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The stakes for the new MacBook are much higher than for the iPad

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Today, Apple is widely expected to introduce two new computers: a revamped iPad Pro and the long-awaited successor to the MacBook Air. There have been a lot of rumors and leaks about the iPad, which has led to a palpable level of excitement for this event. The new MacBook — whatever Apple ends up calling it — has slipped under the internet’s collective hype radar a little bit.

I think that’s a mistake. The iPad Pro might be the more interesting product, but in this moment the stakes are much higher for the MacBook.

The story for the iPad Pro is pretty clear to me. Apple needs to continue its long journey of iterating on the iOS platform to make it ever more capable, until someday it’s truly ready to fully supplant the Mac as the primary computing platform of choice for most people. (I am, of course, caveating all this with the acknowledgement that most people’s primary computing platform is actually their smartphone. I’m talking about big-screen devices here.)

Reasonable people can (and definitely do) argue over whether or not the iPad has already crossed that very fuzzy line. To me, the iPad Pro is the answer to Apple’s own “What’s a computer” question: the iPad is definitely a computer. But ironically, it can only really serve that purpose for two diametrically opposed groups of people: those who only need something very simple and those who are technically savvy enough to work around iOS’ limitations and create workflows that match what they can do on a more traditional Mac or Windows PC.

We can get into debate about whether it needs a mouse pointer, windows, a more robust file system, and all the rest. But I think a lot of those questions end up being beside the point — either Apple will resolve them with technical changes to iOS, or our notions of what we actually need will change and adapt to what the iPad can do. Most likely, it will be a mix of both.

The iPad Pro will get progressively, iteratively better over time, and I strongly suspect Apple’s announcements today will just be another step in that journey. Apple’s pace with the iPad is very deliberate. The iPad Pro and iOS simply isn’t as flexible or easy to use when it comes to the “computer stuff” so many people need to do, not yet. Barring something genuinely surprising, like software announcements that make that rumored USB-C port much more interesting, I think that path is pretty much set.

But the MacBook has a different journey altogether, and where it’s headed is much less clear. To over-extend the metaphor, the MacBook is at a crossroads and we won’t know which direction Apple is choosing until we see what gets announced later today.

The stakes are higher for the MacBook because it has been several years since Apple could legitimately claim to sell the unquestioned best laptop for most people. For half a decade or more, the MacBook Air filled that slot — so much so that it became a running joke. Not only was the MacBook Air the unparalleled king of mass market laptops, for some of that time it also happened to be the best Windows laptop, via Boot Camp.

Those times are long gone. The new lineup of MacBooks haven’t lived up to the Air’s pedigree. The diminutive 12-inch MacBook was (and is) a marvel of miniaturization, but it was too underpowered and overpriced for most people. The same was true for the very first MacBook Air, but the MacBook hasn’t seen the same iterative progress that was applied to the Air. Throw in a controversial keyboard and aggressive lack of ports, and lots of people justifiably took a pass.

Lots of people similarly took a pass on the newer generations of the MacBook Pro. They have been powerful enough, but they are generally pricey. More importantly, they just don’t have the same reputation as the Air as reliable, reasonably priced, go-to machines. Then there’s the Touch Bar (a not very successful experiment, to put it gently), the keyboard issues, and the port issues (again!).

Despite Apple’s best effort to position the low-end MacBook as a worthy Air successor, it never really caught on as the de-facto “just buy this one” choice for most people. A lot of people have hung on to the Air despite its outdated processor and low-res screen simply because it was so good otherwise.

All that is on top of a more generalized worry that macOS still feels like the forgotten child next to iOS. Apple has spent the last couple of years focusing heavily on the Pro market, while the mass consumer market has been left to wait and then wait some more. And the biggest software improvement that consumers can really see and use has so far amounted to the first stages of a grand experiment: porting iPad apps over to the Mac. (The experiment, thus far, has not impressed.)

There are just a lot more question marks surrounding the future of Apple’s consumer Mac line. Whatever Apple might say (and has said), most people feel like it’s been neglected, and they’re right to think so. I think Apple needs to do something both splashy and compelling to turn those feelings around — and to answer those question marks.

The stakes are higher for the MacBook Air. It has the potential to be the obvious, default choice for so many people. It could be a definitive answer to many questions about Apple’s commitment to the Mac alongside the iPad as a true, mass-market computing platform. It could wow people in a way that hasn’t happened for Macs since Steve Jobs pulled that first Air out of an envelope.

It has been a long time since anybody’s called a MacBook “Insanely Great.” That might be too high a bar for the MacBook Air’s successor — whatever it ends up being called. For people who have been waiting, it simply needs to live up to the Air’s pedigree. That is also a very high bar, but it’s one that Apple very much needs to clear today.

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