, to maybe a dock/slot for a tablet, the iMac has effectively become the desktop Mac.

If you are the Panera Bread iMac Man, you probably won’t notice, but for the rest of us desktop Mac users the future will pretty much look like the past.

38 Responses to “Decline of the Desktop Mac”

  1. Philscbx

    It didn’t take long to see my 05 maxed out Powerbook was no match for RAW image processing 15Mb images from full frame digital Dslr Canon gear, let alone video.

    Currently using early 08 MacPro 8 core, 8Gb Ram, 4- 1Tb drives.
    I can still bog it down watching live the activity monitor crunching a RAW 15Mb image to a jpeg.
    Like an oil pressure gauge on your car, without one you have no real-time clue how it’s performing.

    Any machine can page through images of Aperture, now crunch em.

    You would not know it was running, without the gentle warm air venting out being the only clue.
    Access 700 movies on one drive. Stream to Apple Tv is a treat.

    Heavy research, 15 browsers open is nothing.
    Granted a Macbook Pro is overdue, but by the time I it’s maxed out, I’m at second MacPro.

    iMac would be perfect mounted in the kitchen or shop for instant
    access to project info.

  2. The Mac Mini is a wonderful computer. It is one of those gems that doesn’t get much attention. It is small, quiet (even in 35℃ room temp), excellent wifi range, low power, reasonable performance, and extremely well made. For 90% of general computer users this is all they need.

    This is certainly a well hidden gem of a product.

  3. Much as I would love to switch to the clutterless, and mostly cable free iMac, I purchased a 30″ external LCD (a Dell, which is awesome!), so I’m stuck for the next few years with my current MacPro – and possibly a new one down the line.

  4. I love my 27″ too. I was just about to break down and get a MacBook and a Cinema Display like everyone else when it was announced. I’ve always preffered desktops.

    But I agree with the consensus that school labs are a big market for desktops and the right tablet has the potential to change all that. Only two more days for us to see what exactly we’re getting…

  5. It’s good to be a trend bucker -much like Apple Mac purchasers!

    I’m now staring at the screen of a 21.5″ iMac, and after years of laptop usage, it’s great to have such a nice big screen in front of me. Actually, it’s better than great! I love it.

    I guess I could have gone for the 27.5″ iMac, but after years with a 15″ laptop, the huge iMac would have been too much of a shock to my old system.

    This is my first Mac, and aside from very few niggles (return receipts and BCC), I am wondering why I did not go Mac years ago. Cost was an issue, but it’s not really now.

    I still have a laptop; voice drops to a whisper; – a Samsung Netbook. The wee netbook is great for me, and much easier to haul around than the big brother laptop, I can tell you.

    If I were to go future gazing, I’d say that people will end up with desktops like the all in one iMac, plus a smaller 13″, or less, screen laptop. I cannot wait to edit DSLR photos on this gloriously large display!



  6. During the quarter Apple also sold 3.36 million Macs representing a 33 percent unit increase over the year-ago quarter.

    I.e. it’s a steady level in respect to the last few quarters – iMac has helped pull it back.

  7. Adam Jackson

    I just think the new iMac is simply stunning and required a ton of R&D over the last models. The iMac has actually seen huge changes since 2001. Of course, based on your Apple Store walkthrough, most of the desktops on display are iMacs so I do see your point.

    The Mac Pro just isn’t needed for most people. Really, pros that need expandability and shave 7% off their renderman movie rendering times might go Mac Pro. Or a final cut studio shop that leverages distributed Xcode rendering via the Fiber Optic Mac Pro cards that you can buy as an addition. These markets are very tiny.

    the iMac is doing great though! I think it’s the computer that most families and design firms look at very seriously before getting a notebook.

  8. I bought a PowerMac G5 dual processor when it first came out, and then switched to a PowerBook G4 and then a MacBook Pro.

    But then I was frustrated because I really needed more memory and more power than the MacBook Pro was offering. The 27″ iMac came in just in time, offering me more screen real estate and tons more power.

    I think the Mac Pros are deemphasized in the Apple Store right now because unless you need an internal RAID, the iMac does everything a Mac Pro would do but at half the price or less for a complete, large-monitor system. My 27″ Quad Core i5 iMac is the best computer I’ve ever owned – it’s incredibly fast and sleek, and it doesn’t bog down even when I’m transcoding huge video files, a task that used to drive me nuts on the laptop.

    Admittedly it might be nice to have eight cores, but this system never slows down, even under tough conditions like transcoding video I can still read my mail, page through my vast Aperture library and so on. With my old computers you couldn’t do a thing once you punched the button to start transcoding. This system is a quantum leap in performance.

    I have no idea why a computer with laptop components (which you would think would be pricier than desktops), great speakers and a huge, stunning display would be cheaper than an aluminum box with desktop components inside. But it is, and unless a RED Rocket is in my future I doubt that I’ll buy another Mac Pro. The iMac is just that good, and phenomenal value for the money if you love a big, beautiful glossy display.

    So the traditional desktop may be on its way out, at least in Appleland, but the iMac form factor still has huge advantages for power and screen size-obsessed users like me.


  9. Some of us still require the desktop. As a designer/developer I constantly work on huge media/video files that would simply kill the non-desktop systems. I LUV my iMac as I LUV my MacBook; but I could not live without my Mac Pro.

    I honestly wouldn’t say that Desktops are disappearing. I would say that most people simply opt for the portability of laptops. Further proof is the Netbook and future tablet systems. People want their freedom…

    IMHO desktops are for serious computer work. I could not solely use a laptop and produce the same efficiency that I can with my Mac Pro (desktop).

    PS – we are all going to go blind looking at the tiny laptop, iphone, tablet screens!


    • tommco

      Thank you for the voice of reason. I do large-format print graphics (trade shows), and HD video work, neither of which are conducive for a laptop. Even if you had a laptop of equivalent power (which is impossible due to heat issues, expandability, and so on, what am I going to do, bring my 3 monitors (yes, quite common in video and high-end graphics work) to Panera Bread? Aside from schlepping all the stuff around, I would still need all of my project folders, and a studio in which to think and preview my work.

      So yes, it’s nice to be able to take a laptop somewhere to write on your blog or whatever, but for a lot of artists, producers, and scientists, this simply isn’t an option for their work. I doubt Apple will be abandoning this relatively small but important part of their market any time soon.

  10. I think desktop sales would be better if Apple had a decent mid-range desktop. The Mac Pro is too expensive, the iMac isn’t upgradable and has a built-in monitor (which is often of suspect quality), and the Mac mini isn’t upgradable either and is seriously under-powered. If you want a mid-range Mac desktop with some upgradability options your only choice is to build a Hackintosh. I would much rather have a real Mac but in order to get what I want out of a desktop Mac I would have to get a Mac Pro which is way out of my budget. But for less than $1000 I could build a machine with as much or more power than the iMac and as much or more upgradability and expandability as the Mac Pro. Sadly all I really want is a computer with room for maybe two internal hard drives and a free slot for a decent GPU (it can even ship with a 9400M or other such low-end GPU on the motherboard). Like with the Mac mini I would prefer to bring my own keyboard, mouse, and monitor. People have been begging for a machine like this from Apple for years and sadly still nothing. A mid-range desktop and a netbook are the two biggest holes in Apple’s product line that need filling IMHO.

    • Besides the new money to engineer a mid-tower Mac, there’s also cannibalization to consider. A mid-tower Mac would take away from both Mac Pro and iMac sales, both of which probably have higher margins. I think a MacBook mini has a better chance of happening (very unlikely) than a Mac Pro mini (none).

    • almostinfocus

      How could it be argued that a MacPro and iMac have higher margins than a non-existant product, of which we don’t know the cost or selling price?

      I never understood the cannibilzation argument. If a company prices two products to have similar profit margins, then why would they care which you buy?

      Yes, there are R&D costs to be considered, and the costs of marketing, selling and supporting another product line. But there are R&D costs to the iMac as well, and more is needed (and unique problems arise) every-time the monitor changes. A mid-tower would change much less over time, just as the MacPro and MacMini have remained virtually unchanged for years, resulting in lower costs in the long-run.

      Also, I would think the R&D costs of a tower design are relatively low to begin with considering it’s a conservative design that doesn’t require any radical changes.

  11. Today’s laptops are better than the imacs of just a few years ago. With a laptop all you need is a big external monitor and a big external HD to plug into and you have a killer “desk top” computer, plus you can take it with you when you need to.

  12. Yeah, there was a time when desktops were much ahead of laptops in terms of computing capacity, memory and hard disk sizes but not anymore. Back then even the LCD panels were bad enough that some people would just stay off laptops even if they wanted to switch. All that has changed now and laptops can do almost everything that required desktops earlier and then some more.

  13. I think the iMacs and Mac Pros aren’t even close to disappearance. Look how Apple keeps pushing out two updates to the iMac line each year, and how they keep receiving highly positive reviews on sites like Gizmodo etc. On TV, many people like professional photographers etc. use iMacs, and some companies can be seen running only Mac Pros. Desktops is the format of work computers, and with MacBook sales rising, it is only a matter of time, and the increasing Apple laptop sales will make the platform more popular, and thus more work computers will be replaced by Macs. With Windows XP being outdated, companies have the choice of switching to a different Windows version, or to Macs.

  14. I can understand this, I have used my 06 MacBook as my only computer since I bought it. Although I do use it in clamshell mode, with my wireless mouse and keyboard, whilst its plugged into several external HDDs. Then I turn it off, unplug everything and take it into university. Easy.

    Having said that, I bought an old G4 Cube desktop in December, and am thinking about getting an iMac G4. I use the Cube for general browsing and word processing when I can easily use the MacBook for something else. Currently, I like using the Cube to play music, and sitting up in the bed with the laptop. These are second hand, obviously, and FAR cheaper than buying a new Apple desktop.

    Granted, I don’t do anything requiring major processing power, but today, if I was to buy two things that were exactly the same internally, aren’t the current 13″ MBPs on a par with the current Mac Minis? Yet obviously you are paying for the added stuff in the MBP, trackpad, screen, isight, keyboard etc, so the price is a lot higher. The difference is still massive in price between the two. It would still be “cheaper” to buy a desktop.

    The other issue here is that the Apple desktops are niche products that are very expensive. Apple won’t put down the price, and they don’t need to. They inhabit the high-end and they are happy to stay there. It just takes time. The Apple Halo effect works. As it has on many people already. iPod to MacBook to MBP to iMac etc.

    People buy their desktops, but they sell more laptops, so they put more laptops in their stores. Simple!

  15. I would figure this goes for most computer makers out there these days. People like portability and I don’t know many people now who have a “computer room”, it has moved to all corners of their house.

    It’s the production companies, design houses and science facilities who are buying up the big bulky desktops.

    I wouldn’t trade my Quad Core desktop for anything but another faster desktop. There isn’t anything to compare it too!

  16. For serious work, you really can’t beat a desktop in terms of processing power and screen real estate. When I dipped my toe into Apple Land, I got a mac book as, at that time, it suited my nomadic lifestyle… but the screen is just too small to do any serious DTP or development work… so it ended up tethered to an external monitor. I recently got a 27″ quad core iMac and the gigantic real estate and processing power are a joy to behold (and quite frankly s**t on my previous portable + monitor setup).

  17. Not really surprising, the Apple store is for consumers, home users mostly. How many home uses do you know with Mac Pro’s? I don’t know any and I know dozens and dozens of local Mac users. The mini is a niche best suited as an entry or second computer for most, it really has no space saving advantage since it still requires a screen and cost isn’t really a benefit either now that the base macbook can be found for only a couple hundred more with the exact same specs but with a screen, keyboard, touchpad and portability. Both configurations look identical on the outside so as far as sensory sales go is there any need to show more than one?

    Most home users don’t tweak their own hardware, for them the iMac has all the features if not better features of the higher end PC’s with a form and elegance thats hard to beat and prices have become much more competitive, in fact when things like LED backlighting and resolution come into play its a bargain.

    People needing high end gear like xserves and Mac Pro’s are more likely to have them custom ordered online anyway, so filling a store with them is likely to be considered wasted display space to people managing the stores, better to have 5 stations with something people will actually walk of the store with than dedicate half of them to a product that some may want to “look” at but buy online.

  18. How anyone does development work on a laptop is beyond me. I don’t have that skill set.

    I’d have to have a mirror display and something other than a touch pad. That’s called an iMac.

  19. The Apple Store by me in the Palisades Mall, Nyack, NY is a pretty big store. The mall is HUGE! And for the record, there’s no Mac Pro on display at all in that store.

  20. tbh, is this really a suprise? In fact, this is hardly Apple related. Desktops in general have very little value over laptops in this day and age. Laptops can do almost any task a normal user would require with relative easy and as an added bonus come with portability around your house and elsewhere.

    Unless you’re a power user, the choice of Desktop vs. Laptop is quite easily made in favor of the latter. It’s not like the price of either is that far apart anymore either.

    • Exactly. I used to always use a desktop years ago, but now with cheaper more powerful laptops sometimes a whole month will go by without the need to boot up my desktop.

    • Ahh.. well…. Not EVERYBODY is a ‘power user’, but I think that HIGH END MacPro-Tower systems will remain in the marketplace, since without CONTENT CREATION, what will all the people with portables and laptops VIEW on their smaller, less powerful equipment?

      Without a top-end MacPro system, doing rich-media content creation just doesn’t work worth a damn!
      The lack of SERIOUSLY powerful CPU’s, limitations of RAM, and lack of hyperspeed GPU’d graphics cards on the Macbook, MBP, and iMac leave them in the dust, compared to the MacPro Tower… I’m waiting for the new about-to-be-announced dual hex-core MacPro tower, with up to 128GB of ram across 8 slots. THAT may be a “niche” product, but without it, Apple will be sidelined in the “content-creation-biz.”

    • It seems that Apple isn’t concerned about the mac pro. Personally, I think within 3 years from now Apple is going to pull the plug on the mac pro, leaving the imac, and mac mini and 36 different laptops to supercede it.

      I can say with certainty that the mac pro’s future is not very bright – If you see the latest ipad and other electronics where Apple makes most of its money, you can see that Apple really isn’t rushing to bring out a new mac pro. I don’t see it coming anytime soon.

      I am happy with my 2008 mac pro.. wouldn’t trade it up for the world.