Same As It Ever Was

There’s been a lot of talk and handwringing over the new MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Here’s a bit from my rumor roundup post I published before the event:

I/O is important to professionals. Pros often have a lot of things plugged in, from hard drives to SD cards to external displays. I’m not in love with the idea of using adaptors for almost everything I need to plug in to a notebook.

This morning, I read this post by Marco Arment, in which he argues that Apple should have left some (insert giant air quotes here) legacy ports in the new machine:

Including a port that’s still in extremely widespread use isn’t an admission of failure or holding onto the past — it’s making a pragmatic tradeoff for customers’ real-world needs. I worry when Apple falls on the wrong side of decisions like that, because it’s putting form (and profitability) over function.

Design for the future, but accommodate the reality of the present.

When I first read his post, I immediately thought of the iMac G3, which dropped all existing I/O in favor of a pair of USB ports.

At the time, it seemed like a crazy move. One could barely find decent USB devices at the time. Apple pushed the market into using the new technology by forcing its users to change.

The more I thought about it, I realized the parallels weren’t as strong as I had thought. There’s a big difference between the iMac of then and the MacBook Pro of now. While the former was a hot-ticket item, it was designed to be a consumer machine. The MacBook Pro, however, is designed and sold to professionals like designers, editors, developers and more.

At the time of the iMac’s launch, the PowerMac G3 was still a beige box1 that came with Serial, SCSI and ADB ports. The entire universe of Mac accessories could be connected to these computers.

In January 1999, Apple unveiled the “Blue and White” PowerMac G3. Its design was all-new, and used the same colorful plastic the iMac did. The bigger story, however was what ports Apple included on the back of the machine.

Gone were SCSI and Serial, replaced with USB. The machine marked the introduction of FireWire 400, but like USB before it and Thunderbolt 3 now, it would take time for device makers to adopt it.

There was one more thing on that computer’s rear panel, however. A single, solitary ADB port.

While long forgotten now, ADB was everywhere in 90s Apple Land. Including it was a bridge — an olive branch — to Mac users with a bunch of legacy equipment (or software dongles) essential to their workflow. Users who absolutely were not ready to give up other “legacy” devices could use one of the machine’s three PCI slots to add after-market expansion cards.

Users of the new MacBook Pro can hook up anything to their new machine they could to their old one, but now it requires a bunch of adaptors. They can be a pain to keep up with, and are an added expense to an already-pricey notebook.

That single ADB port on the G3 gives Marco a historical precedent for wanting a USB A or SD card slot on the new MacBook Pros. While the new MacBook Pro is a hard break from the last, Apple hasn’t always burned the bridge after crossing it.

No doubt the inclusion of a regular USB port or SD card slot would make life easier for everyone as this transition takes place. It’s exactly what Apple did in 1999, until they replaced the Blue and White with an ADB-less G4 tower after just nine months.

For what it is worth, I would have appreciated the time to change stuff in my setup. I think the company probably went too far with this MacBook Pro. But I’m not surprised by it, and it didn’t keep me from buying a new notebook.

2016 Apple isn’t 1999 Apple. I have a feeling the possibility of native backwards compatibility was never really on the table for this new notebook. I don’t see a world in which Marco’s mixed-generation MacBook Pro would ever exist. As helpful as it was in the G3 days, Apple is more aggressive today about such things.

The lack of familiar ports didn’t stop me from buying a new notebook, but I’m not thrilled about every aspect of my purchase. I’m not happy about replacing a bunch of my old Thunderbolt 2 adaptors and adding some new ones. I really believe the future is going to be awesome and I like the promise this computer brings.

When Apple pushes into the future, it usually does so without much regard for the present. A bunch of people are conflicted about this computer, but Mac users should be used to that by now.

  1. A couple of different boxes actually, as it shipped in two form factors: a tower and a “desktop” model designed to sit under a CRT.