The Mac Pro, Apple’s marquee desktop machine, hasn’t been refreshed since 2013. But lest you think it was forgotten, the diminutive black obelisk is top of mind at Apple these days — specifically how to reimagine it in a way that will appeal to professionals frustrated by its seemingly stalled evolution. To that end, there is officially a new Mac Pro in the pipeline, but it's going to be a while before it arrives.
“We are completely rethinking the Mac Pro,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP of worldwide marketing said during a recent roundtable with a handful of reporters at the company’s Machine Shop hardware prototyping lab. And it won't just be the computer. “Since the Mac Pro is a modular system, we are also doing a pro display. There’s a team working hard on it right now.”
That's good news for anyone worried that Apple’s lost interest in its highest-end desktop, but there’s a caveat per Schiller: "You won’t see any of these products this year."* The team working on them has been told to take its time and to design a system that can deliver a wide range of performance — one that can easily and efficiently be upgraded with the latest technologies for the pro audience for which it's intended.
That upgradability is crucial, because it’s lacking in the current Mac Pro — a feature Apple unwittingly sacrificed when it bet on a striking, and strikingly clever, design. Sadly for Apple, the “can’t innovate any more, my ass” quip with which Schiller unveiled the Mac Pro to the world in 2013 was applicable in a more literal sense four years later when the company found that the machine’s design restricted its ability to upgrade it.
“We designed ourselves into a bit of a corner,” Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software engineering said of the current Mac Pro’s unique arrangement of pro computer innards around a triangular heat sink inside a cylindrical chassis. “We wanted to do something bold and different. What we didn’t appreciate completely at the time was how we had so tailored that design to a specific vision that in the future we would find ourselves a bit boxed in — into a circular shape.”
John Ternus, Apple’s VP of hardware engineering, offered a similarly fun-while-it-lasted assessment of the Mac Pro. “It served its purpose well,” he said. “It just doesn't have the flexibility we now know we need to have.”
And Schiller offered something even rarer: an apology. "The current Mac Pro ... was constrained thermally and it restricted our ability to upgrade it," he said. "And for that, we’re sorry to disappoint customers."
Though not unprecedented, these are rare admissions for Apple, which has historically taken a “people don't know what they want until you show it to them” approach to product design. So too was the mechanism in which that admission was delivered: an afternoon roundtable in one of Apple’s inner sanctums. The Machine Shop is simultaneously ripe with Mac history and the possibility of Mac history yet-to-be-made. It's all glass cases of old Macs and QuickTake camera prototypes in the outside hallway, and computer-driven precision-cutting machines inside — many with their contents hidden by drapes of black fabric. It’s exactly the kind of place meant to give critics pause if they had been questioning Apple’s commitment to the Mac Pro.
“We made something bold that we thought would be great … and what we discovered is that it was great for some and not others — enough so, that we realized we had to take another path ... and look for the next answer,” Schiller said.
For now, the next answer — a reimagined Mac Pro — is a ways off. But in the meantime, Apple’s giving the current Mac Pro line a spec bump that will freshen it a little and give pros a bit more value for their dollar — a $2,999 rig with 6-core Intel Xeon processor, dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs, and 16GB of memory; and a $3,999 rig with an 8-core processor and dual D700 GPUs.
* Obligatory "real artists ship" reference.