Saturday, 23/9/2017 | 12:06 UTC+0

Apple admits the Mac Pro was a mess

Apple hasn’t been paying much attention to its pro users lately, and the company finally seems to be owning up to it.

Speaking to a small gathering of news outlets yesterday, including BuzzFeed, TechCrunch, and Daring Fireball, Apple acknowledged that it had been a while since the company put a focus on pro desktops, announced minor spec updates to the existing Mac Pro, and said that a new Mac Pro model is in the works.

But perhaps most importantly, Apple admitted that its flashy 2013 Mac Pro redesign was a mistake, and executives indicated that Apple intends to better support its professional users in the future.

“I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will,” one of Apple’s top executives reportedly said.

The small, trash can-shaped Mac Pro — which Apple marketing VP Phil Schiller once touted as evidence that the company could still innovate — was designed to fit two smaller graphics chips, but the industry didn’t move in that direction.

“Being able to put larger single GPUs required a different system architecture and more thermal capacity than that system was designed to accommodate,” the exec is reported as saying. “So it became fairly difficult to adjust.”

That seems to explain why the Mac Pro, until today, went more than three years without spec refresh — an entirely unworkable situation for pro users who need top-of-the-line hardware.

Schiller told reporters that the Mac Pro’s thermal issues “restricted our ability to upgrade it” and that Apple is “sorry to disappoint customers who wanted that.”

While Apple clearly wants to focus on the future, the fact that it called together a small group of media to discuss the state of the Mac Pro — without having anything truly new to show just yet — is telling of what this meeting was really for: an apology, and an early attempt at restoring trust with Apple’s most demanding customers.

Apple’s pro users have felt increasingly alienated and underserved. Apple hadn’t only ignored the Mac Pro for three years, it had barely mentioned the computer.

At the same time, Apple’s pro software has increasingly felt like an afterthought — with the widely maligned release of Final Cut X and the discontinuation of Aperture, it may as well have handed pro photo and video editors to Adobe. And the company’s only other recent Pro hardware release, the MacBook Pro, disappointed on power and expandability.

That’s what really brought pro users to a fever pitch. Toward the end of 2016, Apple started seeing complaints from even its most loyal defenders and skepticism from pro users that it would ever offer products for them again. (Its response, at the time, was to discount some dongles.)

Mac developer Michael Tsai has kept up an extensive and long-running list of complaints about the new MacBook Pros and the state of pro Macs, which includes more than three dozen updates since October. The complaints have been scathing: it isn’t just that people take issue with the MacBook Pro, its that pro users feel altogether rejected by Apple.

Apple could have continued to ignore this — it’s rare that the company goes public with its plans for future products — but evidently, executives felt they couldn’t wait. That may be because there’s still no firm date for when Apple will have new hardware ready for pro users: “pro” iMacs are promised for later this year, but the redesigned Mac Pro isn’t getting released until next year or beyond. That’s another year to go without a Mac Pro update.

By going public with this information now, Apple can at least quell concerns that it’s decided to ignore the pro market entirely — something that seemed plausible enough. TechCrunch and Daring Fireball report Apple saying that the Mac Pro represents only a “single-digit percent” of total Mac sales. And given that Mac sales account for only 10 percent of Apple’s revenue as a whole, it’s hard to imagine the Mac Pro is a particularly profitable investment.

While it’ll take more than a single press junket and a few somewhat-apologetic quotes to really prove to pro users that Apple cares about them, today’s announcement could at least keep the company’s computers in the running for any user thinking about jumping ship during an upcoming upgrade.

Although pro users may be a minority of Apple’s buyers, Apple’s focus on pros is important for its consumer line, too. It isn’t even that innovations Apple develops higher up could work their way down the line later on — it’s that Apple needs pro users to give the Mac its reputation. It’s pro users who make Macs known as the go-to computers for creative work. And if Apple lets all those users go, PCs may start to pick up the mantle.