In the nearly 35 years since the dawn of the Macintosh computer, Apple has not been what you would call open. The famous veil of secrecy fell on Apple in 1984 for the first Macintosh desktop computer and has rarely, if ever, been lifted. Products like the Mac, iMac, Mac Pro, iPhone, iPad, and more arrive when Apple is good and ready to deliver them and all the rumors in the world won’t make Apple talk.
Unless they want to talk. Which, on this day in early April, they do — about the product that started it all and remains near and dear to Apple and millions of its customers: the Mac or, more specifically, the desktop-bound Mac Pro and iMac.
“This is an unusual thing, to get together like this,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, “This is in between product announcements. There’s no black drape that’s going to come off something right now. That’s not why we’re here.”
Apple had just done the unthinkable
“Here” was a sprawling, white, low-slung and rather nondescript office building on Apple’s sprawling campus that’s served as a key Mac fabrication building since 1981 (the vestibule is filled with prototypes of early Macs) and is now known as Apple’s Product Realization Lab.
Instead of a product event, Apple summoned a tiny collection of tech journalists to Cupertino for a rare roundtable chat with Schiller, Craig Federighi, Apple senior vice president of software engineering, and John Ternus, Apple vice president of hardware engineering, all of whom would, over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation, reveal key pieces of Apple’s Mac roadmap and offer some surprisingly candid reflections about what’s worked and what hasn’t in recent Mac Pro history.
Schiller’s comments already bordered on irony since we were all sitting in a room filled with almost half a dozen CNC (Computer Numerical Control) and EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) machines, all paused in their Mac part development work and, yes, partially draped in black fabric to protect them from our prying eyes.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that those machines are milling and polishing potential designs for the next big thing in Macs: A new Mac Pro and Pro Display and a new iMac.
“We’re in the process of completely rethinking the Mac Pro,” said Schiller who was dressed in jeans and his now familiar gray button-down with epaulets.
True to his word, Schiller delivered that little bombshell without a flourish. I glanced around to see if a small breeze had shifted any of the black fabric. None of it moved. But as it dawned on us that a new Mac Pro and Pro display were not secreted away somewhere behind a CNC or under the wood conference table anachronistically in the middle of the room, the earth shifted a bit on its axis.
‘We’re in the process of completely rethinking the Mac Pro’
Apple had just done the unthinkable, something it almost never does, at least not without a physical product to show off: It revealed product plans, not hours, days or weeks, but months in advance.
And it did it all for the customers.
Almost four years ago, Apple unveiled the cylindrical Mac Pro. It looked nothing like its predecessors or like any other desktop workstation of the planet. Underneath the removable, polished aluminum shell was a unique component triangle that held dual GPUs, a powerful Xenon CPU and a thermal design that perfectly managed the heat while making the system whisper quiet.
It also apparently turned off some longtime Mac Pro customers.
“The Mac Pro, the current vintage that we introduced, we wanted to do something bold and different. In retrospect, it didn’t well suit some of the people we wanted to reach,” admitted Federighi.
The Mac Pro’s problems were twofold. It was trying to be a one-size fits all for pro customers who happen to spread across an incredibly diverse set of creative and computing disciplines (photos, video, music, science, development and coding) and it didn’t, according to Ternus, who manages most of Apple’s computer-related business, lend itself to the kind of configuration that might have helped ameliorate some of Pro market’s market segment utility concerns.
“We designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner,” joked Federighi who was wearing a royal blue button-down, a look familiar to anyone who’s seen him speak at Apple’s annual developers conference.
‘We designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner’
Apple spent almost four years in that corner, saying little about the Mac Pro or plans to address that market. Part of the problem was the growth of the iMac. Federighi noted that many so-called Pro customers were adopting the increasingly powerful all-in-one.
“So many of our customers were moving to iMac that we saw a path to address to many, many more of those people,” said Federighi.
That iMac success meant the Pro, which only accounts for a single-digit percentage point of the overall Mac market, moved to the back burner.
“We did not come to terms that we needed to do more,” said Federighi. And while none of them would pinpoint when Apple realized it wasn’t properly addressing the Pro market, Federighi said that the realization came “later than we liked.”
It’s not hard, at least when viewed from the outside, to understand why Apple might not devote 100% or even 50% of its attention to the Mac business. Falling or flat for years (with a small 1% units sold pop year over year in early 2017), Apple’s Mac business accounts for a fraction of the business Apple enjoys from its premiere hardware product, the iPhone.
To put it in perspective, Apple sold over 78 million iPhones in the first quarter of this year. In that same period, it sold 5.4 million Macs (that’s desktops and laptops). And desktops like the Mac Pro and iMac only make up, according to Apple, 20% of that Mac number. Schiller repeatedly described Apple’s Mac business as strong, outpacing the PC industry with nearly 100 million users and a business that, on its own, would be almost as large as a Fortune 500 company.
That said, pardon Apple if its laser-like focus was seemingly elsewhere.
Now, though, Apple is ready to reassess the Mac Pro and reimagine it again. They offered only a few cryptic details about the next Mac Pro (it will speak to a wider set of Pro users and be configurable), but it’s obvious that Apple won’t be backing away from another potentially eye-popping design. As for the upcoming Pro Display, we can only confirm that it will be an Apple display and not one built by LG.
‘Because the Mac’s always been about that. It’s been about not being conventional thinking, not me-too-stuff’
“With the current generation Mac Pro, which some customers love, others may not, one of the things that’s certainly clear and true about that is the team tried to do something different, something bold and we always want to encourage the Mac team that whatever products you make, that make customers happy, that we do bold work. Because the Mac’s always been about that. It’s been about not being conventional thinking, not me-too-stuff,” said Schiller.
For some time now, Apple’s been on a sort of Pro user listening tour, trying to understand those who own the Mac Pro and those who have rejected it. Apple has also paid attention to the chatter in Internet forums where some Mac users wondered if Apple still cared about them. Federighi thinks it’s almost a form of paranoia, brought on by the rise of products like the iPad. If Apple customers see a zero-sum game, they might assume that attention paid to emerging mobile platforms saps interest and energy in venerable platforms like the Mac.
“This is not happening,” said Federighi.
Schiller and Ternus reminded us that some of Apple’s most talented people are working on Mac products right now.
Part of the reason Schiller and company are talking to us in between product cycles is an almost desperate need to communicate to Mac Pro users Apple’s continuing commitment to the market.
“Frankly, [to] be a little bit more transparent with some of the things we’re doing, some of the places we’re going because our Pro users desire that, and we care deeply about them and we’re dedicated to communicating well with them,” said Schiller.
Realizing that, for the moment, I could be a conduit for the needs of Mac Pro users I pressed a little harder, but soon learned that that communication has its limits.
When I asked where Apple is right now in the Mac Pro redesign process, Schiller told me, “We’re not going to get into what stage in process [we are].”
While we’ll have to wait until 2018 for the Mac Pro rebirth (“Want to do something great…that will take longer than this year to do,” said Schiller), iMac fans can expect a significant update this year, including some new configurations designed specifically for Pro users who already fans of the all-in-one design.
When talking to them about the ‘things they’re most interested in, this [touch screens] doesn’t even register.’
One thing no one should expect on the next iMac or Apple’s upcoming Pro Display, though, is a touchscreen. In recent months, Microsoft has made some noise with its all-touch, big-screen Windows 10 Surface Studio all-in-one. Mashable Lead Illustrator Bob Al Greene, who briefly traded in his iMac and Wacom tablet for a few weeks kind of fell in love with the Surface Studio, though he told me he still prefers macOS over Windows 10.
Apple’s not afraid of big-screen touch. Look at the iPad Pro 12.9, for heaven’s sake. Yet, when I asked if Apple might consider a touchscreen Mac, Schiller shook his head and said “No.”
He told me it’s simply not a big request from Mac Pro customers. When talking to them about the “things they’re most interested in, this doesn’t even register,” he added.
Federighi steered the conversation to iPad Pro, which, he said, Mac Pro customers in the video production and illustration sectors are very interested in. He sees the iPad Pro and Mac Pro (or iMac) as complementary products. “All customers should be free to buy multiple products,” laughed Federighi.
Schiller was somewhat less emphatic when I asked if he was willing to make any “courageous” decisions about Mac Pro ports. I thought I saw a little discomfort flicker across Schiller’s face as he reacted to that word and he told me that Apple wasn’t making promises about ports on the Mac Pro. Port decisions, he said, are made at a product level. “Just because on one product we removed something, doesn’t mean we’re going to remove it elsewhere,” he told me.
For those not interested in whatever Apple has planned for the iMac and are unwilling to wait almost a year for the next Mac Pro, Apple has a stop-gap measure in place: Unchanged designs and prices with more powerful specs.
‘If we’ve had a pause in upgrades and updates on that, we’re sorry for that, what happened with the Mac Pro and we’re gonna come out with something great to replace it’
The entry-level Mac Pro, which starts at $2,999, will now come with a six-core Xeon processor, instead of four and dual Fire Pro D500 GPUs (instead of D300). The high-end, $3,999, will offer 8 cores and jump from dual D500 graphics cards to a pair of D700 GPUs.
Of course, you have to wonder who will buy these Mac Pros now that they know something much more interesting is coming in 12 months. The next Mac Pro will clearly be more powerful and it will, without question, offer more configurations than ever before.
It wasn’t, the Apple team insisted, the design that drove the Mac Pro’s limited configuration options. Federighi explained that they thought initially about how much aggregate graphics the system should have, but they did work within the constraints of thermal efficiency and completely silent operations.
“What we didn’t appreciate at the time, how we had so tailored that to a specific vision. We’d found ourselves a bit boxed in by a circular shape,” he said.
That doesn’t mean unusual shapes are out of the question, but whatever Apple builds, it will surely speak to a wider array of Pro users.
Schiller, however, wants Pro customers to take away one core message:
“The Mac has an important, long future at Apple. Apple cares deeply about the Mac. We have every intention to keep going and investing in the Mac. It’s important to us, it’s important to our customers, including Mac Pro users, all Pro users, including Mac Pro. And if we’ve had a pause in upgrades and updates on that, we’re sorry for that, what happened with the Mac Pro and we’re gonna come out with something great to replace it.”
As we exited the Apple R&D lab that afternoon and stood in the early spring sunshine, the work of reimagining Apple’s workhorse computer continued again inside one of Apple’s oldest buildings, with CNC machines grinding through preliminary parts designs and EMDs using razor-thin wire to shave metal pieces into new and possibly spectacular future Mac Pro shapes.