By Jason Snell
April 30, 2018 7:03 PM PT
How Does This Laptop Story End?
It’s the spirit of the age. Since the fall of 2016, in fact, the most popular topic in Apple circles seems to be Apple’s line of laptops. People were surprisingly angry with the MacBook Pro updates in 2016, led by skepticism about the Touch Bar and a backlash over the radical, low-travel keyboard inherited from the MacBook.
While Apple did a rapid update of the product line in 2017, the reception didn’t really change. The Touch Bar is a curiosity but doesn’t have as many supporters as you might expect; the keyboard got an update but (personal keyboard preferences aside) there are still plenty of anecdotes about them being unreliable. The plural of anecdote is still not data, however, and every discussion of the possible issues with the keyboards is countered with an opposing anecdote that the thing works just fine and hasn’t broken down once.
My question is, where does this end? Rumors abound, but they don’t make a lot of sense—there’s a new MacBook, there’s a new MacBook Air, maybe the MacBook Pro is changing, maybe it isn’t, who knows? I hear from angry people who just want the old laptop design back, and while I totally understand the inclination, it sounds like just about the last move Apple would ever make.
So how does Apple get out of this? What’s Apple’s next step with laptops? Does it release new MacBook Pro models with a new keyboard design that eliminates the issues, trumpeting it as a great leap forward without any acknowledgement of the past complaints? That’s the non-apology apology, and it’s one of Apple’s tried and true moves. Does Apple spread the Touch Bar out to more models, or leave it where it is? Does it add new features to the Touch Bar, or is the first version of the feature all we’ll ever see? That’s a tougher one.
I wish I could give you an answer to this one, but the future—as with so much of the Mac these days—is incredibly muddy. It seems to me that something happened at Apple, or perhaps is still happening, that was essentially a debate about the future of the Mac. We have seen it surface in announcements like the one saying the Mac Pro is coming back in 2019. We’ve seen it hinted at during discussions of the iMac Pro and the future of the entire Mac line. If I closely read the tea leaves, it seems to me that Apple had one vision of the Mac’s future, but at some point in the last year or so seems to have shifted gears. Is the new vision complete? Is it more radical than the old vision, or less? And how many months or years will it be before we see Apple’s reaction to the changes it made to its laptops in 2016?
Then there’s another possibility: That Apple’s decisions are exactly the right ones for the overall Mac market, which has taken on a size and shape that is different than the one that existed a few years ago. That the people who are bent out of shape about the decisions Apple has been making about the Mac are a small (but noisy) percentage of the Mac user base, and that in the end Apple’s less worried about keeping them happy than about reaching and keeping another segment of the user base, the one attracted to Apple’s platforms by the success of the iPhone and iPad.
I don’t think that’s actually happening, but it’s always worth keeping in mind the fact that just because something is important or controversial in our sphere doesn’t mean it’s important to Apple, the most valuable company in the world. If I had to bet, though, I’d suggest that maybe Apple’s change in Mac messaging is all about deciding that our little corner of the Mac world is important, perhaps more important than you’d notice from a cold read on the Apple financial results. As with just about everything Apple does, we won’t really know until it announces and releases products—until then, all we can do is guess about how this story will turn out.