Two things Apple Inc. (AAPL) has a reputation for include pushing new technical standards into the mainstream and a relentless pursuit of making its products thin. If rumors are true, then the new MacBook Pro will stay true to this reputation in both ways.
According to spy shots circulating online, it appears that these strategies are about to converge in a big way on new MacBook Pro that’s thinner than ever and ditches its diverse array of ports for USB-C. If true, Apple is taking a huge risk that could alienate loyal customers and wallop Mac sales.
Not Learning the MacBook Lesson
When AAPL released the all-new MacBook in 2015, the laptop set new standards for thin, but did so at a cost. Complaints soon began about the new butterfly switch keyboard that offered less travel for the keys. It was technically impressive and helped Apple shave a few more fractions of an inch from the new MacBook’s thickness, but at the cost of a less satisfying typing experience.
But the real problem was Apple’s switch to USB-C for peripherals. Ditching the USB ports that had been the standard for over 15 years in favor of the new USB-C meant that very few peripherals would work with the MacBook — at least without a clunky adapter.
USB-C is faster than the old USB 3.0, but more importantly (from Apple’s perspective), the new port is a fraction of the size of the old, and this allowed engineers to make the MacBook even thinner. Yet, only offering a single USB-C port made a bad situation even worse.
The moves were controversial enough in a consumer laptop that likely wasn’t going to be used to write thousands of words every day, or be connected to external displays, scanners, cameras, hard drive arrays and graphics tablets.
MacBook Pro Rumors Point to All USB-C
9to5Mac and other Apple-tracking websites have begun publishing spy photos of what looks like the new MacBook Pro. The shots have MacBook Pro owners — who are among AAPL’s most loyal customers — up in arms.
The photos show Apple has ditched all the physical ports of the MacBook Pro in favor of four USB-C connections and a headphone jack. The USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports and SD card slot that professional users take for granted are gone, as is the Magsafe power port and HDMI.
Apple cut the total number of expansion ports from six to four (three, actually since one of the four USB-C ports will be needed to plug in a power adapter), in a move that will have a material impact on professional users who actually use all those ports.
And by adopting USB-C only, the MacBook Pro crowd will find all the peripherals they invested in now incompatible without use of a clumsy adapter, and with few USB-C native replacements available.
Compounding the concerns, MacBook Pro rumors also have Apple abandoning the time-tested keyboard for that butterfly keyboard from the MacBook — something that would anger many of those who use the MacBook Pro for writing.
And those spy photos show the function keys being replaced by an OLED touch strip. While this move would add some flash to the MacBook Pro and help it to stand out from Windows laptops, there are questions about the practicality of ditching a physical ESC button for a software-powered one, especially when OS X acts up.
Apple has a long history of ditching standards, adopting new ones and forcing the rest of the PC industry to catch up. The company is credited with pushing out floppy drives, then optical drives and making SSDs a standard in consumer laptops, for example.
However, the PC industry is in a very fragile place, and while AAPL is doing better than most, it still saw overall Mac shipments grow by just 1.0% in Q1. The professional users who purchase the MacBook Pro are among Apple’s most loyal customers and messing with their workhorse computer — especially in moves that seem motivated largely by aesthetics (the whole make everything thinner mantra) — is risky.
These customers aren’t likely to ditch the platform, at least not right away, but many are likely to hold off on upgrading their existing MacBook Pro for as long as possible. It’s easier to get a little more life out of a laptop by boosting RAM and installing a faster SSD than it is to find compatible replacements for all those non USB-C peripherals.
Once the Band-Aid solutions are no longer effective, if peripheral manufacturers haven’t accelerated their efforts to develop USB-C compatible products, those MacBook Pro loyalists will be forced to choose between using adapters and possibly doing without some gear altogether, or switching to Windows laptops.
Even if AAPL offers a Rose Gold option, that’s hardly going to be enough to take the sting out of the changes.
Maybe the MacBook Pro rumors will turn out to be wrong (it happens as often as not). But if those spy shots are legitimate, Apple is taking a big risk by potentially alienating one of its key demographics.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.