The future of PCs and Macs is expensive

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.

Apple MacBook Pro first look

Comments

I think what we see here with Apples pricing may have to do with Steve Jobs truck analogy. He used to say that PCs/Macs were like trucks, and that not everyone needed a truck. Apple might be starting to price the Macs as such. Are you a consumer? Then an iPad and iPhone are all you need!

Two pieces of evidence that you didn’t read the entire article:
- You commented in less time than it took me to reread it.
- You missed my tractor analogy, which is like the Steve Jobs truck analogy but more agrarian.

(un)Fun fact, I learned the word agrarian for the first time when Steve Jobs used the analogy in 2010

Look, Vlad, there is a huge incentive to being one of the first comments on any article. The comments section works on a sliding scale, the first comment has the greatest chance of getting recommends regardless of merit. My little birds (ducklings technically) tell me that when The Verge comes forward with their big redesign, we’ll finally be able to exchange these rec’s for some tangible items… Strands of Nilays hair, items left behind in David Pierce’s old locker… stuff like that.

I typically just settle for being a reply near the top of the comments. It’s less effort, and you still get all the rec’s. Just watch!

flagged by mistake, 1000 apologies.

Here’s a secret, rec’s don’t matter.

I love you, man.

the first comment has the greatest chance of getting recommends regardless of merit.

Ironically, as of this comment, he has zero recs.

I think that’s cos Vlad shot him out of the sky immediately. Have a rec.

But the overall market for PCs is going down in price. I think the MacBook is a legacy device at this point. Buying a MacBook Pro is like buying a hand carved Grandfather Clock. You don’t buy it to compute—-or tell the time. You buy it because of an attachment you have to the aesthetic/form factor.

Lol
Don’t let them hear you

No-one is denying that "components" are becoming cheaper. Vlad is talking about what companies are trying to do to stand out as a brand. We all know you can knock up a better custom PC for half the price. That’ll never change

Sorry but this is complete nonsense.

Out of all my gadgets, it’s my 2013 MBP I feel most fond of; because it’s the tool that, along with Adobe CC and some skill, earns ALL my money. These are tools to get work done and although the new ones are expensive, in reality you make the money back in the first month or two.

In short, your clock analogy is wrong and weird.

If your concern is professional digital imaging the MacBook is an inherently inferior and dated device. Stylus input is a more intuitive and technologically inevitable evolution of how people use the entire Adobe suite. Traditional laptops will not be able to survive this change. That is why the MBP is in fact an antique, and it is overpriced because it is charging a premium for an old paradigm. If you like it for the novelty of a traditional laptop, and because you’re anchored by inefficient work flows that’s an entirely different story.

Calm down there. If you want stylus input you’re rocking a cintiq with PC anyway. The MacBook works just fine paired with a cintiq.

No you’re not. You’re buying a Surface Studio.

Graphic design and branding yes. Also I respectfully disagree; the ms Surface and other convertibles may be the ultimate solution for creatives in your head, but reality doesn’t back that view up. People use MacBook pros a lot, iMacs a fair bit, cintiqs and iPad pros starting to appear as a companion. For me it’s a mouse all the way for accurate bezzier curves and photoshop work

It’s interesting that you assert that the Apple laptops are "in fact" an old paradigm, when of course we don’t know that. The experts predicted the iPad would take over from the MacBooks, doesn’t seem to have happened.

Relaxed hands and a screen at eye level is very ergonomic. Much better than touching the pixels. Try holding your hands on a vertical screen or bending your neck to look down for an 8 hour day – it doesn’t work.

Try holding your hands on a vertical screen or bending your neck to look down for an 8 hour day – it doesn’t work.

No one does this. Why do people still think that people are doing this? Why would anyone do that all day and get tired arms and sore necks? Touchscreens are not being used that way.

No one’s sitting there at their desk saying, "damn, my arms are getting so tired from having my arms up all day using the touchscreen." That’s not what’s happening. At least I’ve yet to see anyone do that.

They’re just a convenient alternate input method that I (and presumably many other people) find helpful and useful in certain use case scenarios. I really don’t get that whole mentality and all the hate some people have against touchscreens on computers.

No offense, but this just sounds like more of the usual "I don’t need it or find it useful, so no one else should and it’s just categorically and objectively unnecessary and useless" sort of thinking that I keep seeing from people in the forums. It’s there if you need it, and you don’t have to use it if you don’t.
Personally I wouldn’t buy a laptop without a touchscreen. But to each his own.

You’re asserting that laptops are an antique old paradigm and sounding disrespectful to anyone who might purchase a MacBook Pro. But you’re feeling offended by someone pointing out why a Surface might not be for everyone. Double standards.

What the…?

No… I’m not saying laptops are an antique paradigm, I’m not intending to disrespect anyone, and I’m not feeling the least bit offended. People can buy whatever they like; I don’t care.

I don’t know where the hell you got that misinterpretation from, because that’s not what I intended nor ever imagined.

I’m simply pointing out that touchscreen laptops aren’t the usability and ergonomic nightmare that some people apparently think they are, and that the touchscreen can be quite useful and helpful. That’s all.

The MacBook is in the process of being replaced by iPads, Surfaces, and smartphones. It is inevitable.

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