The make or break Mac Pro 2019 feature no-one is talking about

Alex Gollner
Apr 6 · 8 min read

“I need 512GB of RAM” “I want to install up to 10TB of SSD internally” “Thunderbolt 4” “HDMI 3” “At least 6 NuNubus cards” “Holographic display of volumetric video” “Wireless neural user interface”

The success or failure of Apple’s forthcoming 2019 edition of the Mac Pro will not determined by whether they answer the wishes of professional users.

The feature that matters the most is Apple’s go-to-market strategy. How will 2019 Mac Pro hardware, software and services will be sold and supported? If they answer remains ‘Apple will do it,’ the new computer may have failed already.

Apple has a reasonable amount of marketing muscle: they can let people know there’s a new Mac Pro out there. The Apple-following media and mainstream media will cover the launch. Who will be there a couple of months later? Who will be invested in the success of the new Mac Pro? Power users and Mac fans. Some professionals are these things — many are not.

More to ‘Pro’ than modularity

Most professional Mac users were shocked by the launch of a small cylindrical Mac Pro in late 2013. Their main complaint: it wasn’t expandable. The vast majority of computers for professionals have internal space for cards which add industry-specific features. Pros expect to be able to configure and then reconfigure their computers as their needs change, and as the features available on cards improve.

Apple have stated that the forthcoming Mac Pro will have a ‘modular’ design. Modularity is seen as being a way of defining a ‘pro’ piece of hardware. Modularity applies to pro software and pro services too. The kind of flexibility that each professional industry category expects. For example, scientific researchers won’t invest in hardware tuned to the needs of high-end TV and film post-production industry.

The botched launch of Final Cut Pro X in 2011 was decried by many who had ‘bet their businesses’ on Final Cut Pro 7. There were many people who had spent a lot of money and time on delivering video, TV and film using Final Cut. The workflows they had developed, the video cards they had invested in and the time they had spent becoming experts was now associated with a system that had no future.

Many missed what also made the Mac Pro 2013 not suited for professionals: a lack of third-party ecosystem to support professionals using the hardware.

More than just betting your business on the Mac

Up until 2010, there was a thriving third-party ecosystem to support professional Mac users. This ecosystem was made up of individuals and businesses who didn’t just ‘bet their business’ on professional Mac hardware and software but bet their business on those who themselves bet their businesses on the Mac.

A pro ecosysem is made up of businesses that develop hardware and software whose market was limited to the few thousand worldwide who had industry-specific needs. For example there were not many people who needed Mac tools to simulate protein folding for medicine research. The few who needed it were prepared to pay well for those tools.

Pro ecosystems include those who support professionals. When you depend on pro hardware, software or services you often are prepared to spend money on service, training and update contracts.

While a complex line of consumer Macs was failing in the 90s, the Mac Quadra range was doing well. A third-party professional publishing ecosystem supported media companies worldwide in publishing books, magazines and newspapers.

Throughout the 2000s, Apple made good money as independent companies sold, supported and promoted the use of Power Macs and Mac Pros. These third parties invested in marketing and PR about the professional uses of Macs. They bought stands at trade fairs, they wined and dined buyers, built up personal relationships with influential industry professionals. Why? There was something in it for them: profitable hardware sales, software sales and regular services income.

Apple’s one-two punch against Mac professional ecosystems

The Mac App Store was introduced in 2010. It offered secure, reliable software purchase and installation for millions of Mac users. If you developed software for the Mac, surely using the App Store was a no-brainer? Not necessarily. If you sell your app in Apple’s curated store, you cannot get access to certain parts of the operating system and Mac hardware. A good way to protect users of consumer software bugs that may cause problems— a bad idea if your application needs that kind of access to support pro activities. If you sell your app on Apple’s good value app store, you can’t charge for upgrades — however many features you add. If you distribute through the Apple’s secure Mac App Store you don’t get to have a direct relationship with your customers. Apple protects consumers by ensuring developers can’t sell user data — or get around the App Store upgrade problem but offering paid upgrades directly.

Now, developers have been selling applications direct to users for years before the Mac App Store was introduced, but when Apple introduce a very successful distribution method, it affects many business’s go-to-market strategy.

The catch for third-parties who need to incorporate Mac App Store tools in solutions is that it is hard for developers to offer ‘dealer discounts.’ If a broadcaster said they wanted a solution for 50 journalists and camerapeople to use video editing software, it is tough to get a reasonable discount for Apple Final Cut Pro on the App Store. When pricing up my solution, there’s some profit lost right there.

The ability for third-parties to make money from Mac hardware has diminished too. One of the reasons Steve Jobs introduced Apple Stores worldwide was that he wasn’t happy with the way Macs were distributed. From big-box tech shops down to local computer shops, he felt that Apple didn’t have enough control over the experience. Salespeople were driven by bonuses supplied by some PC brands. Large shops didn’t know how to curate the special ‘Mac’ area of their computer departments.

Apple Stores were a breath of fresh air compared to the ways that Macs used to be sold. Now Apple’s near monopoly in hardware sales means that it is hard for third parties to make any money in selling Macs. With the launch of the hardly upgradable 2013 Mac Pro, there was no money in upgrading professional Macs. MacBook Pros, iMac Pros also are not designed to be internally upgraded after purchase. Irritating for professional users, tough for those who depend on money from professional budgets.

Many Apples

There are many Apples. There is the Apple that doesn’t trust third-party retailers, the Apple that wants to make software feel safe for consumers, the Apple that wants to move on from relying on Intel for CPUs. These are different from the Apple that makes software and hardware for professionals today. The trick is to help the needs of the Apple for professionals not to be disregarded by the other Apples.

It seems to me that professional Apple has to live with being blamed for decisions made by other parts of Apple that made sense for the ‘wider Apple,’ decisions that have caused problems in their relationship with their market.

You can’t get people to trust you by just asking them…

…you have to do things that are trustworthy, then they will trust you. Eventually.

In the case of high-end TV and film production, many editors no longer trusted Apple after they stopped the sale of Final Cut Pro 7 overnight in 2011. When the new software that ‘replaced’ it couldn’t access existing editing projects. Apple’s response was: “Trust us, there is a future for professional editing from Apple — we have a ten year plan for Final Cut Pro X.”

For those making money in supplying professional editors, the break was even worse. They weren’t consulted about Apple’s plan. They had no warning. Their businesses were suddenly in real danger.

The businesses that used to promote Apple hardware and software naturally didn’t trust Apple any more. Apple acted as if they didn’t need them any more. Editors could buy Final Cut from the App Store. They could buy new Macs directly from Apple. There were no staff that knew how to train people in the new Final Cut, or provide support. There wasn’t a clue about how many professional post production people and companies would still bet their businesses on Final Cut and Macs. Apple acted as if didn’t care how third-party professional ecosystems could now make money.

Professionals trust the companies in their professional ecosystem to help them keep their businesses running. These companies told professionals not to trust Apple. What if they could be blindsided again? In recent years the possibility was that Apple might suddenly drop the Mac overnight — they are “the iPhone company who make other consumer products.” These days everyone knows that Apple are going into services. Why keep selling the Mac if you are a services company? Pro software has only sold to a few million customers. A big deal in the 2000s, maybe not so interesting to a consumer services company these days.

Apple need to do enough so third parties trust that they can safely invest in betting their businesses on supplying professionals with Apple hardware and software. Once these businesses trust Apple, they will have the incentive to build and maintain modern third-party professional ecosystems — to tell that Apple is a safe option.

If Apple trust third-party businesses, their customers will trust Apple.

That means recruiting them now: informing third party hardware, software and services businesses about their plans for the Mac Pro. Not just for this year, but the coming years. Knowing these plans allows other businesses to make plans, hire people, raise money and take risks.

What is good enough for consumers is good enough for professionals

This is against the Apple’s current culture: trust. Trust that others won’t leak information. Trust that they will do a job that is up to Apple’s standards. Trust they they won’t hold back the future by promoting the old ways of doing things. How can they get around these problems? They are a problem-solving organisation. They have to treat this trust as a product problem. A specification that needs to be met.

Apple hope that they will stand out as the consumer services company that people can trust. Their actions on privacy and the policies of their forthcoming services are about trust. An Apple professional is someone who has bet their business on Apple continuing to support them. If Apple want to continue to support professionals, they need to find a way to trust their suppliers of hardware, software and services, to care that they can survive in the market. If they don’t then professionals will see that Apple won’t put the effort in to win them back.

Any strategy is better than no strategy

Although ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ I hope that we will see signs that Apple is thinking differently about more than just the Mac Pro hardware. Signs that they plan to nuture the business ecosystems around the Mac Pro. A hint that the Apple for professionals is getting its voice heard in ‘the wider Apple.’

Apple defines itself as a business that leaves the world better than it found it. Alongside making people’s home and work lives better, maybe it is time Apple put more effort in helping more people take that leap — and bet their new businesses on Apple.

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Alex Gollner

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Final Cut Pro plug-ins · Editing · Ideas