Apple is “sorry” about “a pause” in Mac upgrades

A quick look at MacRumors’ Buyers Guide is all it takes to realize Apple’s neglected its Mac fans with slow upgrades. Part of the problem lies in Apple’s heavy reliance on Intel. Making matters worse, the chip maker abandoned its tick-tock release schedule as it’s become economically unsustainable.

Perhaps that’s why Apple summoned its senior executives Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi and John Ternus for “a small roundtable discussion about Mac” with five journalists (Matthew Panzarino, Lance Ulanoff, Ina Fried, John Paczkowski and John Gruber).

In the case of Mac Pro, Apple miscalculated the repercussions its radical redesign would have on pro users. While it looks great, Mac Pro’s design makes it hard for Apple or its customers to replace tightly integrated internals with more powerful CPUs and massive hot-running GPUs.

The main idea guiding the development of Mac Pro was that the most demanding of pro users would take advantage of the machine’s plentiful Thunderbolt 2 ports to boost graphics via external Thunderbolt modules.

It never really took off.

As Schiller acknowledged:

As we’ve said, we made something bold that we thought would be great for the majority of our Mac Pro users. And what we discovered was that it was great for some and not others. Enough so that we need to take another path.

One of the good things, hopefully, with Apple through the years has been a willingness to say when something isn’t quite what we wanted it do be, didn’t live up to expectations, to not be afraid to admit it and look for the next answer.

Federighi added that thermal core design proved difficult to update Mac Pro regularly.

Apple’s Product Realization Lab, where they craft prototypes of future Macs

The decision to outfit Mac Pros with dual GPUs backfired because the industry had just begun adopting workstations with one big GPU.

Here’s how Federighi framed it:

I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will. We designed a system with the kind of GPUs that at the time we thought we needed, and that we thought we could well serve with a two GPU architecture. That that was the thermal limit we needed, or the thermal capacity we needed.

But workloads didn’t materialize to fit that as broadly as we hoped.

Being able to put larger single GPUs required a different system architecture and more thermal capacity than that system was designed to accommodate. So it became fairly difficult to adjust.

At the same time, so many of our customers were moving to iMac that we saw a path to address many, many more of those that were finding themselves limited by a Mac Pro through next generation iMac.

And really put a lot of our energy behind that.

Specs are important no matter how you look at it, more so if you’re in the market for a pro workstations for some serious number crunching and creative work. Federighi was first to admit that Mac Pros are currently not well-suited for virtual reality apps (and Oculus agrees).

“Certain kinds of high-end cinema production tasks” is another example where Mac Pros don’t excel at because, as Federighi notes, many pro apps don’t balance themselves well across multiple GPUs, but can scale across a single large GPU.

Schiller jumped in, apologizing for keeping customers waiting for new Mac Pros:

The current Mac Pro, as we’ve said a few times, was constrained thermally and it restricted our ability to upgrade it. And for that, we’re sorry to disappoint customers who wanted that, and we’ve asked the team to go and re-architect and design something great for the future that those Mac Pro customers who want more expandability, more upgradability in the future. It’ll meet more of those needs.

Mac has an important, long future at Apple, that Apple cares deeply about Mac, we have every intention to keep going and investing in Mac. And if we’ve had a pause in upgrades and updates on that, we’re sorry for that—what happened with Mac Pro, and we’re going to come out with something great to replace it. And that’s our intention.

Asked if Apple was aware of just how many customers have begun to doubt its commitment to Mac and the needs of pro users, Schiller responded by saying:

It’s a reasonable question, and this is why we’re here today, specifically, to address that question above all else. We’re committed to Mac, we’ve got great talent on the Mac, both hardware and software, we’ve got great products planned for the future, and as far as our horizon line can see, Mac is a core component of the things Apple delivers, including to our pro customers.

And on Apple’s own pro apps:

I just want to reiterate our strong commitment there, as well. Both with Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X, there are teams on those software products that are completely dedicated to delivering great pro software to our customers. No foot off the gas there.

The following quote is attributed to John Ternus, who is in charge of Mac hardware as Apple’s Vice President of Hardware Engineering:

Some of our most talented folks are working on Mac. I mean, quite frankly, a lot of this company, if not most of this company, runs on Macs. This is a company full of pro Mac users.

Federighi added that using Xcode downloads as a metric suggests that it is possible that software developers are actually Apple’s largest pro audience. “It’s growing very quickly, it’s been fantastic,” he said.

Schiller offered this message to concerned pro users:

We recognize that they want to hear more from us. And so we want to communicate better with them. We want them to understand the importance they have for us, we want them to understand that we’re investing in new Macs—not only new MacBook Pros and iMacs but Mac Pros for them, we want them to know we are going to work on a display for a modular system.

We want them to know we’re continuing to invest in MacOS as well as our pro app software for pros… those are things we want to clearly communicate to them. And yes, we want them to know that, while we have not had updates to the current Mac Pro, we’re going to keep it on the price list because there are customers for whom it does work—for the things they need to do… We want to at least make the value of it better while we’re doing that.

For those wondering about the state of automation and scripting, Federighi said that “scriptability and automation of the system remain super important” to Apple.

Some other notable tidbits:

  • 15 percent of all Mac users use at least one pro app multiple times per week.
  • Additional 15 percent of all Mac users use pro apps at least once per week.
  • 30 percent of the overall Mac user base is the pro market.
  • The split between notebooks and desktops in Mac sales is 80/20.
  • The most popular notebook with pros is MacBook Pro.
  • The most popular desktop with pros is iMac (followed by Mac Pro).
  • Notebooks are the most popular Macs with pros, before iMac (#2) and Mac Pro (#3).
  • Mac Pro’s share of all Mac sales is a single-digit percentage.
  • Sales of the new MacBook Pro are up about twenty percent year over year.
  • Mac sales were up in 2016 and continue to outpace the PC industry.
  • Mac user base is nearing 100 million users.
  • Mac as a business is nearing a $25 billion run rate.
  • Mac, Inc. would file as a Fortune 100 company on its own.

Just to illustrate the effects of Apple’s dependence on Intel, the chip giant recently delayed Cannon Lake, its 10-nanometer evolution of existing Core processors. A company executive said that the new chips could now enter mass production next year.

There’s little Apple can do when its key supplier delays processors, especially chips suitable for iMacs, Mac minis and Mac notebooks, into next year. The Cannon Lake platform supports LPDDR4 memory which consumes less power than the power-hungry DDR4 RAM inside the new MacBook Pro. In other words, the delay could endanger a rumored 32 GB MacBook Pro release in 2017.

The current state of Mac updates, via MacRumors’ Buyers Guide.

Here’s how many days have passed since Apple released major updates to these Macs:

  • iMac—539 days since last release (average: 317 days)
  • Mac Pro—1,202 days since last release (average: 449 days)
  • Mac mini—901 days since last release (average: 438 days)
  • MacBook—350 days since last release (average: 375 days)
  • MacBook Pro—159 days since last release (average: 320 days)
  • MacBook Air—757 days since last release (average: 350 days)

The takeaway: Macs have a bright future ahead as new iMacs with pro-level features are coming later this year and a next-generation Mac Pro with modular design along with Apple-branded pro displays due in 2018.

As for the most affordable Mac model—Mac mini—that machine is “important” to Apple and as such won’t be going away in the near future. In Schiller’s words, it’s “more of a mix of consumer with some pro use” and “remains a product in our lineup”.

Thoughts on Apple’s comments?

Source: Daring Fireball, TechCrunch, BuzzFeed, Mashable, Axios