Apple's surprise MacBook Pro update further strains its relationship with pros

Nearly everyone's thrilled Apple has introduced a much higher-end MacBook Pro. But it's the way they did it that's causing pain among its most influential customers
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Boy, are some folks pissed. You would think that Apple finally giving some very expensive love to its MacBook Pro line-up would give some relief to power-hungry professionals, but no.

Here's a quick bit of background if you don't obsessively scan the tech blogs: Apple updated its MacBook Pro line yesterday. They did it quietly, without a big event.

CNET: 2018 MacBook Pro packs way more power into its 15-inch frame

And, they did it -- in the opinion of this columnist at least -- in a tone-deaf, we-don't-really-care-about-pro-users-needs kind of way.

You see, there's a cadence for this kind of thing. Mostly. Generally. Apple holds a big event in the fall where it updates its iPhones and some other stuff. Sometimes, Apple holds a big event in the spring, where it updates some other stuff. Then, in the early summer, Apple holds WWDC, its big developer conference, where product intros are a complete wild card.

Once in a while, during the off season, away from events, Apple does update products. It might be a processor bump here, or...well...it's mostly just a processor bump.

Apple rarely makes a vast improvement to a product shortly after a product event.

This is important especially for Macs. For buyers of professional-level Macs, which are insanely expensive, this cadence is critical. The last thing anyone wants to do is settle for a vomit-inducingly high-priced Mac and then discover there's a new one, one that you really would have preferred, that's been introduced just a little while later.

WWDC 2018 ended on June 8. On July 12, exactly 35 days later, Apple introduced an updated MacBook Pro, a MacBook Pro capable of supporting 32GB of RAM, instead of the paltry 16GB most Macs max out at. Many pros have been waiting for this, literally for years.

Developer Tony Pitman expresses it well: "I specifically waited until after the developer conference [to buy a new Mac] because that is usually when they announce a new Mac, right? I even waited a week after that just to be sure."

Because Apple doesn't pre-announce products, pro developers like Tony (and me) have to rely on experience to predict when it will be a good time to buy the new equipment we need. Right after a hardware dud of a developer conference, when it's disappointingly clear there will be a long cold desert of new pro level products, is the time when we break down and settle for what's on offer.

Apple's clearly not updating the Macs this round, right? If they were going to, especially with something like doubling the max capacity of RAM, opening up i9 processors and going up to 6-cores, they would have announced that to their developers, all of whom would have cheered that particular development.

But no. No announcement. Instead, 35 days later -- after smart buyers waited long enough to be sure, really, really sure that the new Mac well was dry, Apple dropped a major update.

Tony asks, "Apple knew they were going to do this. Why couldn't they announce it at the developer conference?"

Also: Everything you need to know about buying Apple's 2018 MacBook Pro

I can't give you an official answer, but I have a pretty good idea. I'm guessing these machines were ready for WWDC, but the supply chain wasn't. I'm guessing that they weren't sure they could ship them in volume, so they held off on the announcement.

Tony (and others who must plan their purchases based on Apple's cadence pattern) is upset. In his case, he would have definitely preferred the more powerful i9 with 32GB RAM, but Apple won't let him return his 28-day old MacBook Pro.

Here's what sucks. Apple allows 14 days to return products. Tony has been to his Apple Store, has called Apple, and has pleaded his case. Because Apple announced new products two weeks after his 14-day return window, he's stuck with his brand new, out-of-date MacBook Pro.

I think Apple's approach is wrong here

The new high-end MacBook Pro is specifically a developer and pro machine. Granted, professionals are no longer Apple's primary market (neither is the Mac, for that matter).

But, professionals are the key influencers, the app builders, and the people who truly showcase what Apple products can do. They've been feeling abandoned and generally unloved by Apple since the iPhone became Apple's primary cash cow.

Now, obviously, any company has a right to introduce products at any time. But Apple isn't any company. It's one of the world's richest, and it has achieved that popularity not just by virtue of its products, but by virtue of what professional developers and media pros have produced using those products.

So what should Apple have done? What should Apple do?

Ideally, Apple would have previewed these new machines at WWDC. It's possible they just weren't sure the supply chain would be successful, but, then again, they were comfortable pre-announcing some sort of a new Mac Pro years before it is going to be available.

Perhaps, for some reason, that just wasn't doable. As a former product manager, I know that you never really, truly know if your product is going to launch until it actually does.

What Apple could, and should, do is honor returns of MacBook Pros for anyone who bought them from June 4 (the first day of WWDC on). Heck, it'd even be okay if Apple required a visit to the Apple Store and provided customers the opportunity to return only if they buy a newer, beefier model.

We estimate Apple sells about 1.2 million laptop Macs a month. Of all those Macs, only about 15 percent use pro-level applications at least once a week. In terms of Mac sales, Apple probably sold roughly 180,000 MacBook Pros to pros since WWDC.

On one hand, you might say that it would be far too costly for Apple to eat returns on 180,000 machines, but think about it. First, only a very small percentage would be like Tony, having spent a bunch of money, but wanting even more capability.

Those buyers actually want to spend more money with Apple. Tony is calling all over, trying to get Apple to let him return his 28-day old Mac, so he can give them yet more money.

While Apple has had some difficulty moving the volume needle, there's little doubt that if they took in one-month old returns, they'd recoup their investment on either the refurb market or in used sales.

There is absolutely no doubt they'd make pro users feel respected and well-treated.

Apple's refreshed MacBook Pro 2018 models: Here's what's new, spec by spec

Occasionally, Apple will say it cares about professional users and developers. It will give lip service to this critically influential audience. But the company's actions belie those words. The company's actions indicate something else, perhaps a deep disrespect for the needs of pros, or at the very least a lackadaisical focus on professional needs overall.

There are reasons to stick with Macs at the pro level. Some software that can increase workflow productivity is only available on Macs. But if Apple continues to take purchasing patronage of professionals for granted, there will be a time when it gets to be too much: too much hassle, too much cost, too much chain yanking and, yes, too much disrespect.

When I talk with Apple execs, they don't show disrespect for professionals. They regularly speak, with pride, of the amazing projects their professional users produce. But they also don't seem to (or even want to) understand just how stressful the relationship with Apple has become for pros.

Also: Why the Mac you know has no future

In a sense, there's nothing new about this. In our ZDNet roundtable, Has Apple abandoned professional Mac users?, developer Oliver Breidenbach talked about how Apple's odd relationship with its power customer has been strained for decades. Yet Apple continues to be successful, and yes, most pros continue to be successful as well.

It's just not a healthy relationship. And that's just sad. It doesn't need to be this way.

Oh, heck. Who am I kidding? Those pros who need these things are going to suck it up and buy them up, no matter what. I guess Apple must know that. Me? I'm still thinking about a hackintosh. Stay tuned.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Editorial standards