Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Mac Pro Lives

John Gruber (tweet):

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis. They’re also working on Apple-branded pro displays to go with them. […] These next-gen Mac Pros and pro displays “will not ship this year”. (I hope that means “next year”, but all Apple said was “not this year”.) In the meantime, Apple is today releasing meager speed-bump updates to the existing Mac Pros.


Regarding iMacs, Schiller also said that new iMacs are in the works, slated for release some time this year (no specifics other than “this year”), including “configurations of iMac specifically with the pro customer in mind and acknowledging that our most popular desktop with pros is an iMac.”


The word “mistake” was not uttered, but this is about as close as we’re going to get to Apple admitting they miscalculated with the current Mac Pro’s concept. One word that was uttered, however, was “sorry”.


Schiller: “On that I’ll say the Mac Mini is an important product in our lineup and we weren’t bringing it up because it’s more of a mix of consumer with some pro use. … The Mac Mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today.”

At this point, anything other than an actual announcement of shipping product was bound to be disappointing. The current Mac Pro is an embarrassment, and it’s unthinkable that Apple would continue selling it much longer in the same form. That it was kept around as a placeholder was a sign that something would be coming eventually. The worst news would be if it were quietly killed off. This vapor announcement of a product that’s more than a year away is one step better.

Unexplained is how Apple got into this situation. It has been common knowledge that the 2013 Mac Pro was a thermal mess. Apple must have known at least two years ago that a new design would be needed. Why does it take three years to design a new Mac? I keep thinking of the anecdote where there was a problem with the supply chain in China:

Thirty-minutes in the meeting [Tim Cook] chided Sabih Khan, the then operations executive, saying “Why are you still here?”.

It doesn’t seem like there was that sense of urgency about the Mac Pro. Maybe there was a second radical design that also didn’t pan out, but my guess is that Cook thought the future was iMacs or simply didn’t give it much thought. If the plight of Apple’s Pro customers kept him up at night, they wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in.

Words aside, the way to show that Apple cares about Pro customers would have been to release some sort of stopgap Mac Pro now (or last year). It might not be beautiful or innovative, but with relatively little effort they could have put together a basic system to rival a Hackintosh tower. Instead, we get classic 2010s Apple pride. They’re working on something really great, and you’ll have to be patient because they would rather prove to you that they can still innovate than have the courage to ship a boring product that nonetheless would meet the needs of their customers today.

My other thought is that if 80% of Mac sales are notebooks, and Apple thinks there’s room for a Mac Pro in the 20% of desktops, there’s got to be room in the 80% for a true MacBook Pro: a large display, lots of RAM and storage, a real keyboard and trackpad, and physical escape and function keys.

For me, I want some kind of a Mac Pro, but I don’t have the patience to keep waiting. The speed-bump1 updates are welcome but not enticing. The new Mac Pro could be shipping in late 2018 or even 2019. It might be late or supply constrained or have design flaws, especially if it is to be a radical design. And there’s no telling whether it would even be what I’m looking for. The word “modular” hints to me that it’s not going to be a tower that I can put drives in, anyway. So I will likely get an iMac whenever they’re updated and hope that a better MacBook Pro is announced before my 2012 one stops working.

See also: Matthew Panzarino, Dr. Drang, Ryan Jones, Frank Reiff, Jeff Johnson, SwiftOnSecurity.

Update (2017-04-04): See also: Michael Love, Chris Johnson, Jeff Johnson, Marco Arment, Hacker News, Eric Florenzano, Garrett Murray, Michael Yacavone, Ted Landau, Stephen Hackett, Michael Rockwell, Kirk McElhearn, Josh Centers, Adam C. Engst, Dan Moren, Nick Heer, Ina Fried, John Gruber, Andrew Cunningham, Joe Rossignol, Juli Clover, David Sparks, Benjamin Mayo, Colin Cornaby, Todd Ditchendorf, Daniel Jalkut, Brian Webster.

Chuq Von Rospach (tweet):

From the timing of when we’ll see these products — the iMacs later this year and the Mac Pro next year — I’m inferring that the iMacs have been under design for a while, but may have been taken back for component tweaking and upgrades, while this new Mac Pro has been under internal argument and the group that feels the product needs to exist has finally won, so design is now starting in earnest. These two assumptions match what I’ve been hearing in my occasional chat with people who know people who know people’s barbers. I think it’s fair to say that whether there should be a next ten Mac Pro has been an ongoing and rather enthusiastically discussed topic inside Apple’s walls.

Update (2017-04-05): See also: Colin Cornaby, Dr. Drang, Nick Lockwood, Ilja A. Iwas, Dan Masters, Chris Adamson, Mark Sullivan, Accidental Tech Podcast, Andrew Pontious, MacDailyNews.

Oluseyi Sonaiya:

Given the range of constraints that define professional workstations, the Late 2013 Mac Pro is what you might arrive at if you first determine that your must-have is compact form factor.


My theory is that Jony Ive’s design aesthetic is fundamentally sculptural, not ergonomic: that he makes objects to be beheld, not to be held.

Kirk McElhearn:

The whole thing seemed improvised, from the various articles I’ve read. It’s almost as if Apple recently realized that their desktop Mac line-up is an embarrassment and decided to start planning to fix it. Nothing in the transcript of the meeting suggests that they’ve been working on this for any length of time.

Jason Snell:

Schiller suggested that the new Mac Pro will be more capable of receiving hardware updates, but on what schedule?

Thomas Brand:

As a past Power Mac customer I am excited about Apple's future “modular Mac,” but I have questions about what modular means to Apple and its customers.

Update (2017-04-06): Thom Holwerda (via Marco Arment, MacRumors):

The Mac Pro was in limbo inside Apple. The decision to go ahead and develop a modular Mac Pro replacement seems to have been made only in recent months, with development starting only a few weeks ago, which makes it clear why Apple said it won’t ship this year.


What made Apple do a 180? Well, after the announcement of the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, orders for refurbished “old” MacBook Pros supposedly went through the roof, and after the initial batch of reviews came out, they shot up even higher. This response to the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar took Apple completely by surprise. Combined with the problems surrounding the LG UltraFine 5K display and the constant negativity from professional Apple users, the company decided to double down on professional users.

Sebastiaan de With:

Before this week’s announcement, it was looking like the future would simply pass Apple by.

And I was convinced — me, an ex-Apple designer with the greatest passion for Macs — that I had bought my last Mac, and would finally be forced to switch back to PCs.

I’m incredibly relieved I won’t be.

Matthew Panzarino:

But we thought we would also use this opportunity to share a transcript of the interview with Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing; Craig Federighi, Senior Vice President of Software Engineering; John Ternus, Vice President of Hardware Engineering.

Update (2017-04-07): See also: Hacker News.

Update (2017-04-11): Lloyd Chambers:

I give Apple kudos for finally acknowledging that the 2013 Mac Pro was in some ways a failure, albeit with first class ‘spin’: taking 3+ years to figure out that a waffle cone with chocolate ice cream isn’t the only flavor people like is simply not a credible cover story.


I would feel a lot more comfortable were I reading past tense instead of present participle (“rethinking”, team “told to take its time”). Should not the thinking part should be just about all done by now, the staff having been hard at work for the past two years or so?

Update (2017-04-12): See also: Accidental Tech Podcast.

Update (2017-04-14): See also: The Talk Show.

Update (2017-04-20): Becky Hansmeyer:

But I can’t help but wonder whether Apple itself fully realizes the implications of its decision to double down on pro hardware. This wasn’t just a product decision, with effects on staffing, component sourcing, and profit margins. It was a decision about the company’s identity. What is our core mission? Who is our audience? Answering those questions (and making sure every employee knows the answer to those questions) is like Running a Company 101. And yet Apple seemed to be confused.

Depending on when the initial decision to sunset the Mac Pro was made, it seems like a lot of this could have been avoided if Apple had utilized its own mission statement. Up until early June 2015, the company still ended every press release with “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world…” Now filter “Should we kill our high end personal computer?” through that and the answer is an emphatic “Nope.”

Update (2017-05-10): Jean-Louis Gassée (Hacker News):

Apple execs have finally acknowledged their inexplicable failure to update the high-end Mac Pro. While there were plenty of apologies, there were too few details about how they plan to correct course.

Update (2018-01-01): Marco Arment:

Won that bet with @caseyliss!

19 Comments RSS · Twitter

Now hear me out, but what if the "modular" aspect of the Mac Pro is that it's an iPad Pro Pro. That'd be modular, and I think it would keep all these whiners happy. Win-win.

Nobody is addressing Apple's key issue, which is retention of talent, and the fact that the talent they have want to work on hot new things like autonomous vehicles or – at worst – mobile tech like iOS/iPhone. Mac is history.

Then there's the re-org that allegedly saw iOS and macOS engineering combined. Perhaps this was a way to force engineers to embrace Mac by sticking it right under their noses.

Against this backdrop the Mac feels like it's not just dead but has been lying on the slab decaying for several years, with one of Apple's henchmen occasionally lifting its arm to wave and claim it's clearly still living. It's now a matter of reanimating the corpse, which is going to take an insane amount of energy and willpower. Apple is progressive in nature. The Mac has had its day and, even worse, has nowhere to grow into.

So, a 1980s business model selling a 1970s operating system running on 1960s hardware architecture using 1950s data management. Plus ça change.

Meantime, one of our customers has already switched to 100% virtualized Windows running straight out of their datacenter. Had anyone said 15 years ago that graphic design shops would one day be happily running on Windows, they'd have been laughed out the room. Yet the world moves on. Apple is a lame duck in pro markets for painfully simple reasons it doesn't even begin to comprehend. Beyond underpinning App developers and App developers’ egos, what purpose remains?

If so many professionals use laptops, maybe we can get Apple to make a MacBook aimed at professionals next.

Or, instead of waiting for 2018 and hoping that Apple won't screw it up again, just switch to Windows.

Still hoping lots of WWDC attendees bring Hackintosh laptops to the labs.

"My theory is that Jony Ive’s design aesthetic is fundamentally sculptural, not ergonomic: that he makes objects to be beheld, not to be held."

Most definitely. I first came to this conclusion in 2008 with the new generation of MacBook Pros. They look beautiful in the store, but when I got mine home, I was horrified by the sharp metal edges on the front end of the laptop where your palms often end up.

It was fine if you used it on a desk, but if you used it as an actual "laptop", you ended up causing pain to your hands. An object to be beheld, not held, indeed.

(Eventually, I carved and sanded down those edges, and lived happily ever after.)

"Given the range of constraints that define professional workstations, the Late 2013 Mac Pro is what you might arrive at if you first determine that your must-have is compact form factor."

I think this is definitely at least half of the equation. But I also think the non-upgradability was also seen in Cupertino as a feature to boost the bottom line.

A j'accuse is entirely possible with Jony Ive.

(a) It's really easy to trace his design inspirations, which are arguably less inspirations and more clone-like. For example, http://www.cultofmac.com/188753/the-braun-products-that-inspired-apples-iconic-designs-gallery/

(b) While Apple's method is to iterate designs, something like the MacBook Pro has remained essentially the same for over a decade. The iMac has gone through just two design iterations in over a decade – white ABS, and then aluminum. This begs the question: How many actual original and discrete product designs has Ive come up with in the post-Jobs era? I suspect you can count them on the fingers of both hands. And you know, this isn't a short time period.

(c) There have been some honking failures in the Ive output, where the form just didn't suit the function. Curiously this is with desktop computers. The G4 Cube. The trashcan Mac Pro. The latest Apple Magic Mouse with its crazy charging point. The anniversary iMac. Old-fashioned desktop computing might be Ive's blindside.

I think he's certainly a competent industrial designer but I'm not sure he deserves the godlike status afforded to him.

The complete transcript revealed some interesting nuggets that didn't make it into the articles (thanks to the gang at TechCrunch for making it available):

* That Apple came to the realization there were problems "more than six months ago"—though it's unclear still what those problem(s) were: the dead-end nature of the hardware design, that Pro customers needed something else, or both, or something(s) else entirely

* That Apple has been going out and meeting with different pro customers and seeing their workflows and needs, rather than just hearing whatever feedback makes it into Apple or the media

There was a third item I remember reading last night, but I didn't write it down and can't remember it this afternoon or find it again readily skimming—maybe where the Mini got a slightly more nuanced answer than just "It's a product in our lineup"? That's it's a machine with a more consumer focus/userbase than pro, so they're not talking about it (or thinking about it) in the pro-focused meeting.

This line was uttered by Schiller at one point:

“The Mac has always been about that: it’s been about not doing conventional thinking, not ‘me too’ stuff.”

Without this one line, I would be happy about the news. With just that line in there, all of it sounds vaguely alarming. It has me worried that yet again they’ll try to be different just because Apple must set itself apart from everyone else – even if that has no actual benefit for either the product or the user. And to quote Ive, “it’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better”. So you’d think they understand that they shouldn’t try to stand apart *just* on general principle. Yet they shipped the trashcan and all their recent laptops.

(Apple, of course, already stands apart from other PCs, because it has macOS. All pros want is for Apple to slap together the fastest machine they can put macOS on and ship that. Nobody cares about the hardware, in terms of industrial design, as a first-order concern. But Apple is probably institutionally incapable of understanding a person who doesn’t give a damn about hardware that way.)

This bit from Gruber’s account of the meeting caught my eye and not in a good way:

Ternus put it plainly: “Some of our most talented folks are working on [the Mac]. I mean, quite frankly, a lot of this company, if not most of this company, runs on Macs. This is a company full of pro Mac users.”

That seems… odd. I’m sure there are plenty of Windows machines in Apple, especially in the business-y side, and where Windows apps are being developed, and maybe controlling some of the prototyping machines in Ive’s design group.

But it still seems like he must be understating how many Macs are in use at Apple. Listening to Ternus, you’d think it was 40% or so. “A lot… if not most”.

Do the top execs only use iPads now, to the extent that they’ve lost touch with what their workers use?

I could maybe see a retail exec thinking about all the iPads and iPhones used in the stores. But this seems like an odd statement for the guy in charge of hardware engineering.

A few years ago I wrote books about Macs and often had to pitch to editors who were skeptical about the market share. I'd use the line, "Of course, Macs are on every desk at one of the world's biggest companies". And they'd scratch their head, and I'd point out the company was Apple. Some editors would come out with conspiracy theories that they were probably secretly using Windows desktops but in the Jobs era this really was unthinkable.

> I’m sure there are plenty of Windows machines in Apple, especially in the business-y side, and where Windows apps are being developed

Yeah... have you see the Windows apps? They range from token efforts all the way through to no-frills usable. The idea of Apple willingly using Windows for anything is a little bit laughable. And as for prototyping software, I'd guess this was as likely to be running on Linux/Unix as it was on Windows and it'll be running embedded within the hardware. I think I saw a clip from the British show Blue Peter where Jony Ive cut a custom extrusion in aluminum (aluminium for Blue Peter's audience!) and the screens they briefly showed were very unixy/embedded-looking.

@Jon That line caught my attention as well. It was supposed to be reassuring, but it ended up sounding like Apple itself uses fewer Macs than I would have expected.

I'm a software developer and my needs were abandoned in 2012 when Apple dropped the 17" MacBook Pro. I need a laptop with ports, storage, memory, and LARGE DISPLAY!!! Mostly work in my own office but need laptop so I can work when on the road.

Keeping my pair of 2011/2012 MBP laptops alive as long as I can - with my only option now the 15" MacBook Pro I'd have to give up screen space I need for working effectively to buy a new machine. Would love to be able to get on newer hardware, but the loss of functionality of having to move to a smaller screen is a huge barrier. May have to eventually, won't go back to the bad old days of Windows, but it'll make me angry and sad every time I open the lid and face a too-small display screen.

Gotta believe I'm not the only "pro" user who wants a large-screen laptop that can be loaded up for serious work. Just don't care about thin and light at the cost of reduced capabilities. My local Mac shop had a run on the few remaining 17" MacBook Pro's when Apple dropped them from the product line.

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