Apple’s laptop designs are cornering Mac users

13in macbook pro touch bar silver 2017

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It’s funny, Apple crowing about its biggest Mac revenue year ever at a time when there seems to be quite a bit of unrest about the Mac out there on the internet. Is the Mac doing well or is the Mac user base frustrated at the last few years of Apple’s stewardship of the platform? It might be a little bit of both.

I detailed some of Apple’s controversial laptop design decisions a couple of weeks ago here at Macworld. To be sure, there are classes of users for whom the latest generation of MacBook Pro models, introduced in October 2016, are appreciably worse than the previous-generation models. But I’ve also talked to a lot of people who have bought new MacBook Pros and love them. My daughter got a new MacBook for her birthday, and thinks it’s great.

It’s possible that this swirling dissatisfaction with Apple’s laptop direction has a little whiff of selection bias. People who are more likely to listen to Apple-focused podcasts and read Apple-focused websites are probably more likely to be in more technical fields with specific requirements that might not be well served by Apple’s design decisions. They’re also probably more likely to be persnickety about the details of their computer choices than the general public.

This doesn’t mean that the criticisms targeted at the MacBook Pro are invalid, though it might mean that they’re not representative of how the entire Mac-buying universe feels. Record Mac revenues driven in large part by the success of the MacBook Pro suggests that they aren’t; then again, sales and revenue aren’t the same as customer satisfaction.

macbook family 2017 Apple

“Customer Sat” is one of Tim Cook’s favorite metrics. Are the people who bought new MacBook Pros happy with their purchases? How many of them bought the new laptops because it had been years since a major laptop upgrade and they’d take whatever they could get? Many companies are given some leeway from loyal customers; great sales today could be hiding rotten customer satisfaction rates that lead to lower sales in the future as people abandon the platform. I don’t think there’s about to be a groundswell of disaffected MacBook Pro owners moving to Windows, but it’s worth keeping in mind that record revenues don’t tell the whole story about the long-term health of a product line.

I have a pet theory that every design decision Apple makes on the Mac product line is magnified by the fact that it’s the only company that can make Mac hardware. Apple does seem to like making opinionated product decisions that sometimes push design to an extreme. That can be a problem: If Apple makes an ultra-thin keyboard with reduced travel and questionable reliability, and puts that keyboard on every new laptop design, what happens if you’re a Mac laptop user who just can’t stand the keyboard?

Marco Arment is right when he describes the old MacBook keyboard design as “completely unremarkable, in the best possible way... neither fanatically loved nor widely despised.” Apple’s mistake isn’t that it designed a clever new keyboard that decreases travel while increasing tactile feedback in order to make the MacBook ultra thin—it’s that it made a keyboard without broad appeal and then forced it into all of its new laptop designs. I love Apple’s tendency to make bold design decisions, but as the single hardware vendor on the Mac platform, Apple’s designers have a responsibility to create features that don’t leave users with nowhere to turn. Better to make a keyboard that nobody loves (but everyone can use) than something loved by a quarter of users, met with indifference by half, and despised by the remaining quarter.

macbook keyboard David Mulder

Does this sort of attitude lead to mediocre and timid design? I suppose it could, but another way to approach bold, opinionated design is to offer customers options. The iPhone SE, iPhone 7/8, iPhone 7/8 Plus, and iPhone X are all pretty different phones—and choice is good. This is why I’ve argued that the Mac mini has value as a “release valve” for the Mac platform. It frees up Apple to make more opinionated iMacs and Mac Pros, because the Mac mini is always there as a fallback.

When I look at Mac laptop users today, they seem cornered by Apple’s design decisions. I hope that the next generation of MacBook and MacBook Pro models show a little more diversity—designs with their own personalities and strengths and weaknesses. The more diversity in design, the more opportunity Apple has to make bold product-design decisions without cornering its most loyal users.

My daughter’s MacBook is the first Mac laptop I’ve bought in years. My go-to travel laptop is still a 11-inch MacBook Air from 2013. It’s solid, with an i7 processor and a good keyboard, but (alas) no Retina display. But the truth is, I’ve dealt with Apple’s latest round of laptop design decisions by dropping out of the game altogether. Most of the time, my “laptop” is an iPad Pro. In a way, I suppose, it has acted as my own sort of escape valve—and I get to choose which keyboard I use with it.

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