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.