I’ve been recently looking to replace my 2008 Mac Pro, but it’s hard to find an Apple product that’s right for me. The new Macbook Pro has far less horsepower than my existing tower, and the 2013 Mac Pro isn’t a clear replacement either. The Mac Pro’s GPU is not really an improvement over the GeForce 680 in my Mac Pro, and it doesn’t support the new LG 5k wide gamut display, which is a must for me. I’ve been orphaned by Apple with nowhere to go, except to Newegg to build a PC.

Apple’s trimming and neglect of their product line is dangerous. Vertical integration relies on tiers within a company that might not be profit leaders, or even profitable, but exist to support the profitable product lines. Apple as a whole can’t be unprofitable, but it’s just as important to maintain a foundation that supports the core business.

The original example I always go back to with Apple is when the Xserve line was cancelled. The Xserve was clearly not a huge moneymaker, and I can only imagine that the OS X Server software business was similarly a money pit on paper as well. But that division helped to move Macs. Take a look at the original demo of the first version of OS X Server. The Computerease Chicago points out that the hardware and the software were probably never profitable, but OS X Server launched the Mac back into the education world in a big way by making system management easy. Similarly, the Xserve pushed a lot of Mac hardware into education by simplifying system management and allowing Apple to be an organization’s single vendor. The Xserve would have been an attractive defense against Google in education. Why keep your data and files offsite in Google’s cloud when it would be easy to host everything in house using Macs and Xserves? Without the Xserve, Apple wasn’t able to complete their education story, and has seen their education share slashed by Chromebooks. Google has a complete vertical integration story for education. Apple doesn’t.

For me personally, the lack of a Mac Pro update is a hole in a critical piece of my Apple ecosystem story. If I have to buy a PC desktop, I’m probably going to look at alternatives to iOS and Mac development, or at least cross platform development. That means I’m not inclined to support Apple technologies like Metal. When it comes time to replace my Macbook Pro, I’ll probably start looking around at alternatives. I almost certainly wouldn’t buy another iPad. I’d have very little reason to keep using iCloud and keep my data locked into the Apple ecosystem. And at that point, especially if I lose my vertical integration with iMessage, my iPhone is the next thing to go. Again, I’m sure the Mac Pro isn’t a huge profit center for Apple. But it’s a central plank that supports all my other Apple purchases and my role as an Apple platform developer.

Even for users of Apple products that don’t rely on the Mac Pro, Apple’s position is still precarious. iPad sales aren’t particularly great. The iMac is also being neglected. Apple’s laptop line isn’t particularly ideal for anyone. And the iPhone, while not in any immediate danger, continues to see declining share. I don’t know personally know anyone who is happy with their Apple experience right now, on iOS or Mac. And I don’t know anyone right now who feels like Apple’s product line meets their actually needs, even for people outside of the pro or development community. My mom, a Mac user for 20 years, hasn’t exactly been happy with Apple. At best, I’ve maybe seen a few people on Twitter who seem happy right now.

Apple has been on a cutting spree recently, sending display production outside of Apple, cutting the Airport base station line, and neglecting Mac desktops. It’s tempting to cut everything that isn’t a massive line of profit, but if Apple isn’t careful with their removal of supports, they’ll bring the whole house down on top of them.

I wanted to write a bit more about the future of “pros” on the Mac, but about the Mac Pro.

Pros are the most easily spooked, jittery segment of the computer market, and they have reason to be. When they buy equipment from a vendor, whether that is Apple or HP or Dell or whoever, they are spending a substantial amount of money, and are risking their business on a platform. Buying the wrong equipment or buying into the wrong strategy has serious consequences to the bottom line. If a business chooses wrong it would take a serious amount of time and money to migrate users, equipment, and existing projects. If computers become slower, billable hours become higher and less competitive. Often I see posts on Twitter complaining that people critical of Apple are spending too much time focusing on specs or timely updates or on having the fastest available computers, but these are all crucial factors when looking at pro hardware for good reason.

Apple, for decades, has had a basic pact with pro users (although I’m starting to suspect Apple never knew it.) Windows has always been the less risky platform, just due to vendor choice. If you’re a business that buys all HP, but HP stops creating solutions that are right for your business, it’s very little trouble to migrate to Dell. If you run your businesses on the Mac, and especially if you run your business on Mac only software like Final Cut Pro, it’s harder to transition off the platform, and Apple is a larger risk to your business. But pro users have been content with this risk as long as Apple continues to deliver as fast or faster hardware than their competitors, and they upgrade every year. This basic pact has even helped resolve a lot of Apple’s secrecy issues. You don’t need to know Apple’s roadmap as long as you know, whatever it is, it will show up next year, be faster, and be better. Apple still works this way on iOS. You could run trains on Apple’s typical iPhone and iPad update schedule, even with all the secrecy.

I’ve heard the tower Mac Pro’s sales were quite good. I don’t know anything about the 2013 Mac Pro sales, but I could guess that they probably aren’t that good.

Before the 2013 Mac Pro, Apple hadn’t upgraded the Mac Pro in three years (and Apple’s neglect of Final Cut Pro 7 didn’t help.) I with video pros at the time and the panic was already setting in. A two year gap, like the one from 2006 to 2008, was digestible. But at three years you start to wonder if the Mac Pro was going to be updated at all. And if you don’t think the Mac Pro is going to be updated, for the good of your business, you’re going to start looking at the Adobe Suite and Windows workstations, and start that transition as early as possible. In that span of time, the uncertainty took Apple’s Final Cut Pro dominance, and handed it to Adobe.

When Apple released the 2013 Mac Pro it never calmed the pro community. The 2013 Mac Pro a risky proposition for businesses because it was slower than Windows hardware, which translates to dollars on the bottom line. A job that takes twice as long to render costs twice as much. And that just continued to feed the narrative that investing in the Apple platform was a risky proposition. And then three years later Apple still hasn’t shipped an upgrade, continuing the tailspin in pro’s confidence of Apple. Mac Pro sales are likely down a bit due to the specs, but I think Mac Pro sales are down as low as they are because Apple can’t demonstrate a commitment to their platform for professionals.

I think the Mac Pro could sell a whole lot. People need workstations. But to revive sales of the Mac Pro Apple needs to do two basic things:

  • Release a 2018 Mac Pro. No, that’s not a typo. I don’t think it’s the next Mac Pro that will be important as the one that comes after, and I hope that’s not discouraging because I really think Apple could succeed with pros. I’ve already had people tell me they won’t buy the next Mac Pro because they are worried it will be the last one, they don’t want to be on a dying platform, and would rather move over now.
  • Say Apple is committed to the Mac Pro. Apple has been able to keep their roadmaps secret because their release schedule has been dependable. If the Mac Pro releases aren’t dependable, stop jerking people around. All Apple has to do to calm pro users right now is say that there is a new Mac Pro coming but they haven’t been able to show it yet. And Phil Schiller has come so close to saying this. If you can’t rebuild the trust with actual releases, rebuild the trust through the press.
  • Specs? It’s honestly less important than rebuilding trust, but still important. Intel may have been standing still, but GPU vendors were not. The 2013 Mac Pro uses 2012 GPUs that were already dated when it shipped. AMD has floundered a bit, but Nvidia has at least released three solid updates since. For a pro business, that lost productivity is pretty hard to ignore.

One of the counter points to criticism of the Macbook Pro event is that expectations are too high. Users are expecting that a laptop should be just as powerful as a desktop, and that’s unreasonable. Generally, I agree. The Macbook Pro has not really been a good desktop replacement since almost the Powerbook G3.

But the problem is Apple themselves is marketing the Macbook Pro as a desktop replacement.

I mentioned in the previous post that a lot of the angst from pro users probably would have been avoided if desktop Macs were mentioned or updated. I still think that’s true. If you don’t think the Mac Pro is going to be updated, and that the Macbook Pro is what Apple is pitching as a replacement, you’re going to compare it to desktop workstations. Even if you think the Mac Pro is going to be updated, Apple’s lack of a mention of it (or the iMac) implies that Apple is still misjudging the expectations of the pro community. When you’re a Pro, you don’t like uncertainty around the tools you need to earn a living. Would you risk your business on a vendor that doesn’t have a clear plan on continuing to support your workflow?

I think it’s fair to criticize Apple on not clearing up all this uncertainty with the different Mac lines during the event. After not getting any serious updates for three years, the 2013 Mac Pro was announced six months before it shipped. When I worked in IT we were apprehensive about ordering PowerPC machines after the Intel transition was announced. Apple responded by letting us pre-order the original Macbooks before they were announced to the public. It’s easy to say that Apple operates in complete secrecy and we just all need to deal with it, but Apple selectively keeps secrets only when it benefits them. Even a “we’re working on” for the Mac Pro would have gone a long way towards re-assuring a community that depends on Apple’s roadmap for a living.