The Problem with “Pro”

Apple and its associated hardware and software developers have a problem with Pro machines, whether they are the forthcoming Mac Pro or the current iMac Pro, MacBook Pro, and/or iPad Pro, or any of the apps advertising a Pro tier. This problem, incidentally, is not unique to Apple and its ecosystem. It is a problem that bedevils the entire tech industry.

Pro means different things to different people.

I recognize that, in the aftermath of the MacBook Pro v. iPad Pro controversies, this statement is almost cliché. But one of the issues that I am beginning to recognize is that even those who look at these problems most broadly remain trapped by the choice of the abbreviated adjective “Pro”.

Does Pro stand for professional or does Pro stand for productivity?

Grammatical terminology may elicit from you, gentle readers, eye-rolls and a desire to click away from this article as soon as possible, there is more here than an English Professor’s occupational bias to focus on words. Most of the commentary on Pro machines has focused on the meaning of the adjective: “Who is a Pro?” I haven’t heard as much about the ambiguity of the abbreviation — although it immediately enters into the conversation. The absence of this acknowledgement, more often than not, results in people beginning to talk past one another.

It is also worth remembering that the equation Pro = Professional will always result in compromises because the machine is not the professional. The user is the professional and various users have different needs. Claiming that the MacBook Pro is a failed machine because it does not have a lot of ports, for example, requires the assumption that a professional needs a lot of ports to plug in a lot of peripherals. Those of us who don’t need to do that are going to respond negatively to the claim because accepting it requires us to deny that they are professionals. And while I don’t need a lot of peripherals[1], I deny anyone the right to claim I am not a professional.

Likewise, Pro = Productive highlights a series of compromises because what it takes for me to be productive is much different from what it takes for a computer scientist to be productive. I can be as productive on an iPad Pro as I can on a MacBook Pro. Indeed, the ability to scan documents and take quick pictures that I can incorporate into note taking apps like GoodNotes while I am doing research in an archive allows me to be more productive with an iPad Pro. While these compromises are similar to those under the Pro = Professional formulation, there are subtle differences, in terms of technological and production requirements.[2]

The most important distinction, however, is the implied hierarchy. There is an ego issue that has attached itself to the adjective Pro. Several years ago, for example, a colleague claimed that only the needs of computer scientists should be considered when selecting devices to deploy across our campus because the rest of us could get by without them. I hasten to note that, in his extended commentary, there was a good bit of forward thinking about the way we interact with computing devices — especially his observation that we could all receive and respond to email and similar communications on our phones (an observation made before the power of the smartphone was clear to all). But it is illustrative of the kind of hubris that can be attached to self-identifying as a Pro user — that our use case is more complex and power-intensive than those of those users whose workflows we imagine but don’t actually know. While I recognize, for example, that computer programming requires specific, high end hardware. It is equally true that certain desktop publishing applications require similar performance levels[2] for hardware.

It’s for this reason that I prefer to imagine that we are talking about machines designed for a certain kinds of productivity rather than for professionals. Most of us only have the vaguest of ideas about what the professionals in our own work spaces require to be productive in their jobs. Shifting the discussion away from the inherently dismissive designation (I’m a pro user of tech but you are not.) to one that might let us figure out good ways forward for everyone (She needs this heavy workhorse device to be productive at your desk while he needs this lighter, mobile device since he is on the road.) would let people embrace their roles a little better without dismissing others.

[1] What I do need are a variety of the much-derided dongles. A single port — in my case, the lightning port of my iPad Pro — is all I need for daily use. I plug it in for power at home and, when I enter a classroom or lecture hall, I plug it in to either a VGA or HDMI cable to share my screen, depending on what kind of projector or television monitor is in the room. What I really want to see is something that straddles the line between a cable and a dongle — a retractable cable that has lightning on one side and an adapter on the other with a reel that can lock the length once I have it plugged in. If someone is going to be very clever, I would ask them to figure out a way for the non-lighting end to serve male and female connections alike.

[2] This is the reason that when I get exasperated when Andy Ihnatko goes off on the current Apple keyboard design during a podcast, I still respect his position. While I am perfectly happy with the on screen keyboard or the Smart Keyboard of my iPad Pro, he wants/needs a different kind of keyboard to be productive. It isn’t because I am any less of a professional writer (My job requires me to research and write — although it is a different kind of writing than he engages in.). It is a question of how productive we feel we can be.

And, in cases like this, how we feel about the interface matters. It is why I still carry a fountain pen along with my Apple Pencil. It feels better to write with it and it produces a more pleasing line. The comfort and pleasure keeps me working. I have no doubt Ihnatko could bang out as many words on the current MacBook Pro with some practice. But the frustration in that learning curve would hamper his productivity as much as re-learning how to touch type on a slightly different keyboard.

[3] I wish to stress levels here. Both of these applications require high end machines but the specifics of those machines’ configurations are likely to be different. For those scratching their heads over this distinction, I would refer them to the distinction between optimizing for single core v. multi-core but I am not sure I understand that well enough to suggest a good place to read about it. Suffice it to say that different power-intensive applications lend themselves to different computing solutions.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at