The curious case of the new Mac Pro

Sunsetting the Mac

  • The pro segment was extremely niche and while it was great to keep “real” pro users and tech influencers happy, the market was just too small. Apple needed to focus elsewhere — on iPad, iPhone and other devices that represented the future, not the legacy of personal computing.
  • That said, Mac is still important and will remain important for the world for the foreseeable future. So in order to keep Mac relevant in the post-PC world, Apple needed to keep innovating and making it more accessible and casual and more in line with its iOS product development — hence dropping the “true” edge-case Pro users and hardware for them and focusing on more consumer-friendly macOS products.
  • 12-inch MacBook was designed to be very casual, thin and light to support the needs of managers, office workers and majority of casual macOS users not doing any processing-heavy work, but still requiring a desktop OS. It was clearly a mid-term replacement for the MacBook Air that would eventually get discontinued.
  • MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was designed for more power-hungry users in need of more CPU and GPU power and RAM. Apple felt like these configurations of MacBooks would cover the needs of the majority of current “pro” Mac users. For those who would feel disappointed, Apple would recommend moving to desktop iMac. TouchBar as the feature was the first move towards making Mac keyboards touch-exclusive (this concept very closely resembles what I believe is Apple’s endgame for the Touch Bar) and even more accessible to more casual audience. It was a classic Apple move of empowering regular people rather than catering to the extreme needs of power users.
  • iMac was positioned as the only desktop product Apple felt worth investing into going forward. Few people buy desktops these days, but those who do need super powerful computers and by definition couldn’t care less about portability, lightness and size. Apple thought that for the most of its “pro” customers, the new iMac Pro configuration (probably developed alongside lighter “regular” iMac model) would be enough to do the job.
  • Mac Pro was killed. Apple thought that almost everyone who used to buy Mac Pro in the past would be well served by either high-end MacBook Pro or the iMac Pro. Apple saw no need for the super-niche, super high-end desktop machine anymore.
  • Mac mini was killed as well. While it served a good purpose of being an entry-level Mac for switchers from Windows PCs back in the day, Apple didn’t see the need to devote resources to this niche product — again, Apple was not interested in growing the macOS platform in a long term and instead preferred milking the existing Mac users by keeping raising ASPs as long as people wanted to spend that much on macOS devices (a classic strategy: when you are no longer interested in growing — or just can’t grow — the product, start increasing ARPPU). Inexpensive Mac mini didn’t fit into this strategy at all.
  • Since iMac (an all-in-one with integrated display) was planned to remain the only Apple desktop computer going forward, Apple didn’t see the need to keep working on standalone Apple branded displays. Hence killed them.
  • AirPort accessories were also killed as the result of shifting focus and resources from Mac elsewhere. In the world of mobile and wearable devices, local WiFi is not that exciting.
  • macOS pro software was deprioritised as well. While Aperture was officially killed, Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X remained quite stall for a long time, and development of iWork became very slow. OS level macOS development slowed down as well and took a back seat to iOS and watchOS.
Apple’s previous Mac product matrix

Something happened

  • The company pushed the envelope tremendously with the Touch Bar. If Apple didn’t want to invest into long-term future of the Mac, it wouldn’t bother with introducing such an innovative and incredibly complex feature requiring tight integration of hardware and software and lots of R&D resources. Apple, however, did invest and conveyed this message very clearly.
  • Apple seemed to rediscover its software mojo. Final Cut Pro X and, to a lesser extent, Logic Pro X suddenly went out of limbo and received a lot of attention and healthy updates. iWork suite of apps recently got a very serious update on both macOS and iOS. Fast forward to last Tuesday, and Apple yet again commits to its support of pro software.
  • In one of the internal company e-mails in December 2016, Tim Cook confirmed Apple’s commitment to the Mac. Note how he specifically referred to iMac when addressing the Mac desktop issue. I suspect that by that time (end of 2016) Apple was still moving forward with the Mac product matrix strategy I outlined above, and Mac Pro and Mac mini were dead at the time, while iMac Pro was long in the works.
  • Pro segment once again started to matter much for Apple’s management. Note how Tim Cook told investors at the end of February 2017 that Apple is very interested in professionals, particularly creative pros.
  • Apple suddenly realised that iMac as the only one-fits-all desktop solution would not work. Following that revelation, Apple kept working on iMac Pro that has been long in the development, but in parallel started working on Mac Pro and (maybe) even Mac mini.
  • Following recent problems with LG 5K UltraFine Display and resurrection of the screenless Macs, Apple decided to resume working on standalone displays.
  • Apple doubled down on first-party Pro software and confirmed its commitment to it.

What happened?

  • Following the lack of meaningful Mac hardware updates in recent years, and particularly after the release of the controversial MacBook Pro in 2016, Apple started hearing complaints from many partners and contacts in enterprise and creative industries.
  • Note how Apple works closely with IBM and Cisco, among others, these days. It’s highly possible that IBM might have started facing challenges with selling Mac hardware to third-party partners disappointed with lack of hardware progress, and these complaints were escalated to Apple’s management.
  • The alarm might have been set off when countless design and production studios throughout the world — the ones that Apple used to work with closely — started migrating to Windows PCs at the end of 2016. Note how the “switching to PC” narrative among “pro” users reached its peak by the end of last year.
  • Apple started hearing a lot of complaints from influential “pro” users directly that finally convinced them that not only Apple needs to change the Mac strategy really quickly, it needs to communicate it way before people would start jumping ship in droves — hence Tuesday’s event.
  • Apple might have felt that outrage damaged the Apple brand and gave them very bad publicity among creative professionals and influencers (for example, note how ATP podcast hosts complained about the state of the Mac in every single episode in recent months). While this doesn’t affect the bottom line in any way in the short term, maybe Apple started to see some worrying business and brand positioning trends.
  • Microsoft significantly increased its investment into both Windows hardware and software. Windows 10 has been going from strength to strength, with the new Creators Update explicitly targeting core Mac users, whereas the lineup of Surface products started to gain traction. Apple might have received data indicating that people have indeed started to switch from Mac to Windows in significant numbers.
  • The MacBook Pro possibly didn’t meet Apple’s expectations in terms of high-end/pro users penetration and reception. While the machine seems to be selling very well, it might be doing so thanks to more casual users, whereas the “pro” community was quite vocally negative about both the “gimmicky” Touch Bar, lack of ports and RAM. Apple might have underestimated the behavioural debt particularly common with the core community, and overestimated their willingness to accept Apple’s new direction.
  • As a result, Apple suddenly realised that none of the Mac hardware products it had on the market or was working on (MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac Pro) did satisfy small but influential segment of vocal Mac “pro” users, and it needed to resurrect the Mac Pro and probably change its future strategy with MacBook Pro as well.

Apple is confused

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