The word “unprecedented” doesn’t get used a lot with Apple mentioned in the same sentence, but sometimes the company pulls a move so drastic that no-one saw it coming. While this is usually applicable for new products that tend to revamp the hardware category it belongs to, Apple this week made an unprecedented move to pull the Mac Pro from their future product plans, and did so in a way that’s completely out of character for the company. The company explained to journalists and tech bloggers last week that the Mac Pro design would be shelved, and a replacement would be worked on in due course, but it would not be ready for a 2017 launch. It may not even be ready for a 2018 launch.
Inside Apple’s testing labs, senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller told journalists attending a super-secret, extremely limited media event that while the Mac family – comprising of the Mac Pro, Macbook Pro, Air, and the regular “Macbook, as well as the iMac – enjoys growth year-on-year, the userbase for the Mac Pro sits at 1% of all Mac users worldwide. The statistic is significant because Apple’s engineers at the time envisioned that professional users would buy the Pro in order to take advantage of its capabilities for editing 4K video in real-time, or for taking advantage of the dual graphics cards for 3D rendering and CAD work. The stylish chassis and minimalist design, they hoped, would be a hit with creative professionals looking for a workstation that didn’t take up half their desk space.
What instead happened over time is that those workloads became easier to do and run on weaker products, because the pace of hardware improvements in those categories happened faster than Apple could keep up with in order to keep the Mac Pro up to date. So much changed in the four years since its launch that recycling that same design, according to Apple, is nigh impossible. This also takes into account the difficulties with upgrading the graphics cards themselves, because Apple sources the GPUs from AMD and places them on a custom motherboard designed to only fit into the Mac Pro.
“I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will,” says Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering. “We designed a system that we thought with the kind of GPUs that at the time we thought we needed, and that we thought we could well serve with a two GPU architecture… that that was the thermal limit we needed, or the thermal capacity we needed. But workloads didn’t materialise to fit that as broadly as we hoped.”
As time wore on, things got more hopeless. Intel’s thermal requirements jumped quite high from the Ivy Bridge-E parts in the Mac Pro when they updated their processors to the Haswell-E architecture, and butting up against the thermal limits at stock frequencies became a pain point for Apple. AMD’s improvements to their GPUs, offering designs like a Fiji-based Radeon Pro with a solid state drive attached to it also was something Apple hadn’t anticipated. More users were instead moving to the iMac and using an external graphics chassis to house powerful cards like the NVIDIA Titan X (Pascal) or the Quadro P6000.
Apple wasn’t even ready for the possibility that AMD would make a comeback in the CPU space, launching Ryzen at Intel with the intent to slowly claw back market share with processors that took the fight to their workstation-class products. The Mac Pro would need an entirely new scratch design for the motherboard, and the power requirements for Ryzen are very different from the Xeon E5 processors the Mac Pro launched with.
It’s quite a shock to the system to hear Apple admitting failure because they usually stick with something until it works, and their decision to dump the Mac Pro and have a new system in 2018 is rather surprising. With offensives launched against the iMac from Dell and HP, as well as more aggressive marketing from Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Surface Book families, they’re seeing strong competition for the very first time in a decade, and they didn’t have plans in place to respond to it adequately.
Apple even might renege on designs like the current Macbook Pro, which only has USB-C ports. They’re no longer the market leader in the segments they once dominated, and trying to push connectivity standards on their customers that have literally no upside to their inclusion is a path that will likely end in failure. Being “courageous” or brave in removing an audio jack isn’t what the market wants. Having to carry a satchel of dongles with you for basic connectivity options isn’t what the market wants. Having a product that can be upgraded in a modular way, but only with purpose-designed parts that cannot be reused in other products is also not what the market wants.
Apple pledged to have a replacement for the Mac Pro available in good time, but if they do not have a high-end offering in 2018, and if they do not base it on standards like the ATX form factor, they may as well shelve the idea altogether and stick to all-in-one desktops for their high-end customers.