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Mac Planet: Apple's division: Consumer or pro?

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MacBook Pro. Photo / AP
MacBook Pro. Photo / AP

When I discussed the state of Apple in Holland and the world with Mediatoop last week, a good part of our discussion, which I largely left out of the interview I ran here previously, centred on the schism (or more correctly, the lack of clear division) between consumer Macs and professional Macs. This used to be very clear: consumer Macs were the mini, MacBook and iMac and the pro Macs were clearly indicated my 'Pro': the MacBook Pro and Mac Pro. In this space was also the dedicated X-serve, which has gone - any Mac can act as a server now. Although one Mac Pro configuration is optioned for this task, even a Mac mini can do a fine job.

But now, there is no MacBook. Potentially, the MacBook Air has taken this space, yet even that is a very capable Mac, ready for some pretty sophisticated tasks particularly suiting writers, marketers and organisers; anyone who travels a lot and doesn't need to make hard-out movies. Effectively it's another professional category.

Meanwhile the latest 15-inch MacBook Pro is extremely 'pro', while the Mac Pro tower hasn't had a significant update in years.

The current iMac, while not being truly expandable, easily handles tasks that used to be clearly in the professional domain, for example Final Cut Pro, Premiere and Logic, especially with the higher-spec models. More workaday pro tasks like InDesign and Photoshop fall well within the domain of all current Macs - even the mini.

Once upon a time, almost all Mac users were professionals of some sort. Now most Mac users aren't. Apple seems to be vacillating where it draws the line between consumer and professional Macs, something that started well before the passing of Jobs. Which is the appliance and which is the professional device? Long term Dutch Mac user Mediatoop agrees that many Macs are becoming appliances. "Apple making the latest MacBook Pros unchangeable is a mistake. You spend all this money on a Mac, as much as you can afford, and if you wanted to speed up it later, you add more RAM. Now you can't. I don't think that's consumer friendly ... for any type of Mac user." He thinks this is a Tim Cook mistake; that Steve Jobs wouldn't have allowed it (I'm not sure I agree, if it's true Jobs had a roadmap figured out for Apple going five years beyond 2011).

Macs are becoming closed machines like iDevices, in other words. Once upon a time, Mac offices would have a couple of towers for the graphics/audio/video professionals and sundry MacBooks and iMacs for writing, marketing, management staff. Now almost all you see on desks in pro environments is iMacs, since they have big built-in screens and the power to easily handle the most demanding apps. If you do see a tower, it's often old, under a desk and running a network or serving AV. It's clear why: you can get three iMacs for the price of one Mac Pro along with a monitor big enough to do it justice (which you have to buy separately).

But the point is: is an iMac a professional or a consumer machine? When you turn it on, new, it acts like a consumer machine - you can't even see the hard drive by default, despite its professional spec. Back over a decade, there was the Simple Finder option in System 9. Perhaps that's what we need back: when you first turn a new Mac on, you could get a choice of consumer use or professional. These don't load different systems, but exactly the same with options turned on or off to suit (at the moment, these options are a little hidden). If you tick professional, you get the hard drive visible by default for those who like to employ and control the traditional file structures for files and the Dock. If you choose Consumer, you get Mission Control and the even more iPad-like Launchpad. You don't actually even need the Dock: turn it off. Many new users don't even know they have Documents, Movies and Pictures folders, or that there is an Applications folder with all sorts of extra programs in it, and that the Dock actually just launches some of these items, further underscoring the usage schism.

OS X has become a confusing mishmash with different approaches to file management and software launching. If home users really don't want to see their file structures:, fine. But for those with knowledge and/or aspirations beyond email, Facebook, photos and writing, this is both limiting and annoying.

Now by default in Mountain Lion, you can only install software (bought or free) from the Mac App Store. The warning that you're trying to install something from outside the Mac App Store can almost make you think you're about to install malware. But many developers have happily been vending perfectly excellent Mac software via their own websites, Amazon, PayPal etc for decades. The pros know this, but consumer users just wanting to sort photos, surf the 'net, play music and get email can find this warning intimidating.

Like me, Mediatoop deals with some users who have made horrendous messes on their Macs, strewing files all over the place. Maybe the next step is that OS X cleans up after you: leave a file on the desktop and phht! OS X puts it in the Documents, Photo or Movies folder by type. Professionals and veteran users would hate it, but this could also be an option you turn on or off.

So does it matter how Apple deals with pro users, while making most of its money from consumers who just want Apple appliances?

I think yes. In a way, it's the pro users Apple has to keep more happy. Consumers ask professionals for advice when they want to buy Macs. Pro users have always been the bedrock of the Mac's success, historically, but broadly speaking, Apple has been quite cavalier about loyalty. The Final Cut Pro X debacle wasn't a good sign. It really upset a lot of people - even those who weren't working in video. While FCPX has largely got back the functionality the first version of X despatched, there has been lasting damage to the high-value professional video editing community just from taking such an arrogant and arbitrary approach to the introduction of FCP X. Introduction? It was more like a coup.

But perhaps the demarkation is actually clear, just unstated thus far: iDevices for consumers, Macs for professionals. With iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, the hardware is totally fixed. All of the flexibility in configuration comes from the apps you install. With an iPad, it doesn't matter that the user can't see or use the file structure the way they want to.

This would be a clear line in the sand except it appears this is also becoming the model for future Macs, considering the non-upgradeability of the current MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. How far could that go?

Mediatoop: Perhaps it's "The end of the computer. We won't need it anymore. We take our iPhone 6 or 7 or 8 or whatever, and that is your computer: you plug it into a TV with HDMI, project a keyboard onto the desk ... But I don't hope for that, as I like to have devices for different things." Mediatoop made another good point: "Apple has pioneered all-in-one devices before."

And maybe that's why Apple is developing Siri and Dictation, to get away from the keyboard completely, since the keyboard is not a good design - the QWERTY key layout designed to slow your typing down, in fact.

It's interesting to me that the other big demographic of largely untouched (by Apple) PC users is those who play games. Apple has never really challenged this hegemony of users who constantly upgrade their PCs with faster video cards, sound cards, better cooling, controllers ... Mac game ports and releases have become slower rather than faster, in many instances. Call of Duty: Black Ops, for example, finally came to the Mac two years after it was available for PC, but even now you can't play it on a Retina MacBook Pro - this video card/monitor is simply not supported. In the meantime, the NZ Mad Macs CoD clan fell apart just because members got so utterly bored with the old game.

Games may not seem serious apps, but they challenge and push PC makers to supply and develop ever better video cards, CPUs, scalar algorithms etc, pushing PC development generally, to the benefit of video, audio and scientific professionals - a factor that hardly plays out at all in the Apple world. It would be ironic if Apple continues to rise and the last holdout for the PC is this highly motivated group of young-to-middle-aged game players who mess with their machines and settings for ever better performance.

When Steve Jobs came back and saved Apple, one of the most important things he did was simplify the product line. I think we've almost reached that point again.

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