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.

  • Luis Alejandro Masanti

    “…but remember having to always enter credentials vs. plugging in a cable).”
    Apple has included TouchID in the TouchBar so… you just put your finger!
    No ‘credentials,’ no ‘cables’!

  • heretiq

    Very interesting and insightful perspective Horace. I especially appreciate your bottoms-up insight and commentary — which recalled the epiphany I had during the iPhone introduction: that the technologies present in the phone would over time be diffused throughout the Apple product line. What I missed was the broader strategy (and brilliance) of innovating from the bottom up. Thank you for sharing your incredible insights. I can’t wait to upgrade to the new MacBook Pro with TouchBar!

  • handleym

    The biggest problem is that the names have drifted, and Apple needs to recalibrate them. The broken names is (more than anything SENSIBLE) the reason for the torrent of whining when they were unveiled. Basically the line looks like:

    MacBook Air => MacBook Cheap

    MacBook => MacBook Light

    MacBook Pro => MacBook Nice

    Obviously these are not the names any marketing team would ever use! But the represent the actual situation as far as these devices are concerned. The sooner Apple pivots to names that represent this reality the better.
    (And the same for the iPads, where, once again, using the Pro monicker as a way to avoid calling them “iPad Nice” causes pointless complaints about what a “real” Pro device can do.)

    In my whimsical moments I’m tempted to go with names like
    MacBook Air
    MacBook Fire (fire is even lighter weight than air!)
    MacBook Earth
    but I don’t think the market is ready for this sort of marketing!

    Overall I think the MacBook Air/MacBook distinction is unproblematic because soon enough MacBook will be cheap enough and the Air will be history. More important is to establish a better synonym than Pro for MacBook Nice and iPad Nice. My tastes would be something like MacBook Stellar or MacBook Dimension — something that conveys power and performance and “more” without the specific connotations of “Pro”.

    • chamber

      Why would Apple marketing listen to a small echo chamber of whiners about what constitutes “Pro”?

      • hannahjs

        They wouldn’t, any more than they listen to any of the other echoing chambers of the nautilus — iPhone naming scheme, thinness fixation, iOS dandification and the rest. Only when the entire market rings like a bell do they perk up their ears.

  • art hackett

    i totally agree with changing the name of these to things other than pro. A “pro” device suggests power and utility (to me anyway) and if these are used with apps that require compute power, they’ll be even flatter (thinner?) in less than two hours, so you better not have too much hard work for them. In which case you might as well have a MacBook.
    The touchbar will be more useful than the function keys, but extended use seems ergonomically unfriendly, similar to Frankenstein (or was that zombie?) arms pointing at the screen and removing the esc key also seems decidedly un-pro. Anyone dealing with dialogue boxes all day and utilising the multitude of keyboard shortcuts available for their particular work apps is going to miss being able to hit that spot reliably without looking. All for the sake of symmetry it would seem.
    Why lose the brilliant, lifesaving MagSafe port? Not only would that give you a valuable actual fourth port for all the extra external drive space you’ll need because the (admittedly high speed) super expensive (pro?) SSD is now SOLDERED ON, they already developed it and the power brick is almost the same. Are they saving some pennies by not dealing with quite as many people who wrecked their power adapters by maniacally winding the attached cable and breaking it? Or is it because Jony says it messes up the nice patterns of holes on the side? Are they saving pennies by removing the SD card slot, or does that upset Jony’s finer sensibilities now that nobody can tell him to suck it up?
    All these design choices are fine, I suppose, for something like the MacBook, but why for every “pro” version? You’re not going to be able to edit high end video or pro photos on your lap because there’s not enough storage or battery to do it. Attaching storage or peripherals will suck more power, never mind all the stupid dongles because we’re not in the future yet. Maybe, you say, edit with proxies? Sure, but you can do that with lesser machines anyway. Maybe that’s the point. Buy more for different work environments, but make sure you have the right stuff with you at the time.
    While I’m ranting about design choices, innovate my ass – what the hell was the idea with the Tube? Even when they brought out the Cube, it was definitely not the only pro choice. Actually it wasn’t a pro choice really, which is kind of my point.
    It’s a beautiful design exercise, or it was some time ago, and I might get a “cheap” one for my collection at some stage like the delightful Cube, but why do they insist on making pro machines unupgradeable and unmodifiable? Maybe there are some performance gains initially and it’s an arguable case for consumer level devices, but it seems belligerent and money grubbing at the top end. Apple seems to be acting like they’re resource limited, especially for the Mac, which seems weird since it kept them afloat during the dark ages and still makes more profit than most of the industry combined. Dropping the X Serve line and deprecating OS X Server will have irrevocably damaged pretty much any future in enterprise for the Mac. Never mind the wanton change to actual pro products like FCP that broadcasters and production companies invested millions in and which was energetically promoted by Apple itself when they were destroying Avid. That had an incredible halo effect driving personal Mac adoption amongst PC diehards, then Apple starts shooting itself in the foot (feet?) manically again by dumping commitment to this heavily advanced project. Huge amounts of time, money and training were invested by these customers and they’re abandoned seemingly on a whim by Apple. Are these Tim’s decisions or what?
    Has focus actually shifted almost wholly to profit rather than delight and function? I realise Jony still focuses on design, but of what and has the OC tendency taken over? What prevented annual improvements to the Mac Pro? Were not enough sold because of the stupid design choices that hardly any were sold?
    Not that profit isn’t critical of course, but what actually is the price of these decisions, when Apple famously is not supposed to be divisional? It now seems that every section makes profit rather than support overall health and service.
    The new machines are pretty and fast, but essentially disposable once out of warranty and I’m obviously unhappy with the compromises, never mind the price outside the US.
    It sounds like I’ve done the classic “I’ve used macs forever but now I’m blowing my remaining brains out and going Windows” rant, but I’m far less optimistic about Apple’s future than I was a couple of years ago. The Genius Bar or Grove feels far less helpful and knowledgeable as the years pass, iTunes continues to trash my library

    • chamber

      I understand why everyone in this chamber is upset. It must be infuriating to hear the ranting echo and reverberate for months.

      • Shameer Mulji

        It is.

    • Shameer Mulji

      “Dropping the X Serve line and deprecating OS X Server will have irrevocably damaged pretty much any future in enterprise for the Mac.”

      Wrong. Apple doesn’t need to make servers for their products to have success in the enterprise. They just need to ensure that iPhones, iPads, and Macs integrate well with current enterprise or future enterprise back-end.

      • art hackett

        Maybe, but where I worked, they were pretty pissed off and seemed to be set to go back to avid on Windows, never mind that the FCP asset tool never worked. So, win, win?

  • Space Gorilla

    Change always leaves some people behind.

  • hannahjs

    For many power users the tradeoff is going to be the need to look away from the screen to the touch bar, then make a visual selection, then reorient to the screen; versus selecting practised key combinations by feel, never looking away from the screen.

    The newer UI paradigm engages different memory and motor sequences. I hope that Apple sees it as only a beginning. Strong and sure haptic feedback conceivably could mitigate the cognitive disconnect. — All maestros stroke their instruments as they perform, their sense of touch sublime, their fingertips possessing, at 2500 per square centimeter, the densest clustering of feeling receptors on the human body, with neural wiring to match.

    • Simon Hibbs

      I used to do tech support for a typing pool, but the typists always had to look down to use the function keys except F1. I remember talking to them about it, they had cardboard templates round the function keys indicating which button did what. This is just a high tech, more flexible alternative implementation of the same idea.

  • Johnqp

    Weird that the majority of respondents to the GPU bug surveys are 15″, 460 GPU units. Could it be that Pro users are buying the high end 2016 MacBook Pro in significant numbers?

  • Aurora

    I use the Apple iPhone smartphone, do I include of them?
    because I bought it secondhand.

  • beautiful freak

    If Apple wanted to make a monster laptop, I wonder what it could do. I mean, something with the aesthetic of a Humvee. Do their designers make secret prototypes like that just for laughs? The way funny cars are modded to produce insane power in small packages? Surely they must! What engineer with a cutting edge arsenal of tools could resist the temptation? Thin and light is a good aesthetic for normal usage patterns…in the presence of polite company. But what about those alternate times, those occasional fugue states? I picture the two Steves in the 70s, smelling of incense and sasquatch, somehow getting their hands on chips and parts from the future – an unlimited supply. Just for giggles (nothing to prove), for sure they’d build a fryer. Wouldn’t they? Something that would instantly drain the battery, explode the monitor, incandesce a blazing furnace red and melt into a puddle, but still manage to execute an infinite loop. Practicality would not be a primary goal!

    • hannahjs

      Even when a barefoot Steve Jobs tried to peddle his blue box to my employers back in the seventies, he was not impishly pranking anyone, but rather deliberately promoting technology to undermine monopolistic telecom pricing and thereby extend the reach of people’s communication with one another. That was eminently practical—even if driven by human values, rather than avarice—and typical of his actions ever since.

  • Angus Matheson

    The question of how to bring touch to a laptop is an interesting one. There are two different solutions. Microsoft: touch screen on every device and Apple huge trackpad and now touchbar. I don’t know which is right. The few people who I know who have touch PCs – both all in one Desktop and laptops – never seem to use to touchscreen. Do all of those devices need to be convertible 2-1 to have a tablet mode to make the touch useful? But will people actually use the touchbar either? Do we need to keep keyboard desktops and laptops – frozen in that form? And let tablet and phones keep touch? What will the computers of 10 years look like? Can we even imagine?