Monday 11 December 2017

New MacBook Pro faces tough time as laptop apathy grows

MacBook computers. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
MacBook computers. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Last week, Apple launched what is arguably the fanciest laptop around: an updated MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. It's a clever piece of kit, with the Touch Bar on top changing functions depending on what application you're using.

Some people love it. Some are whingeing about the high price (€2,099) and removal of physical media ports.

But neither the adulation nor the criticism is resonating among ordinary people - most just don't care about laptops any more.

Mac? PC? This used to be a defining issue. (Remember the ads?)

Today, it's far less important than what phone you choose.

We still use laptops for work and if we're into design, gaming or other niche pursuits, we take an active interest in them.

But for the rest, a laptop is increasingly just a bare utility to get some work done during office hours. As long as it functions adequately, its colour, specifications or other features are nowhere near as interesting as they once were.

By contrast, we reserve boundless enthusiasm, hype and critical analysis for phones. When a major new model is launched, everyone talks about it.

I see this in my own job. A few short years ago, my desk was regularly set upon with requests for advice on laptops, both by colleagues and readers. Which model was best for travelling? Which was best for students? Was Windows or Mac the best long-term option?

But about two or three years ago, virtually all of the interest dried up. I can honestly say I have barely had one query about a laptop - from anyone - in the last 18 months.

Instead, I get weekly queries about phones. Is upgrading to the iPhone 7 the best strategy now? What's the best Samsung to get? Are alternative models such as the One Plus 3 a savvier choice?

What has happened is that people, whether they acknowledge it or not, are gradually switching over to use their phone as their primary computers. And this, surely, has some lessons for laptop-makers in the future.

More and more, PCs and laptops are starting to resemble obsolete machines used for industrial purposes and little else in our lives.

Try to think of something that you do online regularly throughout the day outside work that needs a PC or a laptop. Tough, isn't it? Unless you're a photographer or a hard-core gamer, most people simply go to their phone for almost everything now.

Shopping is still arguably the laptop's greatest non-work application, but as mobile sites and payment options get better, even this will start to fade away.

Sales of laptops bear all of this out. Over the last five years, sales of PCs have fallen around 20pc. And new figures from Statcounter this week show that PC and laptop internet traffic has fallen below 50pc globally for the first time.

So if laptops are headed for the scrapheap, will anything other than phones take their place?

Looking at sales figures, you'd be forgiven for thinking that iPads aren't racing to fill the void. For the last three years, Apple's sales of iPads have fallen, probably because five-inch phones have usurped their role in the eyes of many consumers.

But I think there's life in iPads yet. I may be an exception, but my own pattern of use has seen me switch over to an iPad (Pro, 13-inch) as my primary computer for work in the last year.

For complete context, here is what I own: an 11-inch MacBook Air (bought 4 years ago), a 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina (bought last year), a 12-inch Dell laptop (bought two years ago) and a 13-inch iPad Pro.

Of these, I now use the iPad Pro 90pc of the time - at home, at work and on work trips abroad. I have completely ceased to use the (battery-sapping) 11-inch MacBook Air and now use the powerful, sleek 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina only for photo-editing (it has an SD card slot and I use Adobe Lightroom on it).

For absolutely everything else, including all work-related activities, I use the iPad Pro with its smart keyboard. There's almost nothing I can't do for my work on it - including writing, researching, web browsing, presentations, tables and photo management.

I don't think I will be the only one in this type of pattern in future.

When iPads were first launched in 2010, most people still had older Nokia-style phones. Since then, things have completely changed. For most people, smartphone interfaces are now the most familiar computing system they know. Increasingly, it is Windows and Mac OS interfaces that look complicated compared to "ordinary" smartphone systems. In the long term, this familiarity will translate into people's work devices.

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