If you spend $1,299.00 on a baseline MacBook, you’re getting a 12-inch display with 227 pixels per inch, encased in an aluminum frame that is on average 0.33 inches in height. If you spend $4,199.00 on a maxed-out MacBook Pro, you’re getting a 15-inch display with 220 pixels per inch, encased in an aluminum frame that is 0.61 inches in height.
The superiority of the MacBook Pro over the MacBook is not that the MacBook Pro looks cooler or is more enjoyable to use in and of itself. To the contrary, it has fewer pixels per inch and it’s thicker. Instead, the MacBook Pro’s superiority is that it enables professional work that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve on the MacBook due to the latter’s limited hardware abilities. That’s why it’s called the MacBook Pro.
No informed consumer who buys a MacBook makes fun of someone who buys a MacBook Pro as having “wasted their money.” They understand that the difference isn’t “what you need to get your job done” versus “what people with extra discretionary money buy just for its own sake.” Rather, They understand that the difference is “what I need to get my job done” versus “what you need to get your job done.” For an owner of a MacBook to make fun of an owner of a MacBook Pro, the former would be implicitly making fun of the latter’s job requirements. That’s not something that comes naturally; people don’t naturally make fun of other people on those grounds.
My comparison of the MacBook and the MacBook Pro carries across the whole Apple product lineup as it currently stands: the iPad versus the iPad Pro, the iMac versus the future iMac Pro, the Mac versus the future Mac Pro. Consumers choose whether to buy the pro version or not based on whether the non-pro version inhibits them from being able to do stuff that they need to be able to do. While saying this, I’m aware that I’m purporting a general principle that contains anecdotal exceptions. I imagine there are people with loads of money who buy the pro versions of Apple products when the non-pro versions would suit their needs; but those people are not representative of the typical Apple consumer. I’ll even go so far as to say this: if prior to their purchase they talked to a well-trained Apple employee, they’d be buying these pro versions despite the employee’s recommendation to get the non-pro version. A good salesperson recommends the right tool for the job.
This brings me to the iPhone Pro that is rumored to be announced next month. What is the alleged difference between an iPhone as we know it today and this yet-to-be-announced iPhone Pro? What I’m hearing is that the iPhone Pro is going to look cooler. It’s going to be more fun to use in and of itself. Importantly though, I’m not hearing that it’s going to make professional jobs more easily accomplished or even possible. In other words, this iPhone Pro is distinguishing itself from the non-pro iPhone in ways that differ very dramatically from the way that every other pro Apple product has distinguished itself from its non-pro counterpart.
On a recent Talk Show episode, iMore’s Editor in Chief Rene Ritchie talked about how a Honda car owner will sometimes make fun of a Prius car owner. The reason that this happens is because the Honda owner sees the job requirements (i.e. the car needs to drive them to work) and recognizes that those requirements could be met just fine by a less expensive Honda car. People naturally make fun of other people on those grounds.
I’ve tried to think of a scenario where a Honda owner wouldn’t naturally be tempted to make fun of a more expensive car owner, but I can’t. It isn’t a good comparison to the MacBook versus the MacBook Pro because cars either work or they don’t. You either get from point A to point B or you don’t, and speed isn’t a factor since enforced speed limits democratize people’s elapsed commute time. A sporty V8 engine isn’t going to get you to work any faster than a humble V4. If anything, you’ll get to work 20 minutes later.
What’s interesting is that a yet-to-be-announced premium tier of iPhones suffers in theory from the same problem that a premium tier of cars does. Unlike any other pro version in Apple’s lineup, I can’t think of a scenario where someone could truly say I have to have the iPhone Pro to get my work done.
Now, here’s the thing: I understand the arguments for why Apple needs to create a more expensive iPhone. Apple is saturating all its growth corners and needs to find a new path forward, and this is its most logical path forwards. The investors demand it. It’s inevitable. I’m in favor of it. The point isn’t to scream that we need to stick with one price for Coke. We already don’t have that with the iPhone—it’s already got many tiers. My point instead is twofold.
First, calling this premium iPhone an “iPhone Pro” is a misuse of the word pro as Apple has heretofore used it. I’m actually hoping that Apple doesn’t muddy the waters by calling it this.1 If Apple calls this device the iPhone Pro, not only are people going to make fun of its buyers, which is going to happen as a necessary evil no matter what it’s called, but the deriders are going to have what I think to be well-placed sarcasm in their derision. “How’s that iPhone Pro working out for you? You know, I checked my email on my iPhone 7S, and it felt just like how it feels checking email on your iPhone Pro, except better, because I thought about how much money I saved. So tell me — what all are you planning on doing on that iPhone Pro today that’s work-related that I’m not going to be able to do on my iPhone 7S? Mmm?” It’s not a pro iPhone. It’s a luxury iPhone.2 Honesty here is important.
Second, while I’m in favor of a premium iPhone, I’m bummed that Apple can’t have Galaxy S8 edge-to-edge form factor be its de facto design, and have the premium line be different in other ways. To quote myself back in April:
In other words, Apple is saying this: what our competition views as essential, we view as a splurge only for those who want to pay us even more exorbitant amounts than they’re already used to paying.
I won’t elaborate on April’s thoughts here, except for this one clarification. I’m not asking that Apple compete with Samsung on price. I’m instead asking that Apple refuse to sell in late 2017 a “new” iPhone that has a form factor that Samsung’s de facto product has made visually obsolete in early 2017.
I’m excited to see what Apple can do with a higher priced iPhone. Here’s to it not being called the iPhone Pro, and here’s to Apple no longer forcing the majority of its customers to continue to use a design that looks long in the tooth compared to Samsung’s initiatives.
Calling it the iPhone 8 makes no sense to me either, but that’s an aside. ↩︎
Someone objects, “Luxury indicates something that costs multiple times more. We’re only talking about a 25% price increase.” The argument that someone who can afford a $950 iPhone can afford a $1,200 iPhone is fair, but it’s not about the price gap alone. You can make an argument that having a smartphone is a borderline necessity in a middle class career. You can make an argument that the Android OS is suboptimal and an iPhone is the right choice. So far so good. Up to this point, you can rationalize to yourself the need for the current iPhone and not feel like you’re getting spoiled. You aren’t treating yourself, and you aren’t being decadent. You’re living in the dictates of society in a tasteful way. You’re in the realm of taking care of needs, not wants. But past that, it becomes much harder to make the argument that you need the very best version of the iPhone. It’s more than just a $250 gap. It’s a chasm that represents an entire worldview. If the base iPhone cost $1,200, people would gladly buy it in a way that they would never consider doing if only the premium iPhone cost that much. It’s not about the price. It’s about the implication. Quibble over the term luxury if you wish, but rest assured that society at large will mentally consider it to be exactly that. ↩︎