Apple’s Philip Schiller talks computers, touchscreens and voice on the new MacBook Pro

The Apple exec exclusively told The Independent about the technical challenges of creating a laptop that’s lighter, thinner and faster than before

David Phelan
Wednesday 02 November 2016 12:25 GMT
Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller introduces the all-new MacBook Pro during a product launch event on October 27, 2016 in Cupertino, California
Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller introduces the all-new MacBook Pro during a product launch event on October 27, 2016 in Cupertino, California

Last week, Apple launched its latest MacBook Pro laptops. They are deluxe, powerful machines with innovations including the Touch Bar, where the top row of function keys is replaced by a touch-sensitive screen where different functions appear, changing as you change programs. The new models also have a fingerprint sensor built into the power button, to buy stuff online faster than you can say “impulse purchase”.

In this exclusive interview, Philip Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, told The Independent all about them.

Schiller is a familiar face at Apple keynotes, mixing a dry sense of humour with bullish, on-message statements. Some are controversial: he recently told an audience of 6,000 that Apple was removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, for instance.

In person, he has an understated charm and a forensic intelligence. If some of my questions seem abrupt, it’s because Schiller understood what I was getting at before I had quite said them.

Don’t be fooled by Schiller’s job title. He is across every product the company makes, and passionate, of course, about every one of them.

We first talked in an Apple-white private room at Infinite Loop, the company’s Californian headquarters, minutes after the new laptops had been unveiled and followed up a few days later...

The keynote video showed Apple laptops from the last 25 years. Seeing it, you can’t predict where the design will go, but each new one it seems like a logical continuation.

Yes, and what’s remarkable is as things become smaller the range of big, obvious differences reduce. When you see the history of those notebooks, the first one is 2 ¼ inches thick. There’s a lot of room to make part lines and seams on them and things that create character but as you get to something where it’s so defined by its display and its keyboard, as an iPhone is so defined by that display, the design of how it works becomes much more into incredible, nano-sized details. I can’t even imagine the level of tolerances and small details the team will be working on in a few years from now.

The new MacBook Pro is pretty light.

It is. Big difference. And more rigid. And dense, too. It’s obviously harder to design something that’s stiffer when it’s so much thinner and the tolerances of the design are so much tighter than ever before on our products. To have this flatness and linearity between the huge trackpad surface and the palm rest, it took a level of engineering not possible before. So some things are transparent to the user, they just think it’s a beautiful product but the level of engineering it takes to make this the way it is, is a tremendous technical challenge compared to the past.

The evolution of the Touch Bar – how did it come about?

It’s part of our thinking about where to take the notebook next. Others are trying to turn the notebook into the tablet. The new MacBook Pro is a product that celebrates that it is a notebook, this shape that has been with us for the last 25 years is probably going to be with us for another 25 years because there’s something eternal about the basic notebook form factor.

Emoticons are displayed on the Touch Bar on a new Apple MacBook Pro laptop during a product launch event on October 27, 2016 in Cupertino, California

You have a surface that you type down on with your hands, with a screen facing you vertically. That basic orientation, that L shape makes perfect sense and won’t go away. The team came up with this idea that you can create a multi-touch surface that’s coplanar with the keyboard and the trackpad but brings a whole new experience into it, one that’s more interactive, with multi-touch.

Will macOS and iOS (the operating systems for Macs and iPhones) always be different?

We’re steadfast in our belief that there are fundamentally two different products to make for customers and they’re both important. There’s iPhone and iPad which are single pieces of glass, they’re direct-manipulation, multi-touch and tend towards full-screen applications. And that’s that experience. And we want to make those the best in that direction anyone can imagine. We have a long road ahead of us on that.

Then there’s the Mac experience, dominated by our notebooks and that’s about indirect manipulation and cursors and menus. We want to make this the best experience we can dream of in this direction.

Apple unveils latest Macbook Pro laptop

Here’s one example of how they should remain distinct: the Mac from the very first has had a menu bar fixed at the top. It’s core to the identity and the experience you get. But iOS doesn’t have a menu at the top. It never will. The thought of pointing at a menu at the top of an iPhone feels wrong. If you made the Mac a touchscreen you’d have to figure out how to make it a good experience with your finger on a touchscreen. Trust me, we’ve looked at that — it’s a bad experience. It’s not as good or as intuitive as with a mouse and trackpad.

The new Pros have no SD card slot for a camera memory card. Why not?

Because of a couple of things. One, it’s a bit of a cumbersome slot. You've got this thing sticking halfway out. Then there are very fine and fast USB card readers, and then you can use CompactFlash as well as SD. So we could never really resolve this – we picked SD because more consumer cameras have SD but you can only pick one. So, that was a bit of a trade-off. And then more and more cameras are starting to build wireless transfer into the camera. That’s proving very useful. So we think there’s a path forward where you can use a physical adaptor if you want, or do wireless transfer.

Is it inconsistent to keep the 3.5mm headphone jack as it’s no longer on the latest iPhone?

Not at all. These are pro machines. If it was just about headphones then it doesn’t need to be there, we believe that wireless is a great solution for headphones. But many users have setups with studio monitors, amps, and other pro audio gear that do not have wireless solutions and need the 3.5mm jack.

Tell me about Siri on the Mac.

We waited quite a while to bring Siri to the Mac because we didn’t want to bring it until it could do some things Mac users would really require, like file searching and things like that. We could have brought it earlier without that but it wouldn’t have made as much sense to us.

But there’s no “Hey Siri”, where you can invoke the voice assistant by just speaking to it, on the Mac?

That has more to do with system electronics and low power capabilities. You would want to be able to say “Hey Siri” from across the room even when your Mac is asleep, so if you still have to go across the room to wake the Mac, then what’s the point? You need to build system-wide electronics that are in the right standby state, listening for that catchphrase and that’s not built into the electronics of Mac today.

Yesterday, I caught up with Mr Schiller again, to assess public reactions to the new products

How would you describe the response to the new MacBook Pro?

There has certainly been a lot of passionate dialogue and debate about the new MacBook Pro! Many things have impressed people about it, and some have caused some controversy. I hope everyone gets a chance to try it for themselves and see how great the MacBook Pro is. It is a really big step forward and an example of how much we continue to invest in the Mac. We love the Mac and are as committed to it, in both desktops and notebooks, as we ever have been.

Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller speaks in front of a projection of an old IBM 3279 terminal during a product launch event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California on October 27, 2016

And we are proud to tell you that so far our online store has had more orders for the new MacBook Pro than any other pro notebook before. So there certainly are a lot of people as excited as we are about it.

Are you surprised by how vocal the critics have been?

To be fair it has been a bit of a surprise to me. But then, it shouldn’t be. I have never seen a great new Apple product that didn’t have its share of early criticism and debate — and that’s cool. We took a bold risk, and of course with every step forward there is also some change to deal with. Our customers are so passionate, which is amazing.

We care about what they love and what they are worried about. And it's our job to help people through these changes. We know we made good decisions about what to build into the new MacBook Pro and that the result is the best notebook ever made, but it might not be right for everyone on day one. That’s okay, some people felt that way about the first iMac and that turned out pretty good.

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