On cars, trucks, and the new MacBook Pro

Everyone and their uncle has an opinion on the new "Late 2016" MacBook Pro — whether its design is genius or folly, and what it means in the grand scheme of things. I think the new MacBook pro is tragically misguided. Here's why.

We are at a crossroads where the technology industry must finally decide where the divergent futures of tablets and computers are headed. Multiple PC vendors have experimented with sometimes clever, sometimes awkward, "convertible" devices. Apple has stuck to their guns that never the twain shall meet.

But while Apple has made the strategic choice to keep the two product lines independent, they don't have a coherent message as to why they even make computers any more – except that they can't completely abandon longtime Mac users (yet). Nearly every update to their computers in the last 5 years has been to make them more tablet-like—as if to slowly wean users off of them. 

Horace Dediu argues that the defining physical attribute of Macs (vs. mobile devices) is their "indirect input" hardware (keyboard and trackpad or mouse). This is certainly true, but he fails to connect this physical attribute to the "true essence" of laptop and desktop computers, and what that essence means for defining their futures.

My favorite tech analogy is that tablets are cars and computers are trucks. For decades we tried to convince people that they needed powerful trucks when they really just needed a basic commuting car. But we lived in a world where "cars" didn't exist, so there was no alternative. We were selling professional work tools to casual users. It took decades of user research to realize how truly overcomplicated computers were for the average person's needs. The iPad and other tablets were the result of that revelation.

People now have their commuting cars, so it's time to let our trucks be the best trucks they can be. Apple is headed in the wrong direction.

What defines a computing "truck"—moreso than its "indirect input" devices—is its aptitude for supporting the aggregation of information from multiple content and data sources. Professional "knowledge workers" do this day in and day out, and casual users don't. Casual users may cut and paste something from a browser into an email—and tablets are certainly capable of facilitating that, but knowledge workers may use half a dozen apps in a 15 minute span—collecting input via multiple emails, referencing a collection of Google Docs, researching ideas via web browser, processing data in a spreadsheet, and ultimately collecting everything in a PowerPoint presentation—all while collaborating with coworkers live via Slack or Skype. This workflow is a nightmare on a tablet and always will be. This type of work requires the effortless juggling of multiple apps and the speed and shortcut-based efficiency keyboard and trackpads bring.

Put another way: if your work involves mostly "living" in a single app, you should use a tablet. If your work involves extracting and combining insights from multiple apps, you should use a computer.

Professional computer users also regularly need to physically interface with different devices, also toward the goal of aggregating and combining insights. While Ethernet has mostly been supplanted by WiFi, there are plenty of businesses which require it for certain secure interactions. While cloud services for transferring files have proliferated, swapping files via flash drive remains the most efficient way to transfer large collections of files to another physically present person—there's no need to determine in advance what cloud ecosystem(s) they've bought into. SD cards are still very, very popular in photography, and it seems like VGA-based projectors will be with us until the heat death of the universe. In all these cases, no matter how "modern" you choose to be with your computing technology, you have no choice over how other organizations you work with choose to interface with your devices.

With the 2016 MacBook Pro, Apple has done practically nothing to make life easier for professionals, and has arguably made things worse. They're entirely fixated on their cosmetic obsession with austere minimalism, to the point of self-parody.

The obvious defining feature of the 2016 MacBook Pro is the Touch Bar. Is it clever? Yes. It it fun? Yes. Is it necessary for professionals? No. There's no real reason that the contents of the Touch Bar couldn't be shifted slightly into the vertical plane of the display and fluidly accessed via the trackpad. Meanwhile, the fast-typing, shortcut using, professionals have lost their ability to quickly hit customizable function keys (and, critically, the Escape key!) without looking. 

The other defining feature of the 2016 MacBook Pro is lack of all ports, save for four USB-C ports and a headphone jack (be thankful for small mercies). Apple apologists will say that they're just getting a jump on the future, where all accessories will be USB-C. I don't see that future arriving any time soon. Apple still controls a tiny minority of the computer market, and peripheral makers have little reason to support USB-C until it becomes a standard on most Windows PC devices. I'm a computer enthusiast and I've never actually seen USB-C port on a PC in the wild. For peripheral makers, the fact that Mac users can access their stuff via a dongle will be good enough for them. They will use the dongles, because they'll have no choice.

So, what improvements did Apple make to the MacBook Pro to benefit professionals? Undoubtedly, processor speed improvements are beneficial (though in this case incremental). The computer is thinner and lighter. This aids with travel, but Apple's obsession with thinness is becoming near-pathological. No one, especially professionals, need a computer so thin you can lose it in a stack of papers (I've actually done this with my MacBook Air—a behemoth by Apple's current beauty standards).

Contrast the 2016 MacBook Pro with Microsoft's new Surface Studio desktop. Microsoft knows that the professional market is the future of computers, and is basing product design decisions on that fact. An expansive monitor for flying through multiple apps simultaneously, a drafting-table-like mode for alleviating the fatigue of vertical touch screen use, a novel "dial" device for eyes-free tactical input. Plus four USB-A 3.0 ports, a DisplayPort, and an Ethernet port. 

Many of the Surface Studio's innovations don't really apply to a laptop. It remains to be seen what the future of the iMac (Surface Studio's closest Mac analogue) holds. But the point is that Microsoft looked at the professional-oriented future of non-tablet computing and gave us innovations we didn't even realized we needed. This is the type of "thinking different" that Apple used to be known for.  Sadly, Apple has lost its interest in serving the needs of its core computer users, and is focused almost entirely on converting their most powerful computing tools to pure fashion accessories, optimized primarily for looking good in coffee shops.