The Struggle for Pros
Last week was quite peculiar. Microsoft held an event for their new lineup of computers, which still isn’t something I’m used to having to say, but they had a pretty impressive showing. The big reveal was the Surface Studio, a large all-in-one computer akin to an iMac with a clever twist. The entire screen can be brought down to a drafting table angle, and its 28-inch touchscreen has built in support for the Surface Pen.
On the other end of the spectrum, Apple held an event where they blathered on about football for half an hour, and then presented their reimagining of the MacBook Pro. Unfortunately for them, they accidentally included a picture of it in the latest macOS update and someone found it two days prior to the event. Whoops. Changes to the MacBook Pro include a new OLED strip replacing the function keys called the Touch Bar, a Touch ID sensor to allow you to authenticate Apple Pay purchases and log into your user account with your fingerprint, and more relevant internals.
The one thing these two events had in common was their target audience: creative professionals. Creative professionals have traditionally been on the Mac because it is a platform more aligned with their values, both in hardware and software design. Unfortunately for them, Apple has been neglecting the Mac lineup significantly over the past few years, and the entire lineup aside from the one-port MacBook was very outdated. Microsoft’s Surface Studio event really was like a glass of cold water after a desert of no Mac updates, and having a product tailor-made for illustrators and designers was a wake-up slap in the face to creative professionals that maybe they ought to be looking elsewhere.
In contrast, the Apple event left a lot of current MacBook Pro owners perplexed about what Apple thinks pros want out of their hardware, and Apple’s opinion on the Mac altogether. All of the ports on the MacBook Pro were removed in favor of four multipurpose USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. The beauty of these four ports is that they can be anything you want them to be, but much like the MacBook, until peripherals ship supporting the USB-C connectors directly, everything is going to need a dongle. The SD card slot is gone. HDMI video output is gone. Is the MacBook Pro using modern I/O and offering unparalleled extensibility that is future-proof? Hell yes. Is it practical as a computer today? If there are things plugged in on either end of your laptop today, maybe not. There’s also a 16GB RAM limit, which is not exactly something that you should have on a device intended for your most memory-hungry customers. (Apple says this is for power consumption reasons.) The story of the MacBook Pro is not that it’s a revolutionary reinvention of what it is to a laptop, it is just a shift to a modern architecture paving the way for the next ten years of Apple laptops. Perhaps too modern of an architecture, but what did you expect out of Apple?
On the flip side, there is absolutely nothing flashy or interesting about the internals of the Surface Studio, but it does shake up our expectations on what a desktop computer can be.
It never made sense to me why Microsoft was pushing so hard for Windows to support touchscreens because user interface paradigms need to be very different from a desktop UI to a touch UI. Touchscreen laptops and desktops are also ergonomic nightmares, as you don’t want to reach out and touch a screen perpendicular to your hands for extended periods of time. That really only left convertible tablets in the mix, but the software support wasn’t there to make the tablet mode viable anyway, so they were just worse laptops.
The drafting table form factor coupled with the stylus is genius though. The display is at an angle such that touchscreen usage with your fingers over extended periods of time is enjoyable. The stylus has a finer tip than any of our fingers, so it doesn’t matter as much if pro applications like Illustrator aren’t updated to provide a proper touch UI mode, because it has the precision to hit smaller targets on screen. The Surface Studio may not be a good computer for everyone, but it is clearly designed with creative pros in mind and it is what many of them imagined their dream computer would be.
It would probably seem ridiculous to me 15 years ago that Microsoft would be the company I consider to be more in touch with what creative pros want out of computers, but that’s clearly what’s they’ve shown this week. The last real appeal to creative pros before the MacBook Pro event was with the launch of the iPad Pro, and after several quarters of iPad sales continuing to dwindle, I don’t think their bet paid off particularly well. (I’m still in love with my iPad Pro, but there’s no point in denying what the balance sheet says.)
Apple seems to have underestimated the value that pros give to stability. I know people in recording studios who are still running ten year old versions of the Mac OS because it isn’t worth the risk of upgrading to anything new when this is their workhorse and everything is working fine. Meanwhile, Apple made a new laptop, replaced all the ports with 4 shiny new ones that have hardly any peripherals in the market, added the Touch Bar whose usefulness has yet to be proven, bumped the price up by a few hundred dollars, and now they’re expecting everyone’s going to be cool with it and the fact that they probably need to buy a couple $20 to $40 dongles to continue to use the stuff they already have. People were expecting something transitional, but Apple doesn’t do transitions. Sometimes that bites them in the ass, and I guess they didn’t learn their lesson last time.