Whither the MacBook?

I never expected this site to turn into a tech blog again, but here we are.


One week before WWDC, Apple quietly refreshed its Touch Bar model MacBook Pros with faster processors and improved keyboards. At the time, the question posed by bloggers and podcasters was, "Why not the 13-inch Pro without Touch Bar, or the Air, or the base model MacBook?"

The MacBook Air was only given a major refresh a few months ago, so I get why they didn’t extend similar upgrades there. However, after watching the keynote on Monday and getting a glimpse into the future of the iPad, I think I have a better understanding as to Apple’s thinking.

I believe the lower-end MacBook line will disappear within 3-5 years.

The company’s deliberate forking of iOS into two separate operating systems–iOS for the iPhone and iPadOS for the iPad–demonstrates the company’s focus on propelling the tablet into a true "real work" machine without being held back by the smaller screen of the iPhone.

We got a glimpse of this in last year’s "What’s a Computer?" ad where a young teen went about her day with her iPad Pro and Apple Pencil at her side, reading comics, creating Pages documents, and chatting with friends. The ending line always made me cringe–obviously you know what a computer is. You’re not that young, but the farther away from that "get off my lawn" mentality I get, the more I’m willing to accept how that person’s experience might become the default in a handful of years.

The iPad has grown from a fun in-between device for watching movies and playing games into a real, viable option for people looking to shed the PC life. Split View multitasking was the start. Being able to use two apps side-by-side seemed to appease users who wanted computer functionality, but found themselves hampered by Apple’s one-app-at-a-time UX.

With iPadOS, multitasking is elevated to a whole other level. App Exposé, Slide Over, and Split View combine to provide access to your apps in new ways while retaining the clean interface iPad users have come to love. Slide Over in particular seems like a great way to keep reference apps and file directories handy without having them take up an entire half of the screen, and the ability to cycle through a bunch of different apps, then swipe them away only makes it better.

There’s also the addition of SMB server support and external storage support in the Files app, two features that were heavily criticized for being omitted in last year’s major update, especially with the debut of the 2018 iPad Pro. Calling something a "pro" anything, for better or worse, carries a certain weight. In the case of the iPad Pro, users found it hard to consider the device a true laptop replacement when it didn’t do nearly as much as their MacBooks. That’s all changed this year.

Even iCloud on iOS (and iPadOS) has gotten a bump, with shared folder support across all devices. And Safari on iPad’s shift from mobile browser to desktop-class browser with download manager means your favorite web apps, like Google Docs, Trello, Basecamp, and more work the way they’re supposed to–the way they work on your laptop.

Most importantly, there’s Apple’s new universal app development initiative, Project Catalyst née Marzipan. A lot of people saw it as a way to bring beloved iPad apps to the Mac more easily, saving developers time, effort, and money by letting them build one app instead of two or three for Apple’s various platforms. But I see Project Catalyst going the other way, as less about bringing iPad apps to the Mac and more about bringing Mac apps to the iPad. As I’ve said before, Scrivener on the iPad, while a terrific app, lacks much of the functionality of its desktop counterpart. That doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

And with Photoshop coming to the iPad soon, we may see Adobe Premiere, After Effects, and even Apple’s Final Cut Pro make the move to the tablet in the future. Project Catalyst on the desktop will make Mac users more comfortable when switching to the iPad and give iPad users access to the apps they know and love from the Mac.

Which brings us back to my initial thesis: the end of the MacBook.

It won’t happen immediately, but I do see it happening sooner rather than later, starting with the 12-inch MacBook. Its last update was in 2017 and even then, its processor and RAM options were paltry compared to its Pro brethren. When the new Pro models came out last week with 8-core processors and the MacBook was left out of the cycle, that told me the warden pushed up the runt’s execution date. Dead computer walking.

The same goes for the 13-inch "Escape" model Pro (the one without the Touch Bar). The difference between the MacBook Escape and the MacBook Air is $100 and, as Macworld’s Michael Simon pointed out in his comparison of all three MacBook models back in November 2018:

The $1,299 non-Touch Bar model has a better processor than the MacBook Air, but not overly so, and it has the same base storage, RAM, ports, and screen. The Air is lighter, feels thinner due to its wedge design, and has better battery life.

At that size and form factor, I don’t imagine most people, especially students and hobbyists (amateur photographers, podcasters, writers) would opt for the higher priced Pro when they could get an Air that’s lighter and cheaper with better battery life.

Now, enter the iPad Pro, with its blazing-fast A12x chip and Liquid Retina display. It’s a powerful machine made even more powerful with the updates in iPadOS. Students looking for an ultra-portable machine to carry with them to class may likely find the Pro to scratch just that itch. They can read digital textbooks, email professors, take notes using the Apple Pencil, and chat with classmates while using the device as a pure tablet, or with a keyboard. It’s incredibly versatile and should grow even more so once Project Catalyst takes off.

A 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256GB of space, the Smart Keyboard Folio, and the Apple Pencil comes in at a little over $1,500. That’s more expensive than the base model 13-inch MacBook Pro and the base MacBook Air. Laptop pricing for a true laptop alternative.

The updated iPad Air is no slouch either. It boasts an A12 chip, Apple Pencil support, and even uses the old Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover. A 256GB WiFi model clocks in at around $650. Add the keyboard and Pencil and you’re heading into the one grand territory. Again, laptop pricing.

Like I said, I don’t see Apple dropping the MacBook lineup tomorrow. I imagine it starting out slow, with the 12-inch models falling off the website, followed by the 13-inch Escape-model Pros. The 15-inch Pro will stick around. A portable machine capable of high-end video, audio, and graphic work will always be in demand, but the days of low-end Apple laptops for students and casual web surfers may be coming to a close. As it stands right now, Apple offers:

  • 2 MacBook models
  • 2 MacBook Air models
  • 4 13-inch MacBook Pro models
  • 2 15-inch MacBook Pro models
  • iPad mini
  • 9.7-inch iPad (Pro)
  • iPad Air
  • iPad Pro

I see that eventually becoming:

  • 2 13-inch MacBook Pro (Touch Bar) models
  • 2 15-inch MacBook Pro models
  • iPad Mini
  • iPad Air
  • iPad Pro

Yes, I also predict the 9.7-inch iPad fading away as well. Especially since the Air is less than $200 more and could feasibly come down further in price to better accommodate the education market, as well as consumers who don’t want to spend the coin on a Pro model.

I won’t be surprised if anyone disagrees with me. It’s a bold claim, but Apple isn’t a company that’s afraid to change things up, especially when they have a chance to move an entire industry forward. iPadOS is just the beginning.

In less than a decade, I can see my son turning to me with a puzzled look on his face and asking me, "What’s a computer?"