Beyond Pro

Last week, Microsoft and Apple showcased new hardware and software. Microsoft demonstrated the next Windows 10 update and revealed the new Surface Studio desktop computer aimed at content creators and a slightly refreshed Surface Book i7. Apple showcased a new way to consume television and a new Macbook Pro.

Put aside the obvious irony of Apple spending so much time on television consumption the day after Microsoft's two hour ingratiation of content creators. The real surprise is the widespread criticism of Apple regarding the new Macbook Pro from the technology press and potential customers. Even the technology press that is strongly biased in favor of Apple, such as CNet and the Verge, had some negative things to say.

The response from software developers has been particularly negative. A developer named Michael Tsai put together a comprehensive inventory of complaints from around our industry. It all starts with the misleading use of the marketing term "Pro."

What “Pro” means

Pro, which is presumably short for professional, is intended by marketing departments to be a succinct and compelling shorthand signifying a product with high specifications, a complete set of features, and high build quality. A Pro device will come with ample memory, ample storage, and a highly-clocked processor with many cores. A Pro device interoperates well with other professional devices. The screen on a Pro device will be splendid to look at, both in resolution and color accuracy; and it will be designed to be used in professional spaces. A Pro device will be designed to withstand the expected wear and tear of professional use, lasting several years with a patina to show for it.

Pro often simultaneously suggests a design motif that eschews flair, preferring clean and simple forms. A Pro device will be made of metal when the mainstream uses polycarbonate. It will be rectangular with relatively crisp edges compared to the mainstream's playfully round corners. Pro means white, gray, and black, leaving whimsical color to the mainstream.

Pro is a marketing term. It's bragging rights. It's aspirational. Many can afford Pro devices (whereas legitimately professional devices are often a different matter; they can cost significantly more). Like the adage that you dress for the job you want to have, when you buy a Pro device, you're signaling that you are or want to be a professional, whatever that means to you.

Most importantly, we have come to assume the Pro moniker indicates that a device is meant for serious work and for getting things done. Pro devices are for people who create things. Pro devices are obviously eminently capable for content consumption, but a Pro device is used for consumption to unwind after a busy day creating things and getting stuff done.

In brief:

  • Mainstream: low specifications, plastic, colorful, rounded corners, flair, glossy screens. Designed to be economical.
  • Pro: high specifications, metal, crisp corners, minimalism. Designed in equal measure for work and to look the part.
  • Truly professional: pinnacle specifications, often boring gray plastic, plain but not sleek design, matte screens. Designed for work, full stop.

For most professionals, Pro is just the right fit. Pro devices provide good enough specifications, are eye-pleasing, and send the right signals.

At Apple, Pro ain't what it used to be

The iPad Pro made a mockery of Pro. A consumption device for professionals? An iOS tablet that's a little better at creation than its smaller, less expensive peer? That's fine, I guess—I'm not going to stop you. But the name is surely nonsense; a better name would have been iPad Plus.

(I still haven't seen one in the wild, despite brisk sales. I'm not sure what owners are doing with them.)

Although it's disappointing, we know Apple can and will water down Pro. And this past week they've done it again, this time leaving the new Macbook Pro oddly deficient in several ways:

  1. The maximum memory is limited to 16 GB, which is being partially blamed on Skylake and its chipset.
  2. Battery life hasn't been notably changed (meanwhile Microsoft refreshed Surface Book i7 by throwing more batteries in).
  3. The CPU isn't notably higher performance, if at all.
  4. The screen is only available in high-gloss, making it not well suited to long use with overhead office lighting.
  5. The GPU is mediocre.
  6. Interoperability is weak thanks to wholesale removal of all normal and legacy ports, replacing everything but the headphone jack with Thunderbolt.
  7. The most notable addition, a thin touch-sensitive OLED strip called the TouchBar, while potentially useful in some cases, is a tad too close to silly for many people. It's surely a sign that Apple doesn't want to cannibalize their bread & butter iOS platform by making Macs touch-screen.

Apple fans are angry.

For many, laptops are fashion pieces

A common and valid refrain among realists this week is the truism that if you're looking for lots of memory, a high-power processor, a monster GPU or two, and gobs of storage, you shouldn't be looking at Pro laptops, regardless of Apple's abuse of the word Pro. Such requirements are better met by truly professional laptops (you know, the kind with mobile Xeons and ECC memory), or better still, desktop workstations. This has been met with a small amount of agreement, but mostly confusion, silence, and dissonance. Truly professional devices don't have the premium appearance of Pro devices, so that would be a step down in the eyes of many.

Years ago, as margins on desktop computers waned, Apple and Sony and others realized that they could sell large volumes of very high-margin laptops by making the idea of mobile work glamorous. People who are go-getters need to be able to work anywhere—in airports, in Starbucks, on the train, and at the beach. You're a go-getter, right? You're not one to be stuck in an office. You broker deals over a latte at Peet's. On weekends, in between volleyball games, you craft artisan code.

And if not, at least you can look the part with a Pro laptop.

This proved very successful thanks to two marketing fictions. First, that a laptop could be a "desktop replacement." Time and the march of technology allowed this fiction to be plausible—a three-year old desktop computer being retired in favor of a brand-new laptop. Thanks to three years of evolution, the laptop performed basically the same. Boom, desktop replacement.

The truth is desktop computing has always been higher-performance at the same price point. There is no comparison. Today's well-appointed Macbooks are hovering around $3,000, with the highest-spec 15-inch model weighing in at $4,300. Last year, I replaced my office workstation for about $3,000. That bought me 32 HT cores, 128 GB of memory, 1 TB of NVMe, 1 TB of SATA SSD, a 4 TB spinning disk, a GeForce 9-series with 4 DisplayPorts, and a nice case. Paired with two 60 Hz 4K monitors (not included in the $3K), a mechanical keyboard, and a wired mouse, it's a total delight.

The second fiction is that desktop computing is passé and totally impractical because today's world is always on the move.

But is it really? For many actual professionals/creators, and for software developers in particular, the portability of laptops is value left mostly untapped. Serious observers will admit that a majority of us work at two locations: our office and our home. If we use a laptop, and we likely do because so many of us aspire to be go-getters, then we just carry the laptop between these two locations every day. Routine motions between two docking stations.

Obviously, a decade of indulging in laptops has allowed work environments to assume laptop-orientation in the form of communal spaces and the like. It gives us an excuse to sometimes pick up our laptop and move around. And busybody processes that encourage lots of meetings also give us an excuse for working in a conference room. But for many of us—again, in particular software developers—the real work gets done at our desk. (I'll go so far to point out that immovable computers help kick the hot air out of busybody processes, which is a good thing. Though I am not saying mobile computing is bad.)

A computing model like PAO is necessary to give us the ideal mix of mobility and computing power. But until we're there, a poor-man's approximation is fairly easy to accomplish by pairing a high-power workstation with a low-power laptop.

By the way, kudos to Microsoft for giving the desktop an injection of pop-mojo with Surface Studio. I'd like to take credit (see section 2.1 of a rant from 2013) but it's just common sense to recognize an under-served market.

What to do?

If the specifications of Pro laptops meet your needs and you want a mobile computer, then by all means, buy a Pro laptop. But if that's the case, I'm not sure why you're reading this rant since this is about people who find Pro laptops lacking.

If you require more power than the current Pro laptops provide, my advice is to take a good look at why you use a laptop and why you care about Pro laptops in particular. If, like me, you end up just carrying a laptop between two locations, consider a powerful desktop workstation. Tons of CPU cores, tons of memory, massive monitors, excellent input devices. Then just remote in from a low-cost laptop for the rare circumstances where that's needed. (For reasons beyond the scope of this blog entry, my laptop is a Surface Book, which is hardly a low-cost laptop. But the key point is that I use it exclusively for mobile computing—not for home or office desk computing. I have workstations for those.)

Alternatively, you can consider a truly professional laptop if you genuinely need mobility.

Of course, you may need to confront an unhealthy obsession with macOS since a modern desktop workstation or professional laptop will not be running macOS (caveats apply). But that would be an entirely separate rant.
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