Mac Pro: Fooled You

by Jean-Louis Gassée

The only hardware demonstrated at Apple’s Software Developers Conference was the long awaited and spectacular Mac Pro and its companion display. It far exceeded the expectations of a quick fix to replace the failed 2013 Pro, finally removing the Mac jinx…almost.

Naming products is a difficult trade, an art perhaps, perilous even. Naming a car Nova can cause trouble in Spanish-speaking locales (“no go”); French speakers have their fun with Audi’s e-tron; knowledgeable linguists smile discreetly when they hear “Starion”, Mitsubishi’s (hoped-for) Mustang competitor. Car makers also sin with overly long names such as Mercedes-Benz AMG E-53 4MATIC+ Coupé or the (All-New 2019) RAM 1500 Kentucky Derby Edition. Industry critics say that longer and longer names are a symptom of creative exhaustion. More suffixes on the boot or bonnet is just rouge on a dying product line.

No such trouble with Apple product names, especially in the Steve Jobs Apple 2.0 era. The “iDevice” pattern started with the beautiful Bondi Blue iMac, continued with iTunes and the iPod and, in the eyes of many, culminated with the iPhone, giving birth to a brand name of rarely-seen-before proportions. (I’ll let brand experts tell us how the iPhone brand compares in breadth and depth with the likes of Ford, Coca-Cola, or Nike.) The iPad was more controversial because of its echo of personal hygiene, but only briefly so as the product’s enormously strong aura obliterated the snickering connotations. Critics may point to the iPhone XS Max as a sin against brevity, but, in general, Apple names are short and ring well.

Starting with the MacBook Pro in February, 2006, Apple added “Pro” to the names of some of their products — Mac Pro, iMac Pro, iPad Pro. This was more of a markitecture trick than a true indication that the product was designed for “professional” users. Many buyers of Pro Apple products were eager to get the most feature-laden machine, even if they didn’t need the extra power for their work. Nothing new under the Sun.

An exception was the 2006 Mac Pro, affectionately known as…

…the cheese grater.

The Mac Pro was geared towards media professionals who struggled with massive amounts of data and who needed blinding performance in order to process images, movies, sound files… Of course, it also had its share of Apple aficionados who blindly loved the Mac and wanted as much of it as possible.

Over time, the Mac Pro believers, frustrated with the lack of significant updates, began to complain that Apple could no longer innovate. Coming to his company’s defense at the 2013 WWDC (Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference), a senior Apple exec allowed himself an intemperate reference to innovation and a comfortable part of his anatomy. This was unfortunate. The immoderate utterance itself wasn’t terribly important, but the radically new Mac Pro design that the exec provided as evidence of Apple’s continued ingenuity didn’t sell well at all and got a less affectionate moniker…

… the trash can.

Years went by. No updates, flagging sales, and the complaints from dedicated Mac lovers grew louder. Finally™, in 2017, Apple hastily convened a confab of acceptable observers and dropped the news that there would be no new Mac Pro before 2019. This fell in the middle of a long and continuing Mac crisis: Recurring MacBook keyboard troubles, three years without a significant update for the MacBook Air, four years for the Mac mini, and, of course, the trashed Mac Pro. The Mac, the product that made a dent to the world, in Steve Jobs’ parlance, seemed jinxed.

The officially unofficial announcement in 2017 started tongues wagging. Why wait so long? Shade tree product architects had plenty of advice: Take an iMac Pro, break it down, put its screen in a box (that’ll revive the Cinema Display we miss), add slots to the motherboard, put it in a vintage Mac Pro cheese grater case with a suitable power supply, and, voilà… A gap-filling red meat Mac Pro, a sort of Open iMac (if I’m permitted the reference) that would be a great act of contrition for the 2013 machine and the empty years that followed. And it would sell in large numbers.

Well… watching the new Mac Pro introduction at the June 2019 WWDC, I thought Apple execs must have been chuckling backstage: Fooled you!

Apple did much more than a quick and dirty breakdown and reshuffling of iMac Pro components, it introduced a modernized cheese grater box and 32” screen (see the keynote video at 1 hour and 18 minutes):

As the video and detailed specs show, this is a monster machine with up to 28 core high-end Xeon processors, Radeon graphic accelerators, up to 1.5TB of RAM (not SSD), and so on, teraflops galore. It also comes with a monster price tag: from $6K for a basic model to $35K or more for top-of-the-line…and that’s before you add in the Pro Display XDR monitor, a device that transcends the desktop class of monitors we see on a daily basis. The Pro Display belongs to the Reference Monitor category that typically costs multiples of $10K; Apple is charging $5–6K for its 32” world-beating screen (stand and mounting hardware sold separately…).

So instead of a quick fix to quiet the just complaints of Mac devotees, we have a production workstation for actual professionals who use sound, music, video, and augmented reality applications.

Past sins forgiven, is the Mac Jinx finally lifted? Not quite.

The gods who render mad those they want to destroy have struck again. They’ve caused a marketing exec — we hope not the same one who bragged about innovation in 2013 — to price the new XDR monitor stand at a baffling $999. Listen to the guffaws in the audience at 1hr 40 mins into the keynote video. Why not $399 instead and increase the MacPro base price by a barely visible $600?

A friend points out two factors. One, Mac Pro configurations will probably be used with multiple XDR monitors mounted in a bay arrangement using relatively inexpensive ($199) VESA mounts. Two, businesses and production companies are less price sensitive than the developers in the WWDC audience.

These are reasonable points, but good marketing deals with emotions and impressions, not mere reason. The $999 stand was widely mocked in the media, Apple was labeled as greedy and tone-deaf — the latter definitely deserved. Why mar what turned out to one of the best WWDC keynotes in memory with such a brain flatulence? Why attract so much ink to a mere display stand, to the detriment of more substantial announcements?

Speaking of these announcements, which of the many WWDC offerings would I choose as the most important?

Because I like programming languages and frameworks, I’m tempted to nominate the SwiftUI that makes Apple’s own Swift programming language immensely more accessible and interactive. It’s a Geek delight, I know, but listen to the naturally skeptical developers react at 2hr 6mins into the keynote.

Instead, I’ll pick iPadOS (1hr 02), an iOS version that’s tailored to the iPad. The consequences should be big and lasting, and should silence the “it’s just an iPhone but bigger” bellyache.

One final thought: Craig Federighi, Apple’s Sr VP of Software, is a terrific presenter. Cheerful, nimble, humorous, and immensely competent, it’s a delight to be led through a presentation by someone who is so clearly proud of his work.

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PS: I’ll be on the road, literals, in Italy and France from June 14th till July 15th. Monday Notes may not appear with great regularity.

— JLG@mondaynote.com

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