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Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

What do "Pro" users want?

November 16, 2016 — Carlos Fenollosa

My current machine is a 2013 i7 Macbook Air. It doesn't have the Pro label, however, It has two USB 3.0 ports, an SD slot and a Thunderbolt port. 12 hours of battery life. One of the best non-retina screens around. Judging by this week's snarky comments, it's more Pro than the 2016 Macbook Pro.

Me, I love this laptop. In fact, I love it so much that I bought it to replace an older MBA. I really hoped that Apple would keep selling the same model with a Retina screen and bumped specs.

But is it a Pro computer or not? Well, let me twist the language. I make my living with computers, so by definition it is. Let's put it another way around: I could have spent more money for a machine which has Pro in its name, but that wouldn't have improved my work output.

What is a Pro user?

So there's this big discussion on whether the Pro label means anything for Apple.

After reading dozens of reviews and blog posts, unsurprisingly, one discovers that different people have different needs. The bottom line is that a Pro user is someone who needs to get their work done and cannot tolerate much bullshit with their tools.

In my opinion, the new Macbook Pros are definitely a Pro machine, even with some valid criticisms. Apple product releases are usually followed by zesty discussions, but this time it's a bit different. It's not only angry Twitter users who are complaining; professional reviewers, engineers, and Pro users have also voiced their concerns.

I think we need to stop thinking that Apple is either stupid or malevolent. They are neither. As a public company, the metric by which their executives are evaluated is stock performance. Infuriating users for no reason only leads to decreasing sales, less benefits, and unhappy investors.

I have some theories on why Apple seems to care less about the Mac, and why many feel the need to complain.

Has the Pro market changed?

Let's be honest: for the last five years Apple probably had the best and most popular computer lineup and pricing in their history. All markets (entry, pro, portability, desktops) had fantastic machines which were totally safe to buy and recommend, at extremely affordable prices.

I've seen this myself. In Spain, as one of the poorest EU countries, Apple is not hugely popular. Macs and iPhones are super expensive, and many find it difficult to justify an Apple purchase on their <1000€ salary.

However, in the last three to five years, everybody seemed to buy a Mac, even friends of mine who swore they would never do it. They finally caved in, not because of my advice, but because their non-nerd friends recommend MBPs. And that makes sense. In a 2011 market saturated by ultraportables, Windows 8, and laptops which break every couple years, Macs were a great investment. You can even resell them after five years for 50% of their price, essentially renting them for half price.

So what happened? Right now, not only Pros are using the Macbook Pro. They're not a professional tool anymore, they're a consumer product. Apple collects usage analytics for their machines and, I suppose, makes informed decisions, like removing less used ports or not increasing storage on iPhones for a long time.

What if Apple is being fed overwhelmingly non-Pro user data for their Pro machines and, as a consequence, their decisions don't serve Pro users anymore, but rather the general public?

First, let's make a quick diversion to address the elephant in the room because, after all, I empathize with the critics.

Apple is Apple

Some assertions you can read on the Internet seem out of touch with a company which made the glaring mistake of building a machine without a floppy, released a lame mp3 player without wireless and less space than a Nomad, tried to revolutionize the world with a phone without a keyboard, and produced an oversized iPhone which is killing the laptop in the consumer market.

Apple always innovates. You can agree whether the direction is correct, but they do. They also copy, and they also steal, like every other company.

What makes them stand out is that they are bolder, dare I say, more courageous than others, to the point of having the courage to use the word courage to justify an unpopular technical decision.

They take more risks on their products. Yes, I think that the current audio jack transition could've been handled better, but they're the first "big brand" to always make such changes on their core products.

This brings us to my main gripe with the current controversy. I applaud their strategy of bringing iPhone ideas, both hardware and software, to the Mac. That is a fantastic policy. You can design a whole device around a touch screen and a secure enclave, then miniaturize it and stick it on a Macbook as a Touch Bar.

Having said that, us pros are generally conservative: we don't update our OS until versions X.1 or X.2, we need all our tools to be compatible, and we don't usually buy first-gen products, unless we self-justify our new toy as a "way to test our app experience on users who have this product".

The Great Criticism Of The 2016 Macbook Pro is mainly fueled by customers who wanted something harder, better, faster, stronger (and cheaper) and instead they got a novel consumer machine with few visible Pro improvements over the previous one and some prominent drawbacks.

Critical Pros are disappointed because they think Apple no longer cares about them. They feel they have no future using products from this company they've long invested in. Right now, there is no clear competitor to the Mac, but if it were, I'm sure many people would vote with their wallets to the other guy.

These critics aren't your typical Ballmers bashing the iPhone out of spite. They are concerned, loyal customers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars in Apple's products.

What's worse, Apple doesn't seem to understand the backlash, as shown by recent executive statements. Feeling misunderstood just infuriates people more, and there are few things as powerful as people frustrated and disappointed with the figures and institutions they respect.

Experiment, but not on my lawn

If I could ask Apple for just one thing, it would be to restrict their courage to the consumer market.

'Member the jokes about the 2008 Macbook Air? Only one port, no DVD drive?

The truth is, nobody cared because that machine was clearly not for them; it was an experiment, which if I may say so, turned out to be one of the most successful ever. Eight years later, many laptops aspire to be a Macbook Air, and the current entry Apple machine, the Macbook "One", is only an iteration on that design.

Nowadays, Apple calls the Retina MBA we had been waiting for a "Macbook Pro". That machine has a 15W CPU, only two ports—one of which is needed for charging—, good enough internals, and a great battery for light browsing which suffers on high CPU usage.

But when Apple rebrands this Air as a Pro, real pros get furious, because that machine clearly isn't for them. And this time, to add more fuel to the fire, the consumer segment gets furious too, since it's too expensive, to be exact, $400 too expensive.

By making the conscious decision of positioning this as a Pro machine both in branding and price point, Apple is sending the message that they really do consider this a Pro machine.

One unexpected outcome of this crisis

Regardless, there is one real, tangible risk for Apple.

When looking at the raw numbers, what Apple sees is this: 70% of their revenue comes from iOS devices. Thus, they prioritize around 70% of company resources to that segment. This makes sense.

Unless.

Unless there is an external factor which drives iPhone sales: the availability of iPhone software, which is not controlled by Apple. This software is developed by external Pros. On Macs.

The explosion of the iOS App Store has not been a coincidence. It's the combination of many factors, one of which is a high number of developers and geeks using a Mac daily, thanks to its awesomeness and recent low prices. How many of us got into iPhone development just because Xcode was right there in our OS?

Similarly to how difficult it is to find COBOL developers because barely anyone learns it anymore, if most developers, whichever their day job is, start switching from a Mac to a PC, the interest for iOS development will dwindle quickly.

In summary, the success of the iPhone is directly linked to developer satisfaction with the Mac.

This line of reasoning is not unprecedented. In the 90s, almost all developers were using the Microsoft platform until Linux and OSX appeared. Nowadays, Microsoft is suffering heavily for their past technical decisions. Their mobile platform crashed not because the phones were bad, but because they had no software available.

Right now, Apple is safe, and Pro users will keep using Macs not only thanks to Jobs' successful walled garden strategy, but also because they are the best tools for the job.

While Pro users may not be trend-setters, they win in the long term. Linux won in the server. Apple won the smartphone race because it had already won the developer race. They made awesome laptops and those of us who were using Linux just went ahead and bought a Mac.

Apple thinks future developers will code on iPads. Maybe that's right 10 years from now. The question is, can they save this 10-year gap between current developers and future ones?

The perfect Pro machine

This Macbook Pro is a great machine and, with USB-C ports, is future proof.

Dongles and keyboards are a scapegoat. Criticisms are valid, but I feel they are unjustly directed to this specific machine instead of Apple's strategy in general. Or, at least, the tiny part that us consumers see.

Photographers want an SD slot. Developers want more RAM for their VMs. Students want lower prices. Mobile professionals want an integrated LTE chip. Roadies want more battery life. Here's my wish, different than everybody else's: I want the current Macbook Air with a Retina screen and 20 hours of battery life (10 when the CPU is peaking)

Everybody seems to be either postulating why this is not a Pro machine or criticizing the critics. And they are all right.

Unfortunately, unless given infinite resources, the perfect machine will not exist. I think the critics know that, even if many are projecting their rage on this specific machine.

A letter to Santa

Pro customers, myself included, are afraid that Apple is going to stab them on the back in a few years, and Apple is not doing anything substantial to reduce these fears.

In computing, too, perception is as important as cold, hard facts.

Macs are a great UNIX machine for developers, have a fantastic screen for multimedia Pros, get amazing build quality value for budget constrained self-employed engineers, work awesomely with audio setups thanks to almost inaudible fans, triple-A software is available, and you can even install Windows.

We have to admit that us Pros are mostly happily locked in the Apple ecosystem. When we look for alternatives, in many cases, we only see crap. And that's why we are afraid. Is it our own fault? Of course, we are all responsible for our own decisions. Does this mean we have no right to complain?

Apple, if you're listening, please do:

  1. Remember that you sell phones because there's people developing apps for them.
  2. Ask your own engineers which kind of machine they'd like to develop on. Keep making gorgeous Starbucks ornaments if you wish, but clearly split the product lines and the marketing message so all consumers feel included.
  3. Many iOS apps are developed outside the US and the current price point for your machines is too high for the rest of the world. I know we pay for taxes, but even when accounting for that, a bag of chips, an apartment, or a bike doesn't cost the same in Manhattan than in Barcelona.
  4. Keep making great hardware and innovating, but please, experiment with your consumer line, not your Pro line.
  5. Send an ACK to let us Pros recover our trust in you. Unfortunately, at this point, statements are not enough.

Thank you for reading.

Tags: hardware, apple

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