Why Apple's Mac Pro promise matters so much to pro and corporate buyers

It was getting increasingly hard to remain loyal to the Mac platform. Now, Apple has given serious Mac users and corporate buyers reason for optimism.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

The Mac Pro is finally heating up again.

By now, you've probably heard the news: Apple is working on a new, redesigned Mac Pro. The company also announced that the current Mac Pro is getting a processor bump this week, and that there will be a new pro-user focused iMac coming later this year.

The importance of this news cannot be overstated.

Let's not beat around the bush. The continued existence of the entire Mac ecosystem has been in question. Yes, Apple has said it cares about the Mac, but its actions haven't reflected that in ways that matter to the folks who need to make some tough decisions.

It's all about the ecosystem

At the core of an ecosystem like the Mac are, of course, the products. These include the Macs, and also MacOS, as well as various accessories ranging from mice to monitors. When a company introduces popular products, a market is formed.

All of Apple's portable Macs since 1984

If there are enough customers, the market becomes attractive for companies to create aftermarket products designed to enhance and extend the core. This has been one of the strengths of the Mac market for decades. The popularity of the Mac has inspired a strong army of software and hardware vendors to build products that enhance the use of Macs, and, in some cases, overcome limitations.

Customers buying Macs provide an opportunity for developers, giving them the justification to invest in the research, development, production, and distribution of products designed to work with Macs.

Since 1984, the Mac has suffered its share of slumps; but since the days of the first iMacs, it's been a solid market. It has a strong base of loyal application developers providing excellent software products. It also has an equally strong base of hardware add-on manufacturers providing both broad market products (like laptop cases) and specialized hardware products (like broadcast video capture cards).

While there are many mainstream applications (like Office and Adobe's Creative Cloud) that work almost identically on the Mac and on Windows, there are also a great many specialized applications that only work on the Mac. Because the Mac found its early differentiation from the Microsoft world in the creative community, there are many tools that appeal strongly to creative professionals. Over time, some of them became available on both platforms, but some tools remain available only on the Mac.

The decisions that aftermarket developers and manufacturers make when choosing a platform to support often involve enormous investments, so they're not made lightly. Careful consideration of the current market, the history of the market, and -- especially -- the future of the market goes into any analysis. Only if the prospects look good for a reasonable ROI does a vendor choose to build a product for a given platform.

But it's not just vendors who must make careful ROI calculations before investing in a computing platform. So, too, must customers. Individual users, especially with Macs, need to decide if the price premium is worth it. Do they want to invest in applications for that platform? Will they get enough value from the platform long term to invest in the time to learn and optimize it for their needs?

Corporate customers and professionals have even bigger decisions. Corporate customers must decide if they can justify the costs of provisioning and support to outfit an entire fleet of hardware and software, thereby creating their own internal ecosystem. Professionals have to decide if they're willing to base projects they're working on upon a hardware platform, essentially linking the success of their projects to the promise that the computing platform can perform well enough to meet their needs.

Backseat to the iPhone

For more than three decades, the Mac platform has provided the capabilities needed by its professional, corporate, and individual customers to allow them to derive value. In doing so, it has created a strong enough market to justify investment by aftermarket vendors.

Of course, a lot has changed since 1984. Back then, Apple was a nascent computer company, and was still finding its footing. Today, Apple is the world's most valuable company. Back then, Apple made all its money selling computers. Today, the vast bulk of Apple's market value is derived from the iPhone.

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For almost any other company, the Mac would be the star player. In Apple's portfolio, the Mac takes a back seat to the iPhone. Frankly, just about anything would take a back seat to the iPhone. And therein lies the problem.

You see, Apple has behaved, in its events and promotional activities, exactly like one would expect, showcasing the iPhone as the star and the Mac as ... not so much.

Mac product refreshes have lagged behind. Some products have gone a very long time between updates. In a business where product performance still generally increases according to Moore's Law, long delays in upgrades seem even longer to those in need of performance.

The poster child of this problem has been the Mac Pro. By any measure, the odd, trashcan Mac Pro introduced back in 2013 was eye-wateringly expensive. But for those professionals in need of performance, sometimes it's necessary to pay the price to get the job done. In 2013, weird though it was, and without any internal expansion, the Mac Pro showed its performance chops, at least for certain types of applications.

But after 39 months without an upgrade, the situation has become problematic for many professional users. See, the issue isn't just the Mac Pro. If the Mac Pro were the only high-performance desktop computer, that would be one thing. But it's not.

There's the entire world of completely customizable, boiling hot desktop PCs out there. No, it's not a market the size of the iPhone. But for a pro who needs to transcode 4K video in realtime, or a scientist who would like to get calculations done this century, it's been getting increasingly hard to remain loyal to the Mac platform.

Switching Costs

Yes, the Mac platform does have certain advantages that speed the productivity for professional users. But when Mac hardware can't keep up, and is substantially more expensive than its alternatives, it becomes increasingly hard to justify.

At some point, you start to consider whether it's time to switch.

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It's important to understand that any decision, whether to switch to Windows or stay with the Mac, is something of an act of faith. All buyers -- especially professionals -- have to predict which platform will best meet their needs. But it's more than that. It's the switching costs.

Any professional who bases work on a given platform has a lot invested. It's not just the hardware. It's the training, the muscle memory, the add-on gadgets, the software licenses, the data, and all the processes and customizations used to drive daily work. Any switch would require not just a jump to the other OS, but the stepwise migration of all of that entrenchment to a different environment.

Apple seemed to have lost interest in the pro market. The Mac Pro hadn't been updated for 39 months. The last Mac mini refresh , 900+ days ago, reduced its flexibility and performance. Even the large iPad Pro hasn't gotten an annual refresh.

Yes, the MacBook Pro was updated late last year. A year earlier, the iMac got a performance boost. But that was it. Yes, last year Tim Cook gave lip service to "great Mac desktops" in the pipeline, but that was last year. As soon as the spring event calendar seemed past its expiration date, pros started worrying that the Mac, especially pro-level Macs, had no future.

Apparently, that's not the case. Apple finally did what it's normally loath to do: calm fears and give a look to the future.

The timing of Apple's special meeting was essential. Columnists, tech reporters, and customers were all just realizing that no spring Mac product announcements were coming, leading to the inevitable sad conclusion that Apple was once again withholding love from the Mac platform.

More to the point, Apple acknowledged (and showed real understanding) of the concerns of professional Mac users, indicating that it's redesigning the Mac Pro to be more in line with the flexibility required to meet the vastly differing needs of serious professional users.

I cannot stress enough how important this meeting was. Many professionals, myself included, often look two to three years into the future (at minimum) when planning projects. We have to decide the platforms we're using. It was starting to appear that counting on the Mac platform could be a career-damaging activity.

The lack of activity on Apple's part seemed to be sending the message that it was time to start migration planning off the Mac platform.

Sure, it's still always possible that Apple won't deliver. But given how much Apple executives value the company's reputation, I think it's a worthwhile bet that we'll see those machines released in due course.

That means that pros and corporate planners can stay their course, don't need to make migration plans, don't need to budget time and money for switching costs, and can save up their pennies so they can forklift them to Cupertino when the new machines become available.

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