It has been a long time since Apple has released a product as polarizing as the new MacBook Pros. It has also been a while since the traditional Apple customer base has been so angry with Apple because of product direction.

While these new books have evoked the strongest negative reaction, they are just the latest in a long line of products that have greatly upset the Apple fanbase. Over the last few years, there have been more products fans have hated than products they have loved.

No matter what you might think about the outcry (and I have certainly had a few thoughts on the matter), It is a significant development in the Macosphere. Here are some of the products that have recently come under fire:

  • Final Cut X
  • The Mac Pro (Cylinder)
  • The iWork suite
  • MacBook 12”
  • iPhone 7/7 Plus
  • Apple Watch

There may be others. But these made headlines for the discontent they stirred. That is not to say there have been no wins. Here are a few:

  • iPhone 6
  • iPad Pro
  • Apple Pencil
  • 5K iMac

iPhone 6 was the most successful smartphone in the modern history of smartphones. The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil were well-received, but not necessarily market successes. The 5K iMac was the only win for the Mac in some time. And that was a limited market success due to positioning and price.

Apple has been loudly criticized for the software direction in iOS since iOS 7. The iPhone 7 will forever be known as the one without a headphone jack. Some of the Macs most exciting features in this era have been buggy and unreliable.

Think Handoff and Continuity. Think iCloud, Apple Music, App Store search, AirDrop. Apple keeps offering game changing features that simply don’t work reliably. They get 10 points for effort, but never seem to be able to stick the landing.

The most frustrating thing about these issues is that Apple seems to be oblivious to them. We would like to think that Apple is as uncomfortable with the state of their most promising technologies as we are. But there is no outward indication that this is the case.

Compounding the problem is that until recently, the entire Mac lineup was so old and crufty, even Apple enthusiasts like myself have been advising anyone who asked not to purchase any Mac for now. Because the laptops have just gone through a major redesign and update, they are off the no-buy list. Everything else is still in a holding pattern. So what, if anything, do the new laptops tell us about the state of the Mac in general?

Abandoning the niche

With every new product release, the cry gets louder that Apple is abandoning the pros. I believe that is absolutely false, if you happen to define pros the way I do. However, there is no definition of pro upon which everyone agrees. As a result, depending on your definition, it might well be true. Apple may be abandoning your particular professional niche.

In this case, most, if not all of the outcry seems to be coming from one particular sector of pros. Those would be the ones who produce graphic, audio, and video media. They behave as if they were the only kind of pros worthy of the designation.

Because they have so thoroughly hijacked the word, they believe the pro in MacBook Pro is exclusively about them. Anyone else using one of these notebooks is probably just a poser. As far as they are concerned, if Apple has stopped catering exclusively to their needs, then Apple has abandoned the pros. From that very narrow perspective, Apple has definitely abandoned the pros.

A bigger tent

What this particular band of creative pros don’t seem to realize is that even among the greater community of professional creatives, they are a small niche. Writers, musicians, dancers, and artists are also creative pros. And the vast majority of us don’t need 32GB of ram. Not only can they not max out the capabilities of the current products, they, like me, are probably very happy with the stock 8GB of ram.

What Apple is very likely doing is broadening the tent to make room for more people who do all kinds of professional work. It is not that they no longer want the business of the power-hungry creatives. Apple just can’t afford to be limited by that market. They want a bigger tent to accommodate more people, not a smaller tent for a well-pampered base.

It is gradually becoming a detriment for Apple to be known as the company that makes those expensive computers for the creatives. That is too narrow a description, and allow people to kill them with faint praise. Sure, that’s a very nice machine for those creative types.

It can even be intimidating. A person sees a Mac and thinks, Oh, that’s not for me. I’m not one of those creatives. I wouldn’t know how to use Photoshop if you gave me a copy for free. Another thing they might say is, I’ve seen those in the graphics department at work. I wouldn’t know how to do anything like that.

This is the message being conveyed by positioning the Mac as a unique device for a specific niche of people. It is highly unlikely that the Apple of today wants to be positioned like that. Apple doesn’t want anyone to be intimidated by an entire product line that is more exclusive than inclusive. Apple wants any professional to be able to picture themselves using any Apple product.

It wouldn’t even surprise me if at some point, Apple dropped Pro from the name. It is not that the products are not suitable for professionals. Rather, all of the products are suitable for professionals.

It is not about making products for particular industries. It is about making products for everyone. For now, there is a lineup for professionals. Just note that all professionals are welcome inside the big tent Apple is building.

A slimmer profile

There has been a trend toward slim and light for some time now in the industry. Grant it, Apple led the rush to the look and feel of the modern notebook. But others have taken up the challenge and have been trying to out Apple Apple in that particular area of notebook design.

But part of the current outcry is that Apple is focusing too much on thin and light at the expense of more important things professionals care about. They have gone as far as to say that real professionals don’t care how big and heavy their notebook is. They just want it to be maxed out with the latest specs.

If that were true, they could always get something like this:

This beauty is a 13.3” stunner at 7.7 lb. Compare that to Apple’s 13.3” MBP at 3 lb. This is clearly a specialized machine chosen for effect. But the Windows world is full of 6+ lb. luggables that are ugly as sin, and brimming with power and ports. If size and weight didn’t matter, those laptops would be flying off the shelves.

Of course business professionals care about size and weight. But it is actually worse than that. If there is any group that doesn’t care about thin and light, it’s gamers. Yet even that is being flipped on its head as gaming laptop makers are now competing for the thin and light crown.

So where is this anti-thin and light sentiment coming from? I think it is from the group of people who use notebooks exclusively as their primary devices. They don’t have desktops. Rather, they have a powerful notebook used in clamshell mode on a desk hooked up to a minimum of two external monitors and some sort of hard drive array.

More than a decade ago, we used to hear about notebooks as desktop replacements. But using a notebook the same as you would a traditional desktop is not using a desktop replacement. You have simply changed the form factor of the desktop. You haven’t replaced it.

Even the most powerful laptop cannot equal the average desktop spec for spec. A desktop system has more room for thermals, and more power-hungry components. This is how it has always been, and because of physics, how it always will be. Apple has decided that they will make true notebooks that are intended to be used as notebooks, not faux desktops.

That said, for those who are happy with the inherent compromises of a notebook, you can still use these lappies on a desk like a desktop. You can connect multiple pixel-packed displays and fast hard drive arrays. What you can’t do is complain that they don’t pack the punch of Xeon-wielding Mac Pros.

It appears that Apple has decided to make better notebooks, not better desktop replacements. Part of that is maximizing the portability of the product. The chassis has to slim down, and so does the keyboard. You can’t have desktop-style travel in a portable computer. The bottom portion of a notebook is filled with components. There is ever less space for a deep-set keyboard.

Because battery tech is not advancing as fast as we would like, the largest portion of that space still has to be dedicated to a sizable battery. Apple wants their laptops to last a workday without needing to be constantly tethered to a wall. This is the nature of a true portable.

Apple’s commitment to building a true portable is informing tomorrow’s notebook designs. This trend will not be reversed. Next year’s notebooks will not be thicker and heavier to accommodate desktop-style components. Apple will make the best notebooks they can. But they are clearly less willing to compromise the notebook form factor for a small niche who wants them to serve double-duty.

More touch

The new notebooks have between 50% and 150% more touch than previous models. That is because the trackpads have grown from large to ginormous. On the 15” model, the trackpad is almost twice as large as on last year’s. While not seeing the same size increase, the 13” model is still much larger than its predecessor.

Despite this increase in size, there are no new gestures that take advantage of that size. You can just do the old gestures with more ease. It leads one to wonder why the trackpads grew at all. Apple already made the best trackpads in the industry. Perhaps the entire palm area will become a trackpad. You heard it here first.

More interesting is the new Touch Bar. It is only in the highest-end offerings. You have to pay $1,800 to get into a Touch Bar equipped model. The $1,500 model without the Touch Bar is the one that raises the questions. Why does that one have traditional function row keys?

It can’t be a matter of space. Both 13” models are the same size and weight. Could it be that Apple is hedging their bets with the Touch Bar? Perhaps they thought they needed to keep a model without the new part for those would wouldn’t like it, or absolutely needed function keys.

Still, it is obvious that Apple poured a lot of time and money on the Touch Bar. It is not just an incidental add-on. The entire product had to be rethought, redesigned, and retooled to accommodate a whole new interface element. That is not a casual pursuit. I don’t think Apple is hedging their bets. They may just be taking it slow.

The other possibility is that the new design is considerably more expensive. $1,800 may be the minimum they can sell these Touch Bar notebooks. There may be one model without the Touch Bar for price considerations only. It also could be a yield issue. OLED screens are still relatively hard to build reliably. The constraints may be purely practical.

My opinion is that Apple did not do all that work as a test run. There are practical constraints on pricing and manufacturing that kept it out of the base model 13” MBP. In a year or two, every notebook Apple makes will have the Touch Bar. The real question is what does all this new touchy-feely stuff mean.

Touch Bar 2.0

For me, the best way to understand the current Touch Bar is to imagine the next one. That is because I am convinced that the current one is a first step to something bigger. They had to start somewhere. I don’t think they had to get rid of the function keys to make the Touch Bar. The trackpad didn’t have to grow bigger. The Touch Bar was just an excuse to get rid of the function keys. And I think it will grow.

There is a lot more space for more touch surfaces. I understand those speaker grills along the side of the keyboard are largely ornamental. Imagine a touch strip on the left side for dock access, and a scroll strip on the right. We could imagine even more touch surfaces to handle other functions.

But OLED screens are expensive. And OS implementation takes a lot of person hours. They barely got the current Touch Bar into the most expensive notebooks they make. The current touch surface makes a lot more sense as the vanguard to a much more touchy-feely future.

That said, even without that future, it was a worthy idea to replace the little-used function keys with something more useful. You don’t have to use it all the time for everything. You only have to use it more than you did the function keys for it to be worth it. That means finding just one use that makes life a little easier.

If the only thing you do with the Touch Bar is surface and use emojis on your notebook, you will get infinitely more use from that area of the keyboard than you did previously. If typing suggestions is the only benefit you derive, it was worth it. Personally, I like the ability to easily flip through open Safari tabs. Use any one, and it is worth it. Use two or three, and you are living the dream.

Conclusion: Beyond notebooks

After taking a look at what these new notebooks say about the current state of the company, it is time to consider what they say about the rest of the lineup. Bear in mind that it is possible these new books say nothing about the rest of the lineup. Apple believes that each product and each component should be true to itself. The notebooks are notebooks. And the desktops are desktops.

That said, Apple has always been a design-focused company. Their iMac has gotten slimmer and lighter over the years. Aesthetics will continue to be an important differentiator. One of the current complaints is that Apple has left the stand-alone display business. They are promoting an ugly LG display instead of something with Apple sheque.

The next iMac will continue that tradition of wrapping powerful internals inside an attractive package. The Mac Pro went from being a tank to a small cylinder. I don’t see that trend reversing itself.

Another trend that is not going anywhere is the simplification of ports. Apple is moving to USB-C. And to get there, they have to put an end to the alternatives. We might see 6 USB-C ports, and nothing else. The cords and adapters already exists. The transition is underway. I seen no reason for them to undermine that transition with new desktops sporting old ports.

Upgradability is already a thing of the past. The new machines will be more the appliance than they are today. There will be more options for SSD, and fewer for spinning drives. If you need more space, Thunderbolt drives await.

I think the MacBook Air spells good news for the Mac mini. There is no reason for the Air to still be in the lineup except to meet a particular price point. For the same reason, I expect Apple to keep the Mac mini around. They need a sub-$1,000 desktop. And the Mac mini is it.

The absence of a more powerful 15” notebook in the lineup does not bode well for the Mac Pro. Apple is not making big iron. They are not interested in reaching maximum specs. That market is small, noisy, and hard to serve profitably. Apple does not mind serving prosumers. Expect iMacs to really shine next year.

Ultimately, the state of the Mac notebook is transition. Some markets will suffer so that others can expand. The new models have a fairly clear direction. But the old models are still being sold as new, thus muddying the message. The Air only exists to be cheap. And that seems most un-Apple-like.

Transition years are always confusing. And I think the transition will take more than a year to clarify. It will cost you more money than ever to get the newest thing. That means the older things will continue to live on and define the notebook market. Prices have to come way down. The Touch Bar has to proliferate throughout the lineup. And USB-C will have to be better supported industrywide.

These are not easy things. But Apple has seldom taken the easy path. Transitions mean compromise. But if you get in at the beginning of the transition, you will be ahead of the curve when the transition is complete. As much as I love the new MacBooks, the lineup as a whole is a confused mess.

While I love the new models, they are very expensive. This may be a good year to pick up last-year’s model and wait out the transition. But you know me: I’m a front-of-the-curve kind of guy.

David Johnson

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