The personal desktop computer used to once be an exclusive and expensive machine, though we now know it and its laptop counterpart as a mass-market commodity that most people can afford. This week, however, the companies that defined the personal computer, Microsoft and Apple, gave us a glimpse of the future and it looks like a return to the past: the PC is going back to being an exclusive and expensive machine.
Set aside all the explosions of color on gorgeous, high-resolution displays. Ignore the glamorous promo videos and the ultrathin, all-metal chassis of the new Surface Studio and MacBook Pro. Instead, focus on the prices.
From Microsoft, we have the $2,999 Surface Studio, which scales up to $4,199 when you juice up the RAM to 32GB and the storage to 2TB. Also out of Redmond is an updated Surface Book with up to 16 hours of battery life and a $2,399 starting price. That portable computer maxes out at $3,299 with added storage and memory.
Apple’s new MacBook Pro family is universally more expensive than the one it’s replacing: the supposedly entry-level MBP, lacking a Touch Bar, starts at $1,499. To get a Touch Bar, the least you’d need to spend is $1,799, and if you want to go beyond 13 inches, the 15-inch MacBook Pro starts at $2,399. Upgrade the processor and graphics, opt for 2TB of storage, and you’ll reach the incredible heights of $4,299.
Here’s my interpretation of this phenomenon: Apple and Microsoft have both come to terms with the fact that people are simply never going to buy PCs — whether in desktop or laptop form, running Windows or macOS — in the old numbers that they used to. Computers are just too good nowadays, most users are already satisfied, and so the market for new PCs inevitably shrinks. And when you can’t have growth in total sales, the logical move is to try and improve the other multiplier in the profit calculation: the per-unit price and built-in profit margin. That's been Apple's approach for a while, and now Microsoft is joining in.
Pure hardware providers like Intel, Acer, and Asus have no elegant means to escape the pursuit of "sell more stuff," but Apple and Microsoft’s software control gives them the opportunity to sell people holistic experiences and solutions. Yes, those are terrible buzzwords, but it’s true that Apple’s Touch Bar, fully integrated with macOS and the MacBook Pro’s design, delivers a unique experience. Just as it’s true that a Microsoft Surface Studio is only as appealing as it is because Microsoft has tailored the Windows software to support its on-screen drawing and touch capabilities, turning it into a wholly new creative solution.
Read more: The PC has become part of the furniture
Instead of thinking of such preposterous concepts as a post-PC world — which will only be precipitated by some apocalyptic event that wipes out all human progress and technology — we simply have to make ourselves comfortable with the notion that larger computers are returning to being a niche category. There's a compelling argument to be made that the average person's home computing needs are well met by their phone or a tablet. Mobile truly has eaten everything, and a very salient analogy is provided by cameras.
Digital SLRs were once very expensive and therefore exclusive. After a while they proliferated into the market, underwent a rapid cycle of commodification that turned them into a ubiquity around tourists’ necks, and then cameraphones arrived on the scene along with high-quality mirrorless cameras and DSLRs quickly reverted to their smaller scale. The new DSLRs of today are things like the $1,999 Nikon D500. I call them tractors: the number of people that need one isn't huge, but they couldn't get their jobs done without it. PCs are much the same.
It’s basic economics. Every publicly traded tech company is duty-bound to maximize profit, and the smart ones simply recognize when their opportunity to grow absolute sales numbers is at an end and then turn to creating high-premium devices instead. With mobile phones now supplanting so many of the original purposes of PCs, it’s high time for the personal computer itself to evolve. The Surface Studio gives people creative capabilities they’ve not had from any other desktop machine. The MacBook Pro is Apple’s best effort at crafting an ultraportable powerhouse, and its Touch Bar is again a unique bit of functionality. Maybe these things are gimmicks, we don’t yet know for sure, but they’re certainly necessary idiosyncrasies for justifying the introduction of anything new in such mature markets.
For any new tech devices to exist and to prosper, they have to show themselves capable of doing things existing ones can’t. That used to be easy in the era of constantly advancing specs and software demanding more power, but all the easy upgrades are over now. Beside Apple and Microsoft, companies like Razer are pushing the design and pricing frontiers too, offering PCs like the $3,699 Razer Blade Pro with arguably the best laptop keyboard ever.
The path forward is through a thicket of interesting, albeit also very expensive, design challenges. Apple is going in one direction, Microsoft is going in another, and the future of computers is harder to predict now than it has been for a while, because there’s no obvious next step. This makes developments exciting to observe, but the design and engineering exploration that is to come will come at a very literal cost.