So why didn’t Apple develop something like the Surface Studio? Why is it letting other companies eat away at the edges of the creative pro market? 

For that matter, why the heck is Microsoft making a play for that market?

Apple is not in the business of developing for niche markets. They are not in the business of solving niche problems (except as an adjunct to solving big ones).

Apple, certainly since Steve Jobs returned to the company in the late 1990s, has been in the business of engineering solutions for the largest segments of the market in which they can be profitable. Apple loves solving problems for people, so the larger the problem set (bigger or more prolific problems for more people) the better.

The iMac was an appeal to the very common problem of getting on the internet easily, and an appeal to a sense of style and the computer as an appliance. Those were mainstream concerns for which no one else was providing a good solution in 1998, when logging on and surfing the web was a more complicated, technical problem. The iPod was aimed squarely at “people who like music,” not the tech nerds that earlier MP3 devices were designed for. iPhone was designed for the mass market, to provide a pocketable computing platform that could becomes ANY solution; the app developers concerned themselves with the niches, Apple provided the platform. Same with iPad. 

Apple’s Mac line has been designed as the biggest solution to the largest market segment in which Apple could make a good solid dent. “People who use computers for stuff” you could say. There’s a LOT of those. So they concentrate on making excellent machines for people who need computers to DO things. And they’ve been so good at it, their laptops have dominated the market and mindshare for the last decade. MacBooks (Pro or otherwise) are the reference design for the entire industry.

So what about the creative market? That segment that used to be so core Apple’s user base, the group that kept them alive during the Dark Times?

Well, for one thing, those Dark Times were 20 years ago now. I know, it makes me feel old, too.

For another, I actually think it was closer to 35 years ago that Apple was REALLY solving for creative professionals. Key moves like a GUI, settling on 72ppi for screen resolutions (to match printing measurements for typesetting), incorporating PostScript, and so forth, set Apple up for a couple of decades of creative support that established a cultural expectation of catering to creatives.

But even by the early to mid 1990s they were actually making products for the masses. They were selling Macs at Sears. As companies like Aldus, Adobe, and Macromedia picked up the task of making professional creative software, Apple ceded this ground to concentrate on making good out-of-the-box experiences for as wide an audience as possible. So, yes, they included creative software, but nothing designed to compete with the likes of Photoshop or Quark.

Even during the Jobs Renaissance, when there was a resurgence in Apple professional software tools, they were to fill holes in the overall ecosystem to support Apple’s revival and recover their core audience of professionals. But this was a survival mechanism, to sell enough machines to make sure they could develop the iMac, the iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc. Holding actions until they could build mainstream successes. 

So, Apple has always been about achieving broad public success. Being the Computer of the Creative Class was a means to that end. And we lapped it up. Mostly because none of us creatives thought this at the time, we just thought that we had someone in our corner making great products for us (that some other enlightened mainstream users also appreciated). 

Where Apple has supported us the whole time has been in making a great OS and great hardware that we can use without having to constantly troubleshoot or reinstall drivers for. They excel at designing platforms that get out of our way so we can just get to work. And that’s still the case. 

But, it’s also true that this means that certain particular problem cases fall outside of Apple’s directive. They have not created specialized hardware for people who draw on their Macs, for example. Even the iPad Pro with Pencil is positioned as a broader market device. I mean, they kind of have to, since it doesn’t run Photoshop or Illustrator, but they could have made a push to encourage a different development path, with changes to the marketing or development tools or App Store, to attract professional tools like Sketch, et al.

I’m not arguing that Apple’s approach is wrong. Their position is that Macs are good for computer things, and iOS is good for mobile things, and that both are better off specializing in solving those problems in their specialized ways. They could be right. I certainly understand the reasoning.

But it leaves spaces in the market for other solutions to other problems.

And this is where the Surface comes in. You just knew I was going to tie this together, didn’t you?

Apple is not in the business of solving for niche problems, they are in the business of solving for the largest problems they can for as many people as they can.

The Windows PC industry, on the other hand, is all about solving for niche problems. Even within their own ecosystem. When Dell and HP and the like rose during the 1990s as the mainstream computer sales megacorps, hundreds of smaller, leaner startup PC suppliers cropped up to fill every conceivable nook and cranny they were leaving. Gaming PCs, video PCs, audio PCs, recording PCs, cheap PCs, corporate PCs, and so on. Most of those companies did not survive. Most went out of business. Some got acquired, then went out of business. Some still survive in some form.

The Windows PC world is constantly working to fill new niches, either real ones dictated by the real market, or artificial ones dictated by their marketing departments. What can we talk people into buying today? Most of these efforts fail. Tablet PCs in the late 1990s, for example. Some work out, but settle into their limited market niches; Wacom-style drawing tablets, for example.

Microsoft is working on the Surface line because it’s an area where Apple doesn’t have a comparable solution. Notice MS hasn’t taken a stab at the straightforward Macbook Pro-style notebook. The Surface Pro is a shot at the iPad and the Macbook Air (Apple’s ultraportable). Because you can draw on it (which you can’t do with the Air) and you can run Photoshop (which you can’t do on the iPad). 

Instead of confronting Apple head-on, they’re coming at them from the side, solving for a niche in which Apple’s not actually interested. Because of that, MS has gotten a bit of traction there, and boy are they running with it. But again, they’re shooting for a market position Apple isn’t even solving for. The question is why isn’t Apple interested, and will that change?

Personally, I think it’s because the actual real market for people who will buy a Surface for the reasons MS wants you to buy one is relatively small, and Apple recognizes this. A niche market for PCs can still be viable in terms of sheer unit volumes, whereas it might not be for Macs.

Consider the total PC market. It’s big, but the Surface isn’t for everyone. It’s for creatives, mainly (otherwise you just get a cheap PC subnotebook, right?). Creatives are a small percentage slice of the overall market, really. A few million people worldwide. Let’s say 10 million give or take (about the population of deviantArt, most of whom can’t afford a Surface anyway but we’ll leave that for now). A viable market if you can reach it, and with a few dozen manufacturing partners around the world selling to regional niches, like MS could have, you might just be able to saturate that over a few years.

If you’re Apple, though, the equation is different. The total addressable market is smaller, say one tenth the size. But let’s say that this segment would be more likely to buy Mac if they had the option. Let’s be generous and say they could sell maybe 2-5 million units over time. 

Apple’s success is spread across iPhone, iPad (still selling viably even if it’s down over time), services (iTunes, AppleMusic, etc.), the App Store, and Mac. They have an iOS empire to maintain and distinguish. If they made a MacOS tablet it would put them in the position of supporting two devices with similar hardware; a Mac tablet and the iPad Pro. Physically, as hardware, they’d do pretty much the same thing. And they'd have to re-write MacOS to be tablet friendly, and so forth. An expensive way to create a lot of confusion and split one of their key market segments. They are better off supporting their distinctive ecosystems separately to get the most out of each one as specialized experiences.

Microsoft on the other hand ONLY has the desktop left (yes, they have XBox, but that’s not part of this discussion because it’s not really part of the same ecosystem; it could be but MS is protective of it in kind of the same way that Apple is protective of iPad). They don’t have a mobile business to threaten. 

It’s in their best interest to try crazy stuff on the desktop because that’s the only market they have to work with. Apple does their crazy stuff with iOS and iPhone, and stays conservative with the Mac, relying on third parties to niche-ify the Mac experience for specific subsets of users. 

Don’t get me wrong. If they did make a Mac tablet, I’d be in line for it already. But I just don’t think it’ll happen. Even if they would like to, I just don’t see how it makes any sense, financially.

For the record, I don’t think MS is going to sell that many Surfaces, either, Pro or Studio. I suspect the actual, real market for them is smaller than anyone thinks. But as a reference, I also expect it will inspire other PC manufacturers to chase after that market, so who knows?

I know it’s got the creative pro community in a tizzy, if my Twitter feed is anything to go by.


* Before people start to call me out on these numbers, yes, they’re mostly out of thin air. Well, educated guesstimates, really. Intended to illustrate the point more than be a serious academic statistical analysis. I’ll leave that sort of thing to Horace Dediu. Even if they’re wrong, they’re probably not wrong by orders of magnitude, which is the scale needed for Apple to have a market they could sell to.

** Incidentally, this is also why Apple doesn’t make gaming machines or upgradable towers anymore. It isn’t that the overall market for this problem is small, but that Apple’s addressable segment of it is too small for them to expend the resources to solve it. Though the gaming segment is large in pure numbers, it’s still a small slice of the mainstream market for which Apple excels at providing solutions, regardless of how some PC gamers have convinced themselves of their own self-importance. Personally, I think it was a mistake for Apple to get rid of the towers in favor of the cylinders. They had a good market segment going there - people loved those towers - and all they needed to do was maintain it. Ah well.