The Mac Pro lives: Apple promises new gear

So I wake up and fire up twitter, and see that John Gruber has dropped a bomb on my twitter feed and twitter blew up. I had errands to run and a doctor’s appointment this morning, so I’m just now able to sit down and write about this, but it’s given me a chance to sift through what people are saying and get my head around it.

My general reaction is this is great but also that the devil is in the details and we don’t know many details yet. What we do know is that Apple has been working on what’s been called the iMac Pro by the pundits, a higher end iMac designed to fill most of the gaping hole power users see when they look at Apple’s current product line. But what we found out is that they’ve also decided to work on a next generation Mac Pro, because they realize the iMac Pro solves many, but not all, of the needs of this power user market niche.

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 gen Mac Pro has been an ongoing and rather enthusiastically discussed topic inside Apple’s walls.

As part of the discussion, Apple gave some numbers on laptop vs desktop and iMac vs non-screen desktops, and confirmed that the numbers of desktops and non-iMacs are very small parts of the business. The good news is Apple’s come to the conclusion they need to invest in them anyway, even though it’s clearly a strategic investment and not because these devices will make them oodles of money. Still, they have come around to the idea that they can’t not have a product that solves these high end power users needs.

That Apple had this meeting shows they Apple realized it needs some damage control, and I think it did a nice job of that.

Apple felt it needed to tell us the project has been prioritized again (good for them) and that it’ll be a modular system again (more good on them), although what modular means is something they haven’t designed: does that mean users can replace parts to update an existing machine, like a new GPU? Or add disk? Or does that mean they’re building a design that allows Apple to refresh the product easily with new components and CPUs as those evolve, but as a new product? Or some of both? Time will tell.

I’ve come to call the Trash Can Mac Pro Apple’s biggest mistake since the Mac Cube, and I think Apple has now acknowledged that. From Matthew Panzarino’s piece on the meeting, it seems Apple bet on the future being power scaling via multiple GPUs, and what ended up happening was the technology moved forward using ever more powerful, power hungry and heat generating single GPUs instead and the design of the Mac Pro simply couldn’t be updated to use those GPUs. Apple zigged, the market zagged — a pretty rare mis-step by Apple.

I expect that this will slow down the migration I’ve seen of people deciding to shift off the Apple devices, especially to the Surface and to high end windows or linux desktops. Not knowing if there were going to be upgrades put a lot of users into an uncomfortable situations: do you wait for an upgrade you don’t know if you’re going to get, or do you invest in the time and effort necessary to shift to a new OS on a new hardware platform with new tools?

Some users are going to decide Apple waited too long and continue that migration, and I understand and don’t blame them. But this announcement at least sets a stake in the ground with likely capabilities and a timeframe, and so it removes the uncertainty and it gives users on that fence staring over the edge of a cliff enough data to know whether they can wait or if they need to jump. Apple did a very good thing closing that uncertainty gap here.

So my overall take? I’m thrilled at the direction Apple has committed to, and I’m pleased it’s similar to the direction I’ve suggested they take in my writing in the last few months.

I think we can all be annoyed that Apple seemingly lost track of the mac market and that these products weren’t in the pipeline all along, but in reality, mistakes happen, and these mistakes are notable mostly because Apple makes so few major mistakes — so this sticks out like a sore thumb. What really matters to me is that Apple recognized it, figured out how to fix it, owned up to it, told us about that, and is now moving forward in a direction I think solves the problem. Maybe not soon enough for some, but hardware takes time…. And that’s better than never.

So two fully enthusiastic thumbs up from me.

A bit about how Apple did this

I’m fascinated by how Apple announced this. They brought in a few key people: Matthew Panzarino of Techcrunch, Lance Ulanoff of Mashable, Ina Fried of Axios (formerly of ReCode), John Paczkowski of BuzzFeed and John Gruber of Daring Fireball.

Notably missing? Nobody from a Vox property like the Verge or ReCode. No Uncle Walt. No Wall Street Journal. No Ars Technica. Nobody from the podcast or youtube worlds.

What do these five people have in common? Two things, I think: they all have both a technical and marketing/business grounding that allows them to understand what Apple is saying and doing here, and the journalistic chops to be able to explain it in a rational and clear way — and if you read all of their coverage pieces, Apple chose well.

The other, bigger (to me) thing: they are all straight shooters who have had no problem criticizing Apple in the past, sometimes quite strongly, but they’re also fair about it and show the good side of what Apple does as well. But while I’m sure people are doing it (especially with Gruber) you can’t look at this group and think of them as Apple apologists in any way, shape or form. (I think that may be why the Verge isn’t on this list; my take on their Apple coverage these days is that it’s bias is too negative as they attempt to show how cool and smart they are).

So you get a few key, really smart and sharp people in the room, and you sit down and talk to them, and let them write about it. Except it’s not in the briefing center. It’s not in Tim’s conference room. Apple brought these people to the building where all of the hardware prototyping goes on — and has gone on since the 1980’s, and sits down with them there.

And they don’t present. They don’t brief. They sit down and talk. Surrounded by 40ish years of Apple history. That is really fascinating staging and it says something really important, if you can only figure out what it is. My take? I think the biggest message in this is that Apple is very consciously (a) not doing it the old way, and indirectly admitting that the old way was broken, and (b) I think this is a way for Apple to imply that it’s getting back to the older roots of the company. It’s not the heavily polished, sometimes almost sterile transfer of information from Inside to Outside, it’s hey, Fred, can you shut off the CNC for 30 minutes so we can hear ourselves?

A fascinating, wonderful piece of theater, and I think in a way it was Apple humbling itself for putting itself into this situation and now having to build the ladder to get themselves out of the hole they dug.

I am impressed Apple was willing to do this, and I’m impressed with the decisions they made. Now, all they need to do is follow through with the products I know they’re capable of. It’s never easy to say ‘I Screwed up’, so much appreciation for the fact that they did.

Now all they need to do is execute the plan.

My previous writing on this topic

As I mentioned above, I’ve written a number of pieces on Apple over the last few months, a couple of which have been the most popular pieces I’ve published over the last few years. I’m listing them here for your amusement, but the executive summary is that I felt Apple had really lost focus on the Mac market and was building products for where the revenue was and not serving the outlier needs of groups like their power users — which is a problem because they are, among other things, your influencers, and you don’t want to lose them to your competitors. Which Apple has been doing as people gave up hope of seeing updates to the power user products, especially to the Surface.

And I wrote about needing to understand when to make a strategic investment in a product even if that product won’t ‘move the needle’ financially, and in reality, anything not named iPhone is difficult to move needles in Apple’s financial numbers these days. I felt the power user group needed to be seen as a strategic investment, and that ultimately is what Apple’s chosen to do.

I also suggested the best way to solve this was to go back to a modular approach, thinking about a modern update of the old venerable Mac Iici, and effectively, at least at a first order of agreement, that’s what they’re doing.

Now, I’m not taking any credit for what Apple’s chosen to do. What I am pleased at is when I sat down and did the “What would I do if I were Phil Schiller” game, what I came up with was surprisingly close to what Apple did. That makes me happy.

But I don’t remotely believe that what I wrote pushed Apple in any direction. Apple’s full of smart people and they’re more than able to figure this out. And they did. Which also makes me happy.

Good coverage to dig into

Here are some of the best pieces I’ve seen today covering this unique announcement by Apple. If you want to dig into it further, start with these if you haven’t read them already.