Why Apple's new MacBook Pro is not for you

Apple's new MacBook Pro with the Retina display won't sell like hotcakes; it's not supposed to.

Apple's new MacBook Pro with the Retina display won't sell like hotcakes; it's not supposed to.

Like anyone else who uses their laptop computer primarily for work and not play, I found myself salivating over Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display, announced during the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).

And who wouldn't, really? With a 15.4-inch display at 2880×1800-pixel resolution, an up to 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8 gigabytes of 1600 MHz memory and up to 512 gigabytes of solid-state storage (SSD) — oh, and that slim, 0.71-inch profile — the thing is both a marvel and a powerhouse.

But cool your heels, people. It's highly unlikely that this computer was designed for you (or even for me). Unless you were the corner office-inhabiting type who bought the first-generation MacBook Air — or a video editor.

A short history lesson

Apple's MacBook Pro line-up has always been aimed at, well, professionals. Not just people with full-time jobs, mind you — the people who need serious computing horsepower to get their jobs done effectively.

The original MacBook, announced in 2006 to replace the low end of Apple's PowerBook line, and priced at US$999, was pitched as "the ideal consumer notebook for students and new Mac users". It was positioned as taking the best features of the Pro line — unibody construction, multi-touch track pad, etc — and trickling them down to the masses. By 2008, it was the best-selling Macintosh in history.

If the original MacBook was all-consumer, the lower-end 13- and 15-inch MacBooks were prosumer (that's where most people who read ZDNet Australia come into the conversation). When these models were announced in 2006 to replace the PowerBook G4, the word "performance" was used six times in the press release. Yet, many of the features mentioned — Front Row, iSight, Photo Booth — were decidedly consumer.

"MacBook Pro delivers dual-processor desktop performance in a thin, sleek notebook," the company said at the time. Your laptop isn't relegated to second string.

This was an extension of the positioning of the PowerBook G4, which, when introduced in 2004, also claimed a mix of "performance and portability", Phil Schiller said at the time. The higher-end 15- and 17-inch systems were intended "for customers who want the highest graphics performance" — creative professionals.

As such, this was the Apple creed through 2004 (it was later changed to focus on mobility):

Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and internet offerings.

With students and educators covered by the MacBook, and consumers by the low-end MacBook Pro, the only group remaining was creative professionals — and for them, there was the high-end 15- and 17-inch models.

The MacBook Air changed everything. At first, it was the coveted, high-priced executive toy — every suit-sporting chief executive that waltzed through ZDNet US HQ had one tucked under his arm (although later, this would become the iPad).

But as thin, light and small became less of a premium (but still a performance compromise), it eventually replaced the lowly MacBook, with prices (and sales) to match — leaving a CEO-sized hole at the top of Apple's product portfolio that the 17-inch MacBook couldn't fill. Meanwhile, designers and video editors were increasingly favouring the laptop/external monitor combination.

How the Retina display fits in

We take you through all of this corporate history to demonstrate that the new MacBook Pro with Retina display replaces both the 17-inch creative workhorse as well as the original, exclusive MacBook Air.

It's thinner than its Pro siblings, it's lighter and it packs the best (well, almost) speeds and feeds that Apple has on offer. There's enough computing muscle inside to please a creative director; if not, he or she can give up the high-res display for a touch more performance, with the expectation that they'll bypass the display anyway for an external monitor. And with a thinner design and dazzling Retina display, this new MacBook Pro model ought to satisfy the CEOs who liked the "it factor" of the original Air but disliked its sluggishness.

In 2004, Schiller said this of the original PowerBook G4:

No other notebook packs so much performance and so many cutting-edge features, including large widescreen displays, high-speed wireless networking, advanced connectivity and industry-leading graphics, into such a thin and light design.

The new MacBook Pro with Retina display returns to this promise. Apple's lumbering 17-inch model quickly became a burden — if you've ever seen a designer toting one of those things around, it's painful to watch — as professionals increasingly opted to work with very large external displays plugged in to their powerful laptops. So the company contracted to the 15-inch size, increased the options within that size from two to four and gave two of them features that would start conversations.

Since Apple has moved out of its education-and-creative niche — it's now billed simply as maker of "the best personal computers in the world" — there are now options for all professionals; creative types who work on laptops, creative types who work on external monitors, non-creative professionals who need processing oomph and executives who need a shiny medal to tote in business class.

But there remains confusion

While it may get a lot of attention — much like the original MacBook Air — Apple's new MacBook Air with Retina display won't sell untold volumes. It's not meant to.

Just before its demise, Apple's 17-inch MacBook Pro was thought to have represented just 2 per cent of Apple's overall laptop sales ("thought to have", because the company doesn't release breakout sales figures).

In fact, the most recent sales breakdown was estimated to look like this:

  • 17-inch MacBook Pro: 2 per cent

  • 15-inch MacBook Pro: 16 per cent

  • 13-inch MacBook Pro: 47 per cent

  • 13-inch MacBook Air: 18 per cent.

I presume that the missing 17 per cent is for the 11-inch MacBook Air, but I couldn't obtain the original research note.

Stare at those numbers for a minute. The new MacBook Pro with Retina display is meant to address perhaps 10 per cent of Apple's customers — the 17-inch refugees, a generous half of the 15-inch buyers and some untold amount who want Apple's most attractive product, whatever the specs or price.

A month after the first-generation MacBook Air was introduced, the potential of the "executive Mac" was thought to be about 16 per cent of Apple's overall portfolio. By 2011, it slowed to just 8 per cent, before Apple revamped and repositioned it at the low end.

Is Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display the new "executive Mac"? Sort of. For execs who put a premium on weight, a maxed-out MacBook Air will do — or an iPad (it depends on whether you're an Excel kind of boss, or a PDF-and-PowerPoint kind of boss, you know?). For execs who really do need a system on the go, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display will better suit their needs than any conventional MacBook; Pro or otherwise.

Whatever the use case, the Retina-sporting MacBook is priced and spec'd out of the reach of a general-use buyer, consumer or business. In other words, probably not you.


What I find most interesting here, by the way, is the re-segmentation of Apple's customers. What was once a very strict categorisation of customer — low, medium, high and to hell with the use cases — is now compounded by the push for mobility and consumerisation in the enterprise, as well as the existence of the iPad.

If you're a professional, there are more tradeoffs than ever within Apple's portfolio. Mobile or less so? Powerful or less so? Visual or less so? Apple's once crystal-clear portfolio is now much more complex, which is most apparent with the exceedingly clumsy name for its new top-of-the-line MacBook.

This a reflection of changing customer preferences, as we each figure out which device is better suited for our tasks, as well as the prices and limitations of components. The Retina display is too expensive, for now, to be anything but a bauble. It will no doubt trickle though the rest of the MacBook Pro line-up as soon as it drops into range of Apple's fixed price points. Ditto for the thinner form factor (I imagine it pains Tim Cook to have so many additional parts in the supply chain).

This all goes to say that the vast majority of you (still, impossibly) reading this very long-winded article are not the target customers for Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display. If you're a Mac customer at all, the real news is within the rest of the MacBook Pro line-up — effectively, a components refresh. Not the next new thing.

That reality doesn't match the high-pitched tenor of the news from the WWDC announcement (you've got to wonder when a general interest newspaper runs articles about what is really a niche industry tool). But as consumerisation works its way through the enterprise, the most important systems to the IT organisation will be the ones that you actually buy — not the ones that you wish you could.

Better make sure that order of external monitors is still on its way.

Via ZDNet US


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