Decline of the Desktop Mac

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.