Goodnight, Sweet Prince…

Apple Could Have Saved this Mac Pro

An elegy for a once-great machine

“Can’t innovate anymore, my ass!”, Phil Schiller declared on stage at WWDC 2013. The bravado was only outpaced by what I saw on screen. 80s-rock power chords strummed as a video slowly revealed the sleek, black curves of a computer the likes of which I had never seen. A circle of fire traced the silhouette of the machine before an adrenaline-fueled iris pulsed on-screen. Then: black, curved aluminum came into view: utterly badass.

As I watched WWDC in 2013 from my desk in a basement IT department, I became floored by the 2013 Mac Pro. Its design was an audacious attempt by Apple to separate themselves from a 30 year legacy of dizzying, mediocre standards. No more bulky, unimaginative PC towers or litany of I/O connections.

It felt like the future.

Last week, Apple admitted defeat on this Mac Pro. Another model will appear (hopefully) next year to take up the mantle as Apple’s flagship computer.

The saga of this Mac Pro was one of euphoric highs and gut-wrenching lows. It was a forward-thinking machine that pushed limits but never reached its potential.

In my mind, the 2013 Mac Pro was an ingenious design. A derogatory term for the machine was the “trash can”, but I found it stunning. It didn’t look like a computer but more like a piece of modern art. It was small, cylindrical and eye catching. It was a computer that demanded to be shown off on the desk. Part Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, part Darth Vader’s helmet.

Its form betrayed its power. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was a marvel of engineering. The Mac Pro’s circular design hid a unified thermal core, allowing Apple to connect high performance parts in a precision enclosure cooled by a single fan. There was PCIe-based flash storage years before that became standard. Dual GPUs allowed for solid graphics performance. Six Thunderbolt 2 ports offered a vision of the future of expansion: one without opening up computers to replace cards. Up to 12 CPU cores in a device a quarter the size of its predecessor.

‘Dat sexy thermal core

For all the excitement the Mac Pro generated (and widespread, albeit reserved, plaudits from critics), it seemed like a machine on the cusp of true greatness; hindered by some software issues and not-quite-bleeding-edge performance. A victim of its first generation status. So we waited for revisions. Surely even faster GPUs, CPUs and storage would come in time?

And we waited….

And waited….

It was over 1200 days before Apple gave a called it on the Mac Pro, nary a spec bump or price drop since launch. In conversation with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino (among others), Apple’s Phil Schiller and Craig Federighi discussed the 3+ year drought of updates. In their words, the issue was thermals:

I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will. 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 materialize to fit that as broadly as we hoped.

In short, the industry didn’t move in the direction that Apple expected. Their flagship simply couldn’t take new professional parts. Thus the Mac Pro dwindled without an upgrade for more than 3 years.

But I don’t think that’s true.

There were parts that Apple could have placed into the Mac Pro without radically changing designs. New-generation Xeon chips built on faster, more efficient architectures were available that used the same or less power than their predecessors. Graphics cards with the necessary power and performance profiles were ready to be leveraged. Apple itself was building SSDs far outpacing the rest of the industry. And yet, none of these improvements made it over to the Mac Pro.

Maybe just a price drop or updated configurations?

I accept that the Mac Pro in this incarnation did not meet the needs of the professional market, but that Apple sacrificed their vision (and tremendous R&D and manufacturing costs) without even a second try is frustrating. More frustrating still was the glimpses of a possible future with this design. With a bit of tweaking, a bit more power, and more accessory buy-in, there was a future: a future of standard dual graphics and Thunderbolt expansion that we’ll never know.

We should be happy that Apple has learned whatever lesson they needed to learn. The next generation Mac Pro will, according to Apple, bring the performance and expandability that pros have been craving. That is a net good. But all the while, the Mac Pro today should not have languished into obscurity as long as it did. The parts were there. The professionals clamoring for faster hardware was there. The only thing lacking was Apple’s willingness to update.

That lack of dedication hurt the Mac Pro. It hurt the pro market for Apple. It made it seem that Apple didn’t care about the pro market. It created a new problem for the company that didn’t have to exist.

Let’s hope this next model can still evoke those emotions. Apple: people have some good ideas.

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