The MacBook Pro, once a key part of Apple’s portfolio and given a prominent place at launch events, has faded into the background. While it remains difficult to replace, it has fallen out of the limelight and is weighed down by damaging design decisions. The promise of “a whole new vision for the notebook” has been frustrated by Tim Cook’s approach to the iPhone and online services.
Historically the Mac platform has been the weapon of choice for designers. Austin Knight has explored this and the answer seems to be inertia. In later years of the 20th centre Apple had certain advantages; font rendering, desktop publishing tools, and a unity of hardware and software you could not find in the Windows world. Couple the inertia of ’this has always worked’ with Steve Jobs’ eye for industrial design and you have a cultural memory of ‘Mac is best’ that continues to this day… but that memory is diminishing.
Apple has a strong claim to the number one laptop platform in the world (especially if you include the iPad) and is in the top five in worldwide PC sales. The MacBook Pro makes up a significant percentage of these numbers. They are ‘all round’ machines with huge amounts of potential in different areas, but are particularly prized by those in the creative industry.
Hardware choices in recent years may have helped make the MacBook Pro more fashionable, but it has become harder to use. The butterfly keyboard crystallises this approach with a preference for a light and thin design over-ruling a solid and dependable keyboard. The new keys debuted in 2015. Since then Apple has made numbers tweaks to the design but it still remains the lightning rod issue. There are others, such as the lack of expansion ports and connectivity options or the poorly designed screen cable that requires the entire screen to be replaced. All of these limit the perceived potential of a MacBook Pro.
Tim Cook’s current approach to Apple places a premium on connecting and monetizing cloud based services such as Apple Music, Apple Arcade, and Apple TV. These make a lot of sense in highly personal devices such as smartphones and tablets.There is a place for them on laptop and desktop computers, but in my mind desk-bound computing should be more than the consumption of media and syncing files to the cloud.
The entire Mac family, and the MacBook Pro in particular, needs to be more than a shadow of Google’s Chromebook strategy. It should be about creativity, about development, and about maximising the strengths of the unique platform, rather than forcing it to conform to a model that it is not suited for. The services first approach is limiting the platform.
Look at Apple’s current approach to hardware releases. Right now, if I asked you when the next major iPhone release would be, I suspect that anyone with a passing interest would be able to say ‘next September’ (although those following closely would be hum-ing and haw-ing around a March date for the iPhone SE2).
There is a regularity to the iPhone cycle that the geekerati trust. While it does force Apple to have ‘something’ ready every twelve months, it provides reassurance to the customer base that the iPhone is a loved product, that is continually being developed, and is at the forefront of Apple’s strategic thinking. You have every reason to be confident in the iPhone.
Ask the same question about the MacBook Pro and you’ll be met with the digital equivalent of tumbleweed.
The Mac Pro was announced at WWDC in June 2019 but has not yet reached retail shelves. There has been talk all year of a 16-inch MacBook Pro going on sale, with a huge expectation that it would launch October 2019. It’s November now and there’s no sign. And talk of replacing the derided butterfly keyboard with a new scissor switch based design is just talk. As yet no MacBook has shipped with this presumably reliable technology.
The MacBook Pro remains one of the most successful laptop lines in history, and that is an accomplishment that Apple is rightly proud of. Sales remain strong, the Mac platform remains a key tool for those wishing to develop on Apple’s other hardware platform, and the MacBook Pro especially is a recognisable part of Apple’s portfolio.
Contrast that with Apple’s approach to the MacOS platform as a whole and the iconic MacBook Pro; the continued use of badly designed components, the compromises being made to accommodate Apple’s online services, and the lack of any reliable information or guidance on the release of new hardware.
The MacBook Pro remains a success, but never again will it be in pole position to lead Apple. It will continue to sell, it will continue to generate revenue, and it will continue to be a necessary purchase for developers. But it has lost its identity, first to the iPhone and now to Tim Cook’s push towards services.
The trailblazing laptop is now a slice of silicon that is barely visible in Apple’s grand design, passed over time and again for the newer, flashier, and sexier products.
Now read this week’s headlines from Cupertino’s world in ‘Apple Loop’…