When Pro Doesn't Mean Pro Anymore

It's kind of amazing how much Apple got right yesterday—and what they got wrong: Their product lines are completely scrambled. The Pro designation has become meaningless and $99 iPhones look just like $499 iPhones.

It's possible that when the subsidized iPhone 3G dropped last year for $199, a new Apple was born. We just didn't see it clearly until today, with the announcement of the iPhone 3GS and new MacBook Pro line.

"Pro" used to be a real designation: A Pro machine was designed and built for working professionals. It had more power, better build quality and "top 10 percent" features for the users who needed it—or at least wanted to pay a lot more for it. Now, it's just a brand.

It's true that the unibody MacBooks were more like their brawnier "Pro" siblings than ever before—it was even the rationale behind our dual review. But there were still very real dividing lines between them: Most importantly, Pro machines had dedicated graphics cards. As of yesterday, that's not true. The $1700 15-inch Pro doesn't have one, and none of 13-inch newly designated Pro models have them either. Also, what kind of professional machine lacks a removable battery, anyway? (Swapping out batteries is how we got through the back-to-back Nintendo and Sony keynotes at E3 this year, though admittedly, the significantly improved battery life might be part of the answer.)

Don't get us wrong, we love that Apple brought many of the Pro hallmarks down to their consumer machines, like the aluminum chassis, and that now high-end Apple laptops are more affordable than ever. But now real pros probably won't even look at most of the Pro line.

The new products also don't show how special you are for paying the most to buy the best. The cheap models and the pricey ones are identical. Your crazy high-end 32GB iPhone 3GS looks just like that other guy's $99 iPhone 3G. Every unibody MacBook is now a Pro—whether you spend $1200 or twice as much. The old distinctions have been erased.

A leveling of class distinctions in Apple products is going to sting people who valued the affectation of elitism that came with using Apple's top-of-the-line products. Even subtle differences—like the premium paid for the matte black MacBook over the otherwise identical shiny white one, were signals, beamed out to the others in the coffee shop, declaring who was "da boss." You know, the guys who wore the white earbuds with pride five years ago. Admittedly, sometimes those guys need a left hook to the kidneys (and sometimes, we are those guys). Maybe it's good to make the best technology accessible to everybody, with no indicators of who paid more for what.

Maybe Apple is trying to create good design that works for anyone and everyone. I can respect that. Still, the question remains: Does this make rich people look like poor people, or poor people look like rich people? The privileged must know.