Back to the Mac

Five years ago, Apple did something incredibly out of character: it invited a bunch of tech journalists to a round table discussion, admitted to making some serious mistakes, and pre-announced upcoming products.

It was a somewhat bleak time to be a Mac user. While the iPhone was getting yearly improvements, Mac design decisions felt deeply out of touch with people’s needs. The latest MacBook Pros regressed in serious ways, sacrificing useful ports, functionality, and a functioning keyboard for a slightly thinner laptop with a Touch Bar that it turned out nobody actually wanted.

No one really minded Apple’s aggressive minimalism on more consumer-y products; it was even welcomed. The MacBook Air was a successful computer. Pro users, though, were getting less satisfied with what Apple had to offer for them. There were laptops with unusuable keyboards that couldn’t even plug into conference room projectors without an adapter. The Mac Mini had gone years without an update. And most embarrassingly, the Mac Pro, introduced in 2013 by Phil Schiller with the now-infamous line “can’t innovate anymore, my ass”, had not gotten so much as a spec bump in those four years, leaving people to wonder if it was ever getting refreshed at all.

It was feeling like Apple no longer wanted to build computers for demanding pro users. Instead they seemed hell-bent on making a computer that adhered to some sort of minimalistic Platonic ideal; a Mac not only hampered by its hardware, but perhaps soon to have its software get even more restricted until the Mac was less a computer and more an appliance like an iPad. Some even feared that the Mac’s own days were numbered, and that Apple’s future might actually be focused more on the iPhone, which dwarfed the Mac and sales, and frankly, attention from Apple.

In April of 2017, though, Apple brought together a small group of tech journalists to ensure them, and by extension, Mac users, that Apple had not taken its eye off the ball with the Mac. And in this meeting, they laid out a vision for what they were working on for their pro Mac users: specifically, a new Mac Pro, and a new iMac geared toward pro users that would be coming later that year.

They were uncharacteristically candid about some of the troubles they ran into with the 2013 Mac Pro (semi-lovingly referred to as the “trash can” Mac Pro); specifically, they found themselves backed into a “thermal corner”. This Mac Pro had a triangular core that had a CPU and two GPUs. But later GPUs put out a ton of heat, and that design apparently couldn’t move out any more heat than it already was. Apple had no path forward to make faster or better models of the Mac Pro.

Not only that, but pro users really didn’t like the Mac Pro much. It was suitable for some kinds of pro users, like ones who just needed a lot of compute power, but other pro users relied heavily on specialty hardware that would typically be installed in PCI card slots which the 2013 Mac Pro lacked. Apple’s response to this was Thunderbolt 2 but it went over with pros like a lead balloon; it would lead to clunky setups and just overall wasn’t considered suitable.

Apple shared zero specifics about what these new pro Macs would have to offer. There was a fleeting mention of pro users wanting “modularity,” but Apple made no clear commitment to what that actually meant.

So we waited.

As promised, Apple released the iMac Pro later that year, and it was exactly as advertised: an iMac, targeted toward pro customers with more pro-level hardware, but still an iMac at heart.

Later, Apple released a revamped Mac Mini and users rejoiced. There was much concern that this was going to get the same kind of super-minimalist treatment that the MacBook Pro line got, but it didn’t. Instead, the back of a 2018 Mac Mini had ports aplenty (including USB-A as well as USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports), and could be generously configured. It felt like Apple was finally starting to come correct here. In 2019 they finally updated the aging MacBook Air to have a Retina display, another well-received update.

And at WWDC 2019, we got to see a glimpse of their vision for true pro-level computing: the 2019 Mac Pro.

If you follow my blog you know my deep love for the 2019 Mac Pro. Apple gave pros everything they wanted (provided they were willing to show up with some serious coin to buy the machine). It wasn’t just modular; it was the most upgradeable Mac Apple had released in close to a decade. It doesn’t just have upgradeable RAM, it can be upgraded to up to 1.5 TERABYTES of RAM. It can be configured with up to a staggering 28 cores.

It was a love letter to pro Mac users everywhere, and Apple proudly told the world “the Mac is back” (not that Apple PR would ever admit it was gone in the first place).

Apple has since then continued steadily pushing out a stream of Mac computers that show that they really get what their users want. They finally redesigned their laptops to get rid of the worst laptop keyboard ever, and then in 2020 they started selling computers with their own custom silicon.

Apple is letting the Macs be themselves for the right users once again. The MacBook Air remains light and affordable, but the new 14“ and 16” MacBook Pros are decidedly a little chunkier looking, and they can pack a wollop when it comes to computing power.

And most recently, Apple released the Mac Studio, a desktop computer for demanding studio users that easily dwarfs most Mac Pro configurations in CPU and GPU performance.

You might have guessed this was Apple’s new high end pro desktop, if not for the fact that John Ternus mentioned ever so casually that there still remained one more Mac to transition to Apple Silicon: the Mac Pro.

Over the course of the last five years, Apple executed not just one turnaround, but two: it renewed its commitment to making great and appropriate computers for pro users (with a substantially better understanding of what it means to be a “pro user”), and they once again moved the Mac to a new processor architecture, barely skipping a beat.

Now we need a similar revolution, but for Apple’s software frameworks.

But that’s a topic for another day.

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