Apple today summoned a handful of tech reporters to a product lab, essentially to announce that … they were between announcements.

Apple’s unusual PR experiment today was to mix mea culpa and product teaser, in a drawn out explanation of why their hardware wasn’t shipping. The result of this messaging technique: journalists in the room for the briefing dutifully recorded the agonizing details of how Apple sees its “pro” user base and how it prioritizes desktop functionality:

The Mac Pro is getting a major do-over [Mashable]
Apple pushes the reset button on the Mac Pro [TechCrunch]
The Mac Pro Lives [Daring Fireball, who at least added some more reflection]

Journalists not invited to the same briefing tended to go to an angle more like this:
Apple admits the Mac Pro was a mess [The Verge]

There are two questions here, though, as I see it.

Question one: what’s a pro user, anyway?

It’s easy to dump on Apple here, but one thing I will say is that they’ve historically understood the first question better than any of their competition. Gruber was actually the only writer who seemed to pick up on Apple’s intention there. And, frankly, the results were telling. One big revelation (if an unsurprising one): most Mac users aren’t pro users. Defining the percentage of Mac users who use apps for serious creation and software development as pros at least once a week, Apple found only 30% of users count. For more regular use, that number drops to 15%. And notebook computers (MacBook) dominate both that pro market and the overall Mac user base, at 80% (I think that’s by revenue, not number).

Catering to slivers of that group can’t be easy. When users talk about “pros,” what they really mean is themselves, individually. And that market is full of endless variation.

CDM readers are routinely doing far more specialized things, like virtual reality experiments or live visuals or running 3D game engines onstage or programming robotic drum ensembles. That may sound extreme to even cite as an example, but remember that over the years Apple Computer (under Jobs but also under other CEOs) did sometimes refer to exactly those kinds of weird edge cases in, you know, expensive TV ads. In fact, today, you still see edge cases cited in iOS ads.

Question two: what hardware do you make for that user?

If pro users are by a definition an edge case, and desktop a subset of that, and advanced desktop another slice, we’re talking ever-smaller bit. It’s not totally clear what Apple sees as important to that group, actually – and it’s even murkier what they intend to do. Here’s what Apple did clearly say publicly, though it was more about what they aren’t doing than what they are:

What they aren’t doing:
They’re not shipping new iMacs until later this year.
They’re not shipping a new Mac Pro in 2017.
They’re not shipping a new dedicated display in 2017.
They’re not shipping a largescreen dedicated touchscreen or a product like the Surface Studio, and they say the Mac Pro user they’re targeting isn’t interested in that.

What they will be doing in the future:
There will be a new iMac this year, and it will cater to pro specs.
There will be some kind of ground-up redesign of the Mac Pro, and it will be “modular” (which I could interpret from context only as meaning there’s no integrated display).
There will be a display to go with it.

What they didn’t entirely rule out:
Federighi followed up ruling out touch for the Mac Pro user by mentioning a “two-prong desktop strategy with both iMac and Mac Pro.” (I wouldn’t interpret that as a promise of a touch iMac, but it did seem to leave the door open. Then again, he also was responding to the question of the Microsoft Surface Studio, which seems a lot like what a touch iMac would be.)

What they’re shipping right now:
There’s a new Mac Pro configuration. You won’t want it, though, as it only swaps a new CPU and GPU config for the existing model – so you’re still stuck without modern ports (Thunderbolt 3, USB-C). It’s also bloody expensive:

US$2,999 now buys you a 6-core Intel Xeon processor, dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs and 16GB of memory. That’s £2,999.00 (UK)/ €3,399 (Germany).

US$3,999 gets you an 8-core processor and dual D700 GPUs. £3,899.00 (UK) / € 4,599.00 (Germany).

Each of those has 256GB of internal storage. It does not include a mouse, keyboard, or display. Memory, storage, and graphics are upgradeable options, but they’re expensive — the base model with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of internal storage will run you US$3,999. (Maximum is 64GB of RAM, 1TB of SSD.)

Those are middle-of-the-road CPU and GPU specs, too, given what’s now available in desktop factors in larger form factors.

What did we learn?

Uh… nothing? Well, we learned that Apple isn’t eliminating the iMac or the Mac Pro. We just have no idea what they’ll look like.

Look, I’ll be honest: this is weird. Apple has a decades-long record, under multiple different leadership teams, that demonstrate the importance of letting shipping products do the talking rather than future products, and focusing on user stories over specs. Today feels a bit like there was a transporter accident and we a reverse-universe Apple that did the opposite.

The only thing missing was Tim Cook showing up with a beard.

Windows I think has some opportunities here – not least because Apple for some reason decided to make headline news of its own shortcomings rather than its strengths. In theory, the Windows PC ecosystem has always been better positioned to cater to specific edge cases through hardware variety, and things like music and motion qualify. In practice, though, it’s down to whoever delivers the best user experience and overall value.

If Windows continues to improve the OS experience and offer competitive hardware options, I don’t doubt that we’ll see some re-balancing of the OSes used by creative users.

This is nothing new; we’ve seen regular oscillations between platforms for decades. But I think the next months will be revealing; you compete with what you’re shipping, and PC makers keep shipping new stuff while Apple isn’t.

  • David Diogo

    Of course you have to go “modular”. You could do that with the “cheese crate” machines which in my opinion had a wonderful building architecture. I think it´s quite stupid to define what is “Pro” and what it´s not Pro.If you a have a machine that can send e-mails,run Pro-Tools or whatever, you will buy it, as long you can customize it. Users nowadays are multidisciplinary- sound,image,video,programming,etc
    Good PCI expansion and I/O connections with the possibility of several hard drives well integrated with macOS and it´s a killer! Good bye and good luck

    • Random Chance

      It’s not as easy. I can only imagine the agonising meetings that the developers and product managers go through plus all the market research and the internal pressure the deliver “bold” designs instead of just coming up with a PC in a nice tower case. I guess most of us would be perfectly happy to get something from Apple that is like the pro offerings by, say, HP or Dell. But Apple execs are probably not. Maybe this press announcement is a sign that this is changing. We can only hope.

      • David Diogo

        Well, but it did use to happen!!
        Developers meeting with product managers,etc,etc!!
        I think modularity will stimulate even more the industry!!
        Just look at the example on the Synth market. It just boomed with the modulars.
        New brands,new concepts.
        Apple could perfectly pic up the Mac Pro 5,1 “cheese crate” concept and create a very interesting “Pro Market for Pro users” niche

        • Thought about the same comparison to modular synths. And modules work well to distinguish pro use cases, including in sound production.
          Apart from the analogy, just wish there were more talk about music (which is like dancing about (processor) architecture?). After all, Apple’s music apps are probably among their best offerings, at this point. Unlike Final Cut Pro X and Aperture, Logic Pro X has a strong position in its industry and is probably selling a decent amount of hardware. Maybe not Mac Pros, since LPX isn’t that demanding. But we could dream of a Mac Pro setup which would really open up possibilities.

    • Well, and it’s actually totally unclear what modular means. In context, it seemed only detaching the display and the main machine.

      To be honest, given how fast Thunderbolt 3 is, I don’t totally understand why Microsoft is sticking with an integrated computer on Surface Studio, even. (and sure enough, that integrated computer is rather underpowered…)

      I think the winners at the moment for pro use are the high-spec machines with high-speed I/O (though that includes at least MacBook Pro), and for non-mobile work, *definitely* a detached screen and more upgradeability (not currently available from Apple in usable form).

  • Feeling relieved I didn’t wait for a new Mac Pro and bought an old one instead: ex government lease Mac Pro 5,1 put a secondhand 3.46 6 core Xeon in plus 32GB ram (will go for 64 at some stage), USB3 card (will try the USB-C version that apparently works later), PCI SSD, a few hard drives all for less than the cost of a second hand Macbook Air. Still have 2 PCIe slots to fill and 3 SATA bays + I get a bit of extra mileage from my firewire interface.

    I was right in to the idea of the new Mac Pro with all of the external stuff but now I’ve gone back to a cheesegrater (after a few years laptop only) I can really appreciate the all in one setup.

  • Michael L

    They were forced to admit their mistake because now most Mac Pros are so outdated that users must upgrade to “non-Apple solutions” (in Apple jargon), so they want us to wait even longer. Remember when the Mac Pro was introduced in 2006 they said “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass?” The Five Apple Execs who make all decisions kicked themselves in the ass with their closed-system innovation. Steve Jobs thought about the future more than these guys do…..

  • FS

    “apple admits mac pro was a mess”?? every mac pro user i know including myself loves it and has never gotten anywhere near reaching it’s limits. and it fits in a backpack. i think it’s brilliant and the hardware doesn’t need an update yet. the kind of people that reach it’s limits are most likely VFX guys but in that case i think it’s a different user category and those guys will be building custom liquid cooled PC’s and render farms. i have not complaints with apple right now.

    • Hey, if it’s working for you – terrific.

      But most of us don’t have $4000 to drop on one of those machines. And you can get a machine with similar mid-range specs that fits in a backpack for under a grand on the PC side – so it simply isn’t true that we’re talking render farms and liquid cooled PCs. Not at all.

  • heinrichz

    So music professionals are not pro users? In my circles here in NYC most musicians still use mac when i last checked, so the numbres quoted here about users are kind of one-sided and i guess mainly focused on non musical applications. Besides i thought this was the create digital music website?

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      For every musician using a mac, there are 10 college students using a mac because they got one during high school, and 10 more young adults doing much the same. The niche of music creation/pro-audio users is small, that’s all.

    • I must admit, I don’t believe that all the people claiming they are “pro” users in music making (writing, producing, experimenting) – in fact, I’d rather say that maybe only 10-25% (and that’s just my gut feeling) are actually “pro” users in the sense that they use music software and hardware (including Mac computers) professionally (i.e. earning money for a living with it) regularly. The vast majority (including myself) might fancy that, but we are simply not.

      I, for myself, enjoy that brand new 13″ MBP with touch bar, even nicer design than the previous model, lightweight, sleek enclosure and (for my needs and standards) pretty rock solid performance and operation. It does 1000x more than what I’d ever need it to do – in fact, technically, I would have never needed to upgrade. I just wanted to, because I can and because it looks and feels nice. And I am pretty sure, something similar applies to most MacBook customers.

      • just a man

        You are by no means a pro user of any type… come around mine to show you how I render 100 million particles simulation, or liquid simulation on my pc with 4x Titans X, and all your apple hardware together cant match the power required for the task. Not now, not ever. For this my friend you need pro hardware, not apple hardware…

        • And your point is…?

          • just a man

            Apple and Pro shouldn’t be in one sentence!

          • Ah, now I get it. You *are* really just trolling.

          • just a man

            Is that every apple fan boy explanation when a company claiming its pro or its best fails to deliver to a real pro use? trolling… for real?

          • 1. I am not a fanboy just because I stated that I like my MacBook for what it does for my requirements.
            2. I stated in my original comment that I don’t believe that there are as many “pros” as people claim they are. I did not say that there are no “pros” at all. Read the text before you post answers that have nothing to do with the original comment (which otherwise is trolling, part 1.)
            3. Farting sentences onto the internet like “Apple and Pro shouldn’t be in one sentence” do not add anything useful to the discussion (i.e. trolling part 2.)
            4. If you have anything to say to answer my original post, I am happy to read it. Otherwise, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.
            5. By the way, how do you know whether or not I am “by no means a pro user of any type”? You cannot expect serious discussions when entering your argument with an absolutely non-funded assumption.

  • I liked my April Fools post better:
    Apple Plans Release In Late Fall Of OSX Licensed Systems

  • Toby

    It would be exciting to see what they mean by “modular”? Could they finally be integrating touch by connecting, say, an updated version of the iPad Pro via thunderbolt? The same size trash can, or smaller, with iPad connectivity for on the move pro users. Would be awesome!

    • First thing I thought when reading that was: You might be able to configure parts as you could with the previous Mac Pro models…

      • Toby

        I also thought that but then they’ve never used the term “modular” before, even with the cheese grater.

  • papernoise

    I think the most interesting innovation in computers has been the Raspberry PI, not because it’s cheap and small, but because the way it is designed, it makes it possible to build single-task computers, highly specialized and focused machines. This might seem a small detail but in fact the biggest drawback of modern computing when applied to a specialized, “pro” use (I putting that in quotes, because I don’t think it’s a fitting label… but I lack a better term) is that the computer needs to cover so much ground, that it inevitably will fall short on many things. It’s really the jack of all trades and master of none thing. I’m not saying that I want a computer for everything I do, nor do I think that it’s a good idea to use a Raspberry as a CGI workstation (that would indeed bullshit) but getting more focus on the functionality and doing less but better would definitely be an good idea.
    Computers need to be able adapt even more to the requirements of a very diverse and heterogeneous crowd. They need to be a really modular system. I see this issue even more with the OSes, which tend to be extremely monolithic in design. A more modular approach there would really be a refreshing one there as well.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      This is a good point, but has one weakness: the computer power of the RPi platform(s) isn’t really enough for many “Pro” (aka “Creatives”) workflows.

      • papernoise

        Let me quote my comment from above ” I’m not saying that I want a computer for everything I do, nor do I
        think that it’s a good idea to use a Raspberry as a CGI workstation”.
        My point is not to say: “hey people use the RPi as your workstation”, it’s more about that being an interesting inspiration, something that shows a way, a direction, which the industry should take in my opinion.

  • Pop

    Its not just the hardware which is concerning though. OS X really needs a pro make-over too, to rectify the dismal audio performance. Glitches and poor latency are common these days.

  • Ed The Piper

    I’m sorry to say this, but as a customer with apple for many years, Apple are taking the royal micky out of us customers. They don’t know the meaning of the word “Pro User” if they did, they’d realise that the systems they’re producing are elitist, limited / isolated to their own design and not that of the customer who relies on their hardware. Music producers / sound engineers like me are pro users and we should matter to Apple, but we don’t, simple as that. look at how long it’s taken apple to keep pace with logic pro X and what we need as users we’re not getting. What’s worse is that they’re not considering the hardware requirements. here’s an example. 2016 touchboar macbook pro’s have a hardware block that detects certain pieces of equipment it doesn’t like and blocks the hardware out completely. nothing to do with dirvers, actually to do with a firmware chip controller that recognises certain firmware chips on interfaces and blocks them out. a lot of musicians who invested in this machine have sent them back to apple and either ordered previous spec systems or left apple. The designers and techs behind the new version of apple are missing the point, bulking an OS out with things we don’t need, also the issue STILL STANDS regarding apple’s CORE AUDIO system and the fact that certain audio interfaces and systems fail. Focusrite are one such company suffering this and no, it’s nothing to do with a specific mac, it’s affected by OSX and also poor driver coding / resource support. Apple are not listening to it’s customers, just their wallets and internal people’s ideas, they’re not investing in us as their customers and not adapting to our requirements. the day systems went non user serviceable / upgradeable was the death of the professional system for users in the media sector / professional audio / video sectors. who in their right mind wants a new mac pro that’s not user expandable? for that price, a custom built workstation with OSX as a hackintosh principle would do well, but bear in mind there’s still the ongoing audio issues within OSX ever since OSX 10.11.5

  • In pro 3D/compositing apple is symply out of the loop from a while, and have serious efforts to get back in, Pc can get configs up to dual xeon 28 core 56 threads, apple can’t even match a quarter of that.. hardware prices are nearly 2x cheaper, not a single renderfarm i met is mac based and i bet that won’t change anytime soon..

  • foljs

    >And, frankly, the results were telling. One big revelation (if an unsurprising one): most Mac users aren’t pro users. Defining the percentage of Mac users who use apps for serious creation and software development as pros at least once a week, Apple found only 30% of users count.

    Well, there’s some nuance to the use of the word “pro” here.

    A surgeon which uses a MBP is more “pro” than some bedroom producer who makes $20K per year and lives with his parents but “just needs” to have the latest plugins and DAWs.

  • itchy

    can everyone just get rid of the word pro. so gayyyyyyyy no homo

  • Paul Munro

    Apple stopped caring about real pro users with the release of the iPhone. Now apple makes products for the common idiot.

    • And you are just trolling. Had a bad morning, eh?