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macbook pro
Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
Whoa buddy, that’s not a touch screen.
DONGLE FEVER

The MacBook Pro launch is a perplexing misstep for Apple

Jean-Louis Gassée
By Jean-Louis Gassée

Editor, Monday Note

Once upon a time, Apple was known for its top-tier storytelling skills and the industry’s best Supply Chain Management. But the recent MacBook Pro launch, glitchy and undersold, shows worrisome lapses and raises questions about the company’s aging culture.

The Oct. 27 MacBook Pro launch (video here) begins with a moving segment that highlights the built-in accessibility features that are crucial to people with motor or sensory challenges…something to meditate over. Various product updates follow, including the iPhone 7+ Portrait feature and Apple TV.

The MacBook Pro intro proper begins at approximately 25:30 and lasts for over an hour. Within the Pro’s svelte new body are faster Intel processors, a larger trackpad and improved keyboard, better speakers, and a crisper, color-rich screen. Beyond these expected improvements, the Pro introduces a pair of truly new features: The Touch Bar, a touch screen where the function keys used to live; and a Touch ID sensor at the power button location, for secure touch login and Apple Pay transactions.

Apple software czar Craig Federighi, aka Hair Force One, introduces the Touch Bar with his usual flair (38:50 in the video) followed by demonstrations of how the Touch Bar can improve workflow for apps such as Logic Pro, Photoshop, DJ Pro (a music app), and…the Microsoft Office suite. The event concludes with prices, a Mac laptop overview, and an Order Now promise of a two-to-three week delivery.

What’s not to like?

Right away, critics damned the new MacBooks for not being Pro enough, pointing to the 16GB RAM upper limit. How could Apple sell such a crippled machine to real professionals? Never mind the conveniently unremarked fact that Microsoft’s newer Surface Book laptop features the same RAM limitation, or that none of the dissatisfied bloggers was able to cite an example of a memory-hungry app such as Photoshop or Logic Pro being bogged down on the new MacBook. Put on the defensive, Apple marketing VP Phil Schiller felt compelled to justify the RAM configuration by attributing it to factors such as logic board design and battery life.

Another protest erupted over the new MacBook’s dependence on dongles. In what has become a tradition, Apple continues to remove the MacBook’s various connectors. This time around, the denuding is complete: “Classic” USB, SD cards, HDMI, Thunderbolt (for display and storage), and even the trusted MagSafe power connector are all gone, replaced by USB-C connectors.

Admittedly, the new configuration is more modern, able to carry high-speed data to storage and displays and power at the same with a single cable. But it also orphans your extant storage and display devices, forcing you to buy adapter cables, dongles, that mate the old world to the new pristine USB-C standard.

Although some bloggers found humor in the situation, as in this hilarious adaptation of a Hispanic monologue, most pundits (and customers) were understandably annoyed, complaining they’d have to carry a bag of expensive dongles along with their already costly new MacBook Pro. In response, Apple cut the price of several adapters, and also discounted the 4K and 5K LG monitors it distributes as a replacement for the discontinued Thunderbolt Cinema Display.

With both the RAM limitation and “donglegate” we see self-inflicted wounds, a puzzling lack of storytelling by a company that has a long history of controlling the narrative. Apple was forced to react with labored explanations and admission-of-guilt price cuts days after the late October launch. Experienced Apple executives violated a cardinal rule of selling: Don’t let the customer discover the problem. No product is perfect, so tell it all, tell it now, and tell it yourself. If you don’t, your customers—and your competition—will tell it for you.

Within the hour dedicated to singing the praises of the new MacBook Pro, a few minutes inoculating the audience against RAM and dongle rashes would have been time well spent. And, how about making nice with customers by putting at least one dongle in the box? (e.g. The USB-C to USB “classic” adapter, now selling for a low, low $9.00.)

(The demand for this dongle is so high it is frequently out of stock. The Palo Alto Apple Store won’t have it until this coming Wednesday…)

In the same vein, and particularly considering that Microsoft was scheduled to announce its own Surface technology improvements the following day, Apple should have used the center ring to explain again its laptop philosophy, why it says “no” to a touchscreen. [Correction: As an attentive reader pointed out, the Microsoft announcement took place 24 hours before the MacBook launch. An even stronger incentive to make a clear case.] Craig Federighi gave a five-minute video interview in which he eloquently makes the case for a vertical screen with exclusively horizontal hand movements afforded by the Touch Bar and enhanced haptic Trackpad—but it was recorded after the event. Up on the main stage, those five minutes—or even less—would have clarified and strengthened Apple’s case, putting it on the offensive, instead of the after-launch defense.

And what of the delivery promise? The product you could “Order Now” was nowhere to be seen in the Apple Stores for at least two weeks. The two-to-three week delivery schedule soon stretched to four-to-five weeks. (My own order of a fully-loaded 13” MacBook Pro was scheduled for a Jan. 4 store pickup). The MacBook Pros without a Touch Bar were immediately available, so the speculation, sensible for once, is that there have been manufacturing or supply chain difficulties with the new device. For a company that excels at Supply Chain Management this is a surprising glitch (and we’re witnessing it again with the constantly delayed AirPods).

Intrigued by the new LG monitors, I ordered the 21.5” 4K device because it was available and it would work as a large desktop screen and charger for my tiny 12” MacBook. The monitor arrived sooner than expected, but when I opened the box, I couldn’t find the user instructions. After a few trials, I discovered which of the four USB-C connectors on the back would work with (and charge) my laptop and extend its display. The display quality is stunning, much better than the five-year-old Thunderbolt screen or the three-year-old iMac in our house.

Sadly, the beautiful screen shut down as I was typing on the coupled Magic Keyboard, only to wake up when I swiped the Magic Trackpad. It couldn’t have gone to sleep because of lack of activity…it happened as I typed.

Looking for answers, I visited the lg.com website and searched for the model number displayed on the box: 22MD4KA. Nothing. LG doesn’t know that model. No luck either with the Apple Support site. I regretfully returned the device. [Update: There is now a manual available at lg.com, and a software utility.]

When the 27” 5K LG device becomes available “in December” (although not yet as I type this on the 11th), I’ll get one for my house designer-builder spouse whose activities make good use of a larger screen.

Just as I had resigned myself to the month long wait for my 13” MacBook Pro, I noticed that a 15”/16GB RAM/512GB SSD device was available now at the Stanford Apple Store. I order online, pick it up during lunch, make a Migration Assistant copy of my 12” MacBook…it all works flawlessly, with just one slight blemish: In the dock, the Pages icon is replaced by a largish question mark. I check the Applications folder: Pages is there, so that’s not the problem. I remove the question mark, launch Pages, restore it in the dock, and all is well. No further migration ado.

Battery life is another story.

In comparison to my 12” MacBook, the battery on the 15” MacBook Pro was draining far too quickly. I fired up the Activity Monitor and saw that, indeed, battery life wasn’t going to even approach the “Up to 10 hours” bandied at the intro. It looked like less than five hours. For reference, I use a fairly pedestrian daily diet of Safari, Pages, Mail, Tweetbot. No power-hungry media creation apps, for example.

I check the battery for a few days in a row and get the same result, less than five hours of life:

Monday Note/Jean-Louis Gassée

The same experiment on my tiny 12” MacBook:

Monday Note/Jean-Louis Gassée

While I was at it, I did the same on the “older” 2015 MacBook Pro on which, as an experiment, I’m writing this Monday Note:

Monday Note/Jean-Louis Gassée

When I returned the 15” MacBook Pro, the store gent was extremely pleasant and seemingly unsurprised. I will also cancel the 13” order that might have replaced my spouse’s older MacBook Air. Less than five hours on battery is impractical, and it could be even worse on the 13” device with the fastest processor and a smaller battery. I checked on the Web and found that I wasn’t alone with battery life trouble.

A knowledgeable individual tells me that this is probably a curable software problem. Laptops have to play software tricks to coax the most out of battery life. Given the MacBook Pro’s new processors and other hardware, the layers of macOS that get intimate with hardware may need a few iterations to get to a more normal seven-to-eight hour “real life” number.

I have little doubt the new MacBooks will eventually sell well. On paper and in demos, they’re very attractive. But I wonder how and why Apple let so many glitches and self-inflicted wounds mar the launch of this anxiously awaited successor to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

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