Devices labeled with the term “pro” come with a lot of expectations. The idea of a pro user is well defined in the desktop and laptop computing space. But, pro mobile devices (such as phones and tablets) are less well defined. This is problematic because devices that support the pro moniker cannot separate themselves from consumer grade options except in price - making the term a meaningless standard. Unlike their PC counterparts, mobile devices are held back by the limitations of their respective app software and operating systems.
The pro PC user
What is a pro PC user? I realize there is now an entire generation of people who don’t remember a life without a smartphone, but let’s try. From 1995 to 2010, my vision of a pro PC user is a professional who’s living depends on having the most powerful and capable machine possible. These are folks who need horsepower. This might include video producers, photographers, audio engineers, sound designers, 3D graphics experts, game designers, and software developers. Professionals either push the CPU/GPU to its max to do one task, or they have many tools running at the same time. Real pros need big hard drives, lots of RAM, powerful chips, and the best displays.
You might notice that I’ve not included professional writers, bloggers, or other professionals who rely just as heavily on computers. The difference between these classes of professionals is that not all require the latest and greatest hardware to get their job done. Folks who can get away with mid tier machines I’m defining as “power users” - adept and capable computer users who don’t typically buy $8000 desktops or laptops. So, when I say “pro” - I mean “money is no object.”
In the days when Apple Inc. was on the edge of oblivion, Steve jobs drastically simplified the product line to reduce user confusion - the direct opposite of what the Windows PC industry was doing. Apple developed clear language to help you make a purchasing decision. The company made a consumer laptop and desktop (iBook and iMac), as well as a pro laptop and desktop (PowerBook and PowerMac). Today their pro devices are the MacBook Pro, Mac Pro, and iMac Pro. And these devices (mostly) live up to the name.
How would one differentiate between a pro and consumer device? By trying to do pro tasks. Render a 4k video using an entry level laptop and tell me how long it takes. Probably much longer than a pro machine. For pros, time is money.
Over the last few years, this important differentiation has eroded in the laptop space, and is even less meaningful in the tablet and phone space. The professional community’s reaction to the redesigned MacBook Pro lineup in 2016 demonstrates this. Real pros felt these notebooks were nothing more than “pro-sumer” (or power user) devices that were relatively underpowered , had limited configurations, and still had the pro price tag. Even to this day, reliability issues plague the MacBook Pro.
Pro mobile devices
The really interesting question to me is, what differentiates consumer, power user, and pro devices in the mobile device space. Laptops are a form of mobile devices, but they run desktop software. When I say mobile, what I’m really referring to are post-pc devices such as smartphones, tablets, Chromebooks, 2 in 1’s, wearables, etc. As these product categories have grown, they also have pro versions.
Tablets are the obvious mobile device to pick on because they are positioned as a future vision of computing, at least if you believe in Apple’s divisive slogan “what is a computer?”
Last month, Apple released its new 10.5” iPad Air and a iPad Mini. In late 2018, it announced new iPad Pros. Earlier in 2018, it released an updated 9.7“ ‘iPad’, its entry-level tablet. Apple now has an iPad at every price point which is similar to the iPod line in its later years. What’s interesting about this lineup is that it largely matches Apple’s laptop line - MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro.
But Pro iPads, while technically more powerful and capable, don’t offer much more than their consumer grade relatives. Why? Because there is no software to take advantage of it. iOS is a very advanced, but lightweight operating system. Even the cheapest iPad will run most apps perfectly fine. Some apps, like Adobe Photoshop, might run faster on an iPad Pro, but the need isn’t as apparent as a pro desktop or laptop computer. iPad Pros are really cool, but they’re held back by software that’s mandated to run on all iPads. Even the iPad Pro’s USB-C integration is somewhat held back by software.
Almost every iPad Pro review highlights iOS’ limitations:
But, it’s not fair to pick on Apple. Android tablets (though a shrinking market) are in exactly the same boat. Only Samsung still manufactures a true iPad Pro competitor with the S4 tablet. The Google Play store’s pro app offerings are even more limited than Apple’s, as many pro-level apps are absent or not as well optimized. The Chromebook platform from Google is popular in education for being a cheap PC alternative. Yet, Google has made several high-end Chromebooks under its Pixel line. Again, these devices are faster, but there isn’t enough software to take advantage of the hardware. Users pay a huge premium for hardware headroom.
One could argue that Microsoft’s Surface line is the only tablet (or 2 in 1) to seriously differentiate between consumer grade and pro devices. The Surface Go is a low-powered version of the 2 in 1 device - not well suited for running pro apps. The Surface Pro has considerably more horsepower and, when spec’d out, has the ability to be a decent photo and video editing machine. However, I wouldn’t consider the Surface line a tablet. It’s essentially a Windows laptop with a kickstand. Furthermore, while Microsoft positions the Surface Pro as the more capable device, pros are better off with the Surface Book - a laptop with a detachable screen.
Pro phones and wearables next?
So far, phones have not widely adopted the pro moniker. This makes sense since the screen limitations make productivity somewhat more challenging. Apple has essentially created a tiered system by having older phones available alongside newer flagship models. The main differences (besides newer processors) are the camera capabilities. Huawei does use the term “pro” for its high end P30 model, which is differentiated by the superior optics systems. But, besides cameras and processing power, budget and mid-range devices are increasingly capable.
There are some things pro phones might do to differentiate themselves in this increasingly crowded space. Google’s inclusion of a dedicated “Pixel Image Core” on its flagship phones allow for excellent image processing which would be a pro feature for photography enthusiasts. However, its recently released Pixel 3a devices (a consumer grade alternative) - despite lacking some dedicated image processing hardware - have nearly identical camera performance thanks to software enhancements.
As foldable devices become more prevalent, it’s possible that phones and tablets will combine into one category. Foldable displays have the potential to transform our pocket computers into productivity devices when they need to be. But, the Galaxy Fold debacle makes me think bendable displays are a ways off from being reliable.
And then we come to wearables which includes smart watches, heads up displays (glasses), augmented and virtual reality devices, and anything else you can squeeze into this category. These devices could support a pro moniker if they offer professional features that somehow augment the other pro devices in our life. But, wearables (which is a broad category) are highly specialized devices that don’t have the capability of a general purpose computer. Perhaps pro needs to be redefined for this generation?
What pro mobile devices need to be
I started this article with my definition of a pro user. Baggage plagues this term, so it’s difficult to think about how the term ‘pro’ applies to mobile.
Ultimately, raw performance is still important. I still make the case that pro is synonymous with productivity or creative endeavours, so pro mobile devices need to be able to get the job done better and faster than consumer grade devices. Advances in mobile chip design have made these devices every bit as snappy as their desktop counterparts, and it’s clear that many tasks can be accomplished on them. Video editing on an iPad Pro is astonishing, and it will get the job done faster.
Operating system limitations and the app store model are holding back mobile devices from being pro. While the term pro has baggage from the desktop era, the term ‘mobile’ has baggage from the post-pc era. Most mobile devices are expected to run the latest apps. So, a developer who wants to make the best pro apps for an iPad pro or Samsung S4 also has to optimize these apps to run on entry level devices. Users expect this compatibility and they expect good performance on their 2014 devices.
If mobile devices are truly going to go pro, some users will have to be left behind. We don’t expect our entry-level ultrabooks to play cutting edge games, edit 4k video, or be our main software development devices. Why should we expect anything different from mobile devices? Because users don’t consider mobile devices to be real computers… yet. Despite all the corporate rhetoric, it will be a long time before post-pc devices are recognized as ‘equally pro.’ Until they are as capable as a laptop, they’ll always be considered companion devices - albeit expensive ones. At best, mobile devices labeled as pro are ‘power-user’ or enthusiast devices. There is very little essentiality there.
And perhaps that’s fine. Post-pc devices will evolve only as fast as they need to. Tablets, phones, and wearables have made incredible advances over the last ten years, and today they are capable productivity devices. The danger lies in the interim. Using the pro moniker to portray mobile computing as something greater than it is, or watering down the term’s true meaning in the desktop space, does users a disservice by misrepresenting the experience. Pro shouldn’t be a marketIng term for cool or expensive.