2018: The year Apple finally remembered its extreme pro users

After a nearly four-year drought, in the last 12 months, Apple has finally produced products that allow extreme pros to get their work done. In this article, we discuss why that's important for all users, not just those living on the bleeding edge.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Although many columnists, myself included, have accused Apple of abandoning its pro users, that's not really true. In fact, it's fair to say that Apple has never abandoned its pro users. The company's laptop and tablet offerings have been more than suitable for many professionals who use technology as part of their jobs.

Heck, the entire smartphone revolution was born at Apple, and the ability for mobile professionals to get their work done solely on their iPhones has transformed much of society. We are now a mobile-first, cloud-first society, enabled primarily by smartphones and the mobile broadband infrastructure.

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Each and every year, Apple has introduced more powerful iPhones, and nearly every year, they've updated their iPads and notebooks.

We can define "pro" as anyone who uses technology as a component of how they make a living. What Apple has been shipping these past four years has been ideal for a lot of folks who make their living using tech.

The extreme pro

You may recall I made the distinction between pro users and what I called "high-end" pro users back in June. After thinking about this user category for some months, I've come to believe that the term "extreme pro" better represents the demanding pro user than "high-end pro". It's not that the pro users I'm talking about want gear that's higher-end or fancier. It's that the extreme pro has far more challenging problems to solve, which usually means they need a lot more capability.

So what is an extreme pro user? A "extreme pro" is someone who requires ultra-powerful computing power plus flexibility to do their job. This usually means a lot of memory, a lot of ports, big displays, tons of storage, super-fast local networking, and often a wide variety of custom implementations and workflows.

While clearly a much smaller segment of the total Apple market, extreme users are still very strategically important to a platform vendor like Apple. Having very extreme products meets the needs of extreme users, who are often taste-makers and key influencers.

More importantly, having extreme products gives "headroom" to more mainstream users, providing an assurance that if their needs increase, the platform can scale with them. This is critical for enterprises, as well as for any pro or team working on projects and workflows that have long life and substantial growth potential.

It's unsafe to invest in a technology where there's a brick wall at the extreme. Serious pros need to know that they won't have to abandon all their work just as they start to grow and face new opportunities and challenges.

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That's why Apple's decision making, when it comes to extreme Macs, has been such a concern for the past few years. It's indisputable that Apple has, until this year, pretty much abandoned its extreme pro users.

The trash can Mac Pro went years without an upgrade, only to get a minor spec bump in 2017. Apple still sells it in configurations ranging from three to seven thousand dollars. It's still based on the Ivy Bridge Xeon processor generation, which has subsequently been eclipsed by the Haswell, Broadwell, Skylake, and Kaby Lake processor generations. Its GPU is five years old, and it doesn't even support Thunderbolt 3.

Laptops were limited to 16GB of RAM. The incredibly versatile Mac mini went four years without an upgrade, stranding many of us who relied on it to 2012 processor technology or 2014's lower performing RAM spec.

Switching costs

Many extreme pros have made huge investments in Apple hardware, both in terms of dollars paid to Apple and in business process workflows. It's fair to say that from about 2014 to about 2017, many of us faced the question of whether it was time to switch platforms and retool.

Switching is not nearly as easy for extreme pros as it is for other pro users. A writer can use Google Docs or Word from just about any platform. An illustrator can use Illustrator on a Mac or on a PC and it's identical.

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But a TV news show using live streaming software like mimoLive has deep infrastructure, including templates, graphics, and switching patterns all baked into the fact that the application they used only ran on Macs. Retooling all that could take months.

The same is true for many extreme pros, who use specialized software only available on the Mac platform. Just look at how much support is available for Final Cut Pro X. Moving off of Final Cut would require not just moving very complex video files to Adobe Premiere Pro (which does not import Final Cut), but also finding replacements for plugins, LUTs, themes, and transitions -- or starting from scratch and crafting them out of nothing to work with Premiere.

By the way, if you want a fascinating insight into what the Final Cut community did when Apple hard-shifted from Final Cut 7 to Final Cut Pro X, as well as the importance of Final Cut Pro X to extreme pros in the video production industry, watch the documentary Off The Tracks. Right now, it's free to watch on Prime Video if you have a Prime membership.

New machines for extreme pros

In the last 12 months, however, Apple has shipped products that do meet the needs of extreme pros. These include new MacBook Pros that can be outfitted with up to 32GB RAM and Vega mobile video, the new Mac mini that can handle up to 64GB RAM and 10 gig Ethernet, and the wildly expensive but equally wildly powerful iMac Pro, which reached users a little less than 12 months ago, in mid-December 2017.

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In addition to built-in power for the new Macs, each of these machines supports Thunderbolt 3, which allows for bus-level speeds in external devices and makes eGPUs both practical and justifiable.

On the iPad side, Apple in 2018 introduced a low-end iPad that supports the now old-style Pencil. It also introduced two almost insanely powerful iPad Pro models in both 11-inch and 12.9-inch form factors, along with a redesigned Pencil that now makes sense in terms of how it's stored and how it charges.

At the end of 2018, Apple now has powerful tablets and phones for iOS users. It has competently powerful laptops, a small headless desktop machine, all-in-one computers with decent power, and an extremely powerful and expensive extreme all-in-one.

What Apple still lacks is a tower desktop that can be expanded, modified, and grow over time. That's the Mac Pro that's been teased by the company, but not yet shipped. Even so, the current Apple line-up, as of the end of 2018, should have enough options to meet both pro and extreme pro buyers.

Can extreme pros count on Apple?

We could end our 2018 story here, let Apple take a victory lap, and be done with this topic. But extreme pros often work on projects and classes of projects that span years. With that, there's one fundamental question remaining: Can extreme pros count on Apple to keep the extreme line up to date?

Also: Mac Mini 2018 makes the most of its veteran design CNET

Remember, this is an Apple that let extreme pros languish for nearly four years. It's a company that still is perfectly willing to sell generations-old hardware at list price, and an inflated list price at that.

So the key question is whether 2018 is an anomaly, a one-time bone thrown to the whining pros -- or whether Apple is newly rededicated to meeting the needs of extreme pros now and into the future.

While this is not a bet-the-company question for Apple, it is for many of its customers. Only time will tell.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Scenes from Apple's iPad Pro and Mac event

Previous and related coverage:

Mac Mini 2018 teaches an old design new tricks (CNET)

After some time with the long-awaited update to Apple's mini PC, we're impressed overall -- but still have one big reservation.

Yes, I bought a 2018 Mac mini (and here's how I spec'd it out)

Apple finally updated its long-ignored Mac mini. With all the pro specs David Gewirtz has been asking for, lo these many years, he bought one. Here's what it's got under the hood.

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Here's why Apple doesn't really care about the Mac or iPad

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