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Day November 14, 2016

The Genealogy of the MacBook Pro

I was an early user of the first MacBook Air. When that product was launched I saw in it something different: a dedication to a new measure of performance: thinness and conformability. The key image used to launch the Air was the laptop sliding neatly into an inter-office envelope. The implication was that the laptop does not need to have its own special “laptop bag”. It could fit into any bag. Users would be able to slip it into all manner of new contexts. It sought to compete with computing non-consumption.

The Air was launched by Steve Jobs in 2008 and was almost universally panned. It was considered underpowered and the dedication to thinness was seen as irrelevant to what consumers wanted. The stock price fell.

The product went on to become Apple’s most popular laptop. It still is. It grew the base of Mac users to over 100 million today.

For the same reason, I was an early adopter of the newest MacBook Retina. The even thinner new MacBook was spectacularly thin. It was smaller than an iPad. It had no ports except one USB-C and a headphone jack. It required dongles for physical connections. It had a new keyboard that barely registered movement and it had a new trackpad that did not move at all but played mind tricks to make you think it did.

As I used it over the last year, I became used to it. It was not my only laptop. I had an older 15 inch Pro, but over time I came to use the MacBook Retina exclusively. I thought I could not do “real work” with it but I managed. I got used to the keyboard. I got used to the trackpad. I got used to the need for a dongle to connect a display. But these challenges were more than offset by delightful improvements. I was delighted by the small power brick and the ability to use any USB power to charge it. I was delighted at the all-day battery life which meant I would charge it the way I charged my Phone: at night.  I was delighted that I could use it in places where I could not use a laptop: on any airplane tray, stowing it in the seat back pocket. And I no longer cared what bag I had for my computer. It did not make me productive by completing tasks more quickly. It made me more productive by letting me be do things when and where I otherwise couldn’t. I love my MacBook.

Now Apple launched a new Pro Mac laptop.The new Pro laptop has the same (slightly improved) keyboard as my MacBook. It has the same (larger) trackpad as my MacBook. It has the same (but more of) USB-C port.  It has something new called a Touch Bar which puts function keys into a touch screen but mainly it feels like a grown-up version of my MacBook Retina. It’s faster too.

Overall, the new MacBook Pro feels to me like an evolution of the MacBook of 2015. I remember at the time thinking that this baby MacBook is probably the wave of the future: the new keyboard, new trackpad, new thinness, new USB-C, deprecation of other ports. These required enormous engineering efforts and it would be silly to leave them on only one model. In any case, from where I was standing all these were “better”. Not along the previous definition of goodness but along a new definition: making the computer more conformable and easier to put into use in more places. The very ideas that drove the development of the Air of 2008. Indeed the very idea that drove the development of laptops since the 1990s.

What’s fascinating to me from a product management point of view is that the groundbreaking new features which re-define the product’s direction are not designed to trickle-down from the top-of-the-line to the bottom, but rather that they trickle-up. The low-end product gets the updates first and the the Pro products adopt them later.

And we can even trace this genealogy of features through to an even “lower-end” product: the iPhone. The iPhone “ethos” of usability and conformability has permeated through to the Macs, starting from the lowly and advancing to the top of the range. The question of where Apple’s design direction comes from can be answered: the bottom.

All this is consistent with a strategy of “low-end evolution”. A way to defend the low-end rather than abandon it in pursuit of what the most demanding customers are asking for. Rather, Apple seeks to incubate a new performance measure. Re-defining goodness.

So is this new MacBook Pro a worthy successor to the MacBook Retina? My attention is riveted by the Touch Bar. It seems a completely new way of interacting but requires discovery and practice. What Apple has to achieve is allow the product to work well without it but also to allow users to evolve their experience with it. Over time we got used to trackpads instead of mice (many resisted the change). We got used to a different, small travel keyboard. We got used to new ports (HDMI vs. VGA) and we got used to wireless everything (it may seem easier, but remember having to always enter credentials vs. plugging in a cable).

The touch bar is a new UI metaphor. It will take time but it is looking at me right now, winking.