How Apple Is Changing Its Definition of "Pro"

In recent years, many pros have started feeling like Apple’s jilted girlfriend. Through no fault of their own, the love just seemed to fade.

Apple might claim otherwise when confronted, but the telltale signs have been hard to ignore:

  • Mac Pro: Apple’s most powerful Mac has been agonizingly slow in the update department. It hasn’t changed physically in eons. (Though it’s about to.) Ironically, the one Mac targeted specifically at the pro user remains the only Mac without a high-speed Thunderbolt connection. Even the Mac mini has had Thunderbolt for over two years.
  • 17-inch MacBook Pro: This big-screen laptop was a favorite and a necessity for designers and video editors who needed that much real estate to be their mobile best. Then, poof.
  • Final Cut Pro: When the long-awaited update to Apple’s high-end video editing suite finally appeared, it lacked certain features critical for pro editors: multicam editing, EDL support, backward compatibility and more. You could say the pro editing community was speechless—but it wasn’t. The cries of anguish were long and loud.
  • Aperture: The latest version was released in February 2010. Yes, that’s 3.5 years without a major update. Even if you consider this misleading, the perception of stagnation is a natural result when Aperture’s competitor, Adobe Lightroom, continues to evolve visibly.

Could it possibly be? Would Apple ever even think about saying goodbye to the pro market? I hope you’re sitting down for this, but Steve Jobs did in fact once consider that very option.

This was back in the days when iMac had established itself as a global bestseller. During one of the agency’s regular meetings with Steve, he shared that he was considering killing the pro products. His rationale was as you might expect: consumer products have an unlimited upside, while pro products are aimed at a niche market that eats up major resources.

Obviously, the pro market has value for Apple, even if its numbers are relatively small. Pros are opinion leaders, influencers and evangelists. Their love of Apple shows up in the purchase decisions of friends, family and colleagues. So Steve ultimately renewed his commitment to the pros—but he never said that this commitment wouldn’t evolve.

Clearly Apple has changed its thinking about the pro market, and how it can best serve its pro users. Some won’t like it, but basically it’s the difference between Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X. In FCP7, the controls are rich and deep. As a consequence, getting proficient with the app is a serious undertaking. FCPX is very powerful, but less daunting and more seductive — streamlining and automating some of its advanced capabilities. For a lot of pros, this represents a dumbing down of FCP. In this way of thinking, FCP is evolving into “iMovie Pro.”

But one must be careful to separate two very different issues. First, there is the feature set of the app itself. Then there’s the bigger issue of where video editing is headed. Clearly Apple would like to rethink the fundamentals and build something better.

As a result, Apple does lose some customers. (Some of whom are rather loud about it.) But it keeps a core group of pros happy by pushing the boundaries. At the same time, it invites a larger audience of high-end consumers who can suddenly understand, enjoy and benefit from the app.

The new Mac Pro, coming later this year, embodies a similar philosophy. It’s “user-friendly” in the way it’s designed, with expandability via Thunderbolt rather than internal slots and bays. Simply attach whatever you need and you’re in business. It sends an encouraging message to the pro market that Apple has not forgotten them. More than an update, it’s a reinvention of one of the oldest computer categories. It’s something that only Apple would do.

The new Mac Pro does bring back memories of the Power Mac G4 Cube. That computer also surprised people with its visual design — and ended up being pulled from the market in a year. But the Cube was a consumer product priced too high. The Mac Pro is a pro product that should be worth its price.

Will every pro user love the new Mac Pro? Nope. We’ll no doubt hear grousing that with its new cylindrical shape, the Mac Pro is virtually impossible to rack-install. Or that sacrificing internal options is a non-starter.

For those people, Apple is still walking away from the pro market. In truth though, Apple is walking to a place that’s entirely new — and asking the pros to walk with them. They’re betting that people who love to create and innovate will appreciate a super-powerful computer designed in the same spirit.

Ah, but there does still remain the matter of the vanishing 17-inch MacBook Pro. Unless you believe that in the future pros will suddenly prefer working on smaller screens, it’s hard to see this as a positive development.

Of course all will be forgiven if that little baby were to come back, all nice and Retina-ized…


Ken Segall is a creative director with a long history with Apple and NeXT. He's the author of Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success, and writes for his own blog, Observatory. You can find his homepage here.