Six ways the new Mac Pro could go terribly, terribly wrong

Apple has promised a new modular Mac Pro. With WWDC around the corner, there's a good chance we'll get a look at what Apple has in mind. But with Apple's recent track record, we have worries.

A new Mac Pro? We foresee some possible problems Apple has promised a new modular Mac Pro. But with Apple's recent track record, we have worries. Read more: https://zd.net/2wa5peu
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Will we see a new Mac Pro?

On some level, the wait for Apple's promised new Mac Pro is ludicrous. In fact, the idea that we're even talking about a two-years-ago promised pro machine is ridiculous. Windows extreme pros can just go buy whatever full-throttle configurations they want. No wait. No fuss.

But not the Mac. Oh, no. And not Apple. With Apple, it has to be special. It has to be design-y. It has to be infused with the soul of Jony Ive and powered by unicorn laughter. And, apparently, we've waited two years so Apple can invent "modular."

Once upon a time

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The much-beloved cheese grater Mac Pro

Once upon a time, Apple understood extreme pro users. From about 2006 to about 2012, Apple sold what is fondly referred to as the "cheese grater" Mac Pro, so named because the holes on the side of the unit were reminiscent of a cheese grater.

This was a beautiful machine. True, it was big and heavy, but those were advantages to extreme pro users because it had room for expansion and room to breathe. It was somewhat loud. It was pricey, but because it was upgradeable the entry point was accessible and scalable. And it was modular, but in a PC case kind of way.

The cheese grater Mac Pro was, essentially, a very smartly designed PC case. You could add and remove drives. You could swap processors. You could upgrade RAM. You could swap out video cards. You could plug other cards into one of its four PCIe slots. And there were ports. Lots and lots of ports.

Stifled innovation

Then, in 2013, Apple introduced what's come to be known as the "trash can" Mac Pro, because it looks like a glossy little trash can. When Phil Schiller introduced it, he was so proud of it that he bragged, "Can't innovate, my ass."

Since then, that machine has been pretty much a failure.

Apple doesn't release its production numbers, and extreme pros in need of some power did buy it at the beginning, but it was so limited in terms of lack of expansion and architectural decisions that didn't fit the market that it's been universally mocked since pretty much the day of its release.

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The "trash can" Mac Pro

Worse, as overpriced and wildly out-of-date as it now is (it sports Thunderbolt 2 ports, for example), Apple still lists it as for sale, new, on the company's website and at full price -- presumably without any shame.

Two years ago, in April of 2017, Apple had what Adrian Kingsley-Hughes described as a "desperate damage control" meeting with some influential Apple-ecosystem writers. At that time, Apple Senior VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi declared that Apple "designed ourselves into a bit of a corner" with the trashcan Mac Pro.

He, along with three other Apple VPs, then declared that Apple was working on a new design, a module Mac Pro that required so much new design that it couldn't come out the next year, 2018, and might make it to market in 2019.

This was before Apple showed the very powerful and very expensive iMac Pro or the newly redesigned Mac mini. Extreme Mac users back then were desperate for enough horsepower to get their jobs done.

That's where we are today. Apple's iMac Pro has been out since December of 2017 and hasn't been updated in 16 months. It is ungodly expensive, starting at five grand and peaking at somewhere above $13K. The Mac mini is somewhat more affordable, starting at $799.

The one I bought and configured last November cost me $1,999, which is much less expensive than the iMac Pro. I spent more to add RAM and external gadgetry, like a big display. Even so, I spent less than three thousand bucks overall. It's worth it for the kind of work I do for a living.

Apple has addressed many of the needs extreme pros had back when they held that fateful not-quite-show-and-tell meeting. But the promise of a new Mac Pro is still out there.

Upcoming WWDC

All that brings us to now. Apple's WWDC (Worldwide Developer's Conference) begins in a little over two weeks, on June 3. Typically, this is when Apple announces new features in iOS and MacOS, and sometimes announces new hardware. The pro-focused iMac Pro was announced at WWDC in 2017.

If Apple is going to announce an all-new Mac Pro in 2019, WWDC is the time to do it.

That means it's time to worry. See, the problem is that Apple publicly declared it was going to take years to redesign a Mac Pro and make it modular. As I said at the beginning of the article, that's ludicrous given that just about any of you could spec out and build a blow-the-doors-off PC in just a couple of hours.

Given that the Mac is (at least for now) pretty much a PC under the hood (as evidenced by the Hackintosh movement), the idea that Apple is taking years to figure out how to put some power in a box is worrisome.

After all, since the structure of case, mobo, power supply, graphics card, memory, and storage is so totally proven and accepted by extreme pro users, what value could Apple possibly add -- especially compared to what Apple could take away from that formula?

It's entirely possible the new Mac Pro could go horribly wrong.

#1 Proprietary modules and module interfaces

It's the "we're making it modular" promise that raises the hair on the back of my neck. PCs are already modular. Like I said, I doubt there are many of you reading this that haven't built at least one PC. Cards go in slots, drives go in bays, power supplies get bolted or screwed in. It's not rocket science.

So what, exactly, could Apple add to make a Mac Pro modular? My bet is incompatibility and lock-in, in some kind of attractive form factor.

Is there any chance Apple could add or reinvent anything from the PC formula that actually adds value?

Well, they did do it once. That cheese grater Mac took the existing modularity of the PC architecture and made it better. Components were removable without screws (and without the possibility of getting a metal cut).

On the other hand, as some prognosticators have predicted, Apple could offer a bunch of modular boxes that somehow stack or slot into each other, each containing one key component of the system. The big worry there is...

#2 Limited module selection

If Apple does go with some kind of sexy yet proprietary modules, we're again limited by Apple's willingness to release products. Given that Apple has taken more than two years to introduce this thing and is still selling its 2013 depth charge, extreme pros can't trust Apple to introduce all the capabilities they need to get their jobs done.

The benefit of a PC is that you can build one to do anything. You can add nearly any function you can imagine. You can purchase capabilities from a nearly infinite number of vendors. And, if you want to innovate, you can design your own systems, cards, and capabilities yourself.

But if Apple makes those modules proprietary, none of that will be possible.

#3 Lack of user maintainability and some kind of unexpected lock-in

I'm lumping these two together because Apple has been known to create non-maintainable systems. With its laptops, for example, you can't remove or replace storage (even if it fails), nor can you upgrade RAM.

While the Mac mini's T2 chip hasn't bricked Macs for adding RAM, Apple has confirmed that the T2 encryption chip can potentially brick a Mac if it is repaired someplace that is not an authorized repair facility.

A Mac Pro is intended for extreme pros, and most pros have some expertise maintaining their machines. They need to keep going, not send their machine out for weeks or months for a repair. But if Apple decides to either limit repairability or force some kind of lock-in, it's not good for pro users.

#4 Lack of, or minimal upgradeability

Speaking of not good, let's look at Apple's recent track record for upgradeability. Fine. Let's not. Because it's not there. Since retiring the old cheese grater Mac Pro, Apple has been systematically eliminating the ability to upgrade its Macs.

On the one hand, that does force users to eventually buy a new machine. But it's counter to how many pros work. While a regular user might want to browse the internet, organize photos, post on Facebook, and use productivity and media apps, they don't generally come to work only to find that they have to be able to edit five simultaneous streams of 8K footage or simulate an entire rack of servers and networking gear in a gaggle of sixteen simultaneously-running virtual machines.

For the typical extreme pro, that's Thursday.

Extreme pros need to be able to mod and upgrade their machines just as fast as FedEx can send the parts. They don't have time to migrate all their work from one machine to another, just because they need to add three more video cards, another 128GB of RAM, a bus-speed RAID of SSDs, or the much-faster, higher core-count processor they couldn't initially get approved when they ordered the machine.

Will the new Mac Pro allow extreme pros to do any of this? Or will it be all lock-in, all the time?

#5 Form over functional heat management

Apple has a nearly textbook obsession with product size and sleekness over functional health.

Going as far back as the iPhone 6, Apple knew the phone was more likely to bend in pockets than previous generations. Even with that knowledge, the company couldn't help itself. It put its customers investments at risk, just to shave part of a millimeter.

The top-end 2018 MacBook Pros have had trouble with heat management and Apple's keyboard has long been a sore spot for the company -- all because it craves thinner devices. Last year, I put together a long list enumerating where the company's obsession of form over function was hitting people in the face. Literally.

What I worry about is that Apple will build its modular Mac Pro in such a way that each module suffers from heat problems. There's a reason the tower PC is still around: it has great pathways for evacuating the build-up of heat from all the components.

If Apple builds small modular boxes, the heat won't have anywhere to go. Worse, Apple probably won't put fans in those little modules, because that would require more space. So what are we to expect? Little modules, all building up heat? How hard will it be to diagnose failures in that scenario?

#6 Pricing that limits purchases to high-end enterprises only

Finally, there's the big worry that many extreme pros I know have about this machine: will it be priced out of reach?

Most pros know that performance is expensive. That's why upgradeability is so important. It allows users to buy only what they need (which may be a financial stretch as it is) and upgrade as projects and clients demand.

Upgradeability is, fundamentally, why the cloud is so attractive to both small and large businesses. By employing metered services, the cloud allows its users to scale dynamically, as the need arises.

Most PC builds allow some intrinsic scaling as well. Sure, if you're building a mini box, you know it won't scale as well as a full tower. But if you're an extreme pro, and you know you're going to need to scale, you can begin with a cost-effective framework that allows for that scaling over time.

While the iMac Pro allows for some very limited upgrades, it's not an easy process and it's quite risky. I added RAM to my 2018 Mac mini and it was a tedious, tense process not for the faint of heart.

Will the new Mac Pro allow for scaling, or will it be an all-upfront sort of thing? If it truly is a pro machine, upgradeability with non-proprietary technology needs to be part of its DNA. At any rate, let's hope we'll find out in a little over two weeks.

Do you think the Mac Pro will go terribly, terribly wrong or will you buy whatever Apple eventually sells? What are your predictions for the Mac Pro and WWDC? Let us know in the comments below.


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