Three months after the new iPad, Apple's product naming practices are back in the spotlight. The company's WWDC 2012 keynote yesterday afternoon is being called their best yet. Various Apple execs treated us to an almost unheard-of assortment of new product announcements, including OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, iOS 6, updated MacBook Airs, updated MacBook Pros, and an all new next-generation MacBook Pro with retina display. All in all, it was an impressive display.
It's that last set of new products, however, that is raising a few eyebrows. The launch of an all-new retina display MacBook at WWDC was not unexpected. In fact, we first reported that they might do so last week. What's surprising is the name they chose to give this new device. The original report suggested that with this new computer would drop the "Pro" branding and simply be called the MacBook, and that it would ultimately replace the current MacBook Pro.
That, I said at the time, made sense. The MacBook Pro was so named at a time when the "Pro" branding distinguished it from the slightly less powerful plastic-bodied MacBook. Finding a way to phase out the Pro branding in light of the fact that the original MacBook line had been discontinued made sense.
Apple, however, did not behave as expected - as Apple is wont to do. While they did introduce an entirely new laptop with retina display and other amazing new goodies, they retained the MacBook Pro name, even as they introduced two other brand new MacBook Pros. When it comes to naming products, this is one of the stranger decisions Apple has made.
The Sam Grobart of the New York Times accused Apple yesterday of "splitting the baby" by keeping MacBook Pros with optical drives around after introducing MacBook Pros without an optical drive. By keeping the versions with optical drives on the market, Apple is not showing its characteristic level of commitment to moving toward a new technology (i.e., a market where the download has largely replaced the CD or DVD as the primary means of acquring software). He concludes that "Apple's MacBook Pro line requires more parsing on the part of the consumer today than it did yesterday."
While he is absolutely right that the MacBook Pro line is more complicated now than it was before. The key, though, is the retina display. Apple is certainly moving toward dropping optical drives from its computers. That's been clear since they launched the original MacBook Air. Dropping the optical drive from the MacBook Pro, then, is an expected move (again, one that was widely rumored before yesterday's announcement). The next-gen MacBook Pro, though, is trying to do more than just drop the optical drive. It's introducing Apple's other big bet to the Mac lineup: the retina display. That, combined with the other goodies they've added, is likely the cause for the significantly increased price of the next-gen MacBook Pro.
In that context, keeping the older MacBook Pros around and just giving them a relatively minor feature bump makes quite a lot of sense. As Apple manages to bring the next-gen MacBook Pro's price down over the next few years, you can bet that it will begin to replace the current MacBook Pro - probably the 15-inch model first, followed by the 13-inch model.
What I find bothersome about the next-generation MacBook Pro is not the fact that Apple kept the older model around and left the optical drive in. What bothers me is the name. When Apple launched "the new iPad" in March instead of the "iPad 3." A lot of people criticized the name, but I argued that it made sense. Using the same "MacBook Pro" branding for their new retina display laptop, however, doesn't make sense at all. It makes things confusing.
Now there are three models of MacBook Pro. The two lower-end models are easily distinguished by their size, just like before: you've got the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The new model throws in a new wrinkle, though, because it’s also the MacBook Pro, and is also fifteen inches, and it’s also called the MacBook Pro. But it doesn’t actually have a lot in common with the models that share its name. As Apple was careful to stress during yesterday’s keynote, it’s a complete overhaul. It’s almost as thin and light as a MacBook Air, it has no optical drive, and it has a retina display.
The next-generation MacBook Pro is, in most respects, a completely different computer than the other MacBook Pro models, and yet Apple chose not to reflect that fact in the products name. That, it seems to me, is a mistake. This new laptop looks to be a remarkable device, and Apple should have chosen a name that differentiated it from the much more ordinary, incremental products that it was announcing at the same time.
On the other hand, as noted above, the older MacBook Pro design is certainly on the way out. Within two years it will, I expect, be completely replaced by this new version. In that case, keeping the MacBook Pro branding may make a certain amount of sense in the long term. In that case, a little confusion in the short term might be worth it.