The good news and bad news of Apple's Mac Pro announcement

Apple finally threw pro users a bone, but not one with any meat on it.

Mac Pro
Credit: Apple

Tuesday’s announcement by Apple that the current Mac Pro will be replaced by a new model–but not this year–was one of the most curious ones it’s made in recent memory. It was a defense of the Mac, a promise of things to come, an attempt to reassure professional Mac users, and an admission of failure, all at once.

Here’s what it was:

A restatement of Apple’s support for the Mac. Three years ago, Phil Schiller sat across a table from me at Apple’s Infinite Loop campus and responded to my question about the future of the Mac by saying, “The Mac keeps going forever.” And in stories posted today based on a prior interview, Schiller said much the same thing. “The Mac has an important, long future at Apple… we have every intention to keep going and investing in the Mac,” he said.

For those who doubt the esteem the Mac holds at Apple, it’s worth nothing that Apple has been unwavering in its insistence that the Mac is an ongoing concern, not a product with a rapidly approaching expiration date.

A remarkable admission of failure. The lack of updates on the Mac Pro made it obvious that this product was a flop, but it’s still to Apple’s credit that it came out and took its lumps. Going above and beyond the call of duty, the execs went into some detail about how the company made a bet on a unique design approach in the hopes that pro users would come to rely on the two GPUs that the system provided. It was a mistake, perhaps predicated on a troubling lack of understanding about what Apple’s professional customers really desired in a Mac Pro.

Apple executives wouldn’t specify exactly when they realized that the existing Mac Pro needed to be killed, but it must have been somewhat recently, or this entire process could have happened sooner. (And perhaps a new Mac Pro would arrive sooner than 2018.)

Acceptance that the current Mac Pro isn’t going to sell. Apple very rarely announces any product (or even the existence of a product) months in advance. When it does so, it’s generally in a new category. This is because the moment a company announces that it’s replacing a product with a newer model, sales tend to fall off a cliff. (It’s called the Osborne effect.) But in the case of the Mac Pro, it’s already been so long since the machine was updated, it can’t be selling.

A signal sent to professional Mac users. The Mac Pro has been sitting, unadjusted, on Apple’s price lists for years now. The company’s silence on the issue has been deafening. In the past year, speculation about the future of the model has risen to a fever pitch, with cranky pro users beginning to brag about building custom Intel-based PCs as “hackintoshes” running Sierra just to show how far behind the curve Apple is.

It seems like Apple has twice tried to cool the ire of the market via Tim Cook statements–one embedded in an internal memo, another expressed in public–about the company’s commitment to pro users. But the statements never took. Cook’s statements were so vague that they could be read as negative by those who wanted to believe the worst. Tuesday’s statement, on the other hand, couldn’t be more clear.

A promise of a new Apple-branded monitor. Despite reports that an unnamed Apple executive had declared that Apple was “out of the display business” last year, on Tuesday Schiller confirmed that in addition to the new Mac Pro, Apple would release a display to go along with it. It’s possible that cosmetic and technical issues around the LG display Apple promoted with the new MacBook Pros may have prompted this move. Perhaps there was enough negative feedback around the LG display for someone at Apple to convince the powers that be that it was in Apple’s best interest to control this product category rather than leaving it to a partner?

And here’s what it wasn’t:

An update to the current Mac Pro. Reports from the writers who attended Apple’s private roundtable session used words like “bump” to support the changes Apple made on the current Mac Pro model today. But as Marco Arment pointed out on Twitter, this isn’t an update at all. Here’s what Schiller said: "In the meantime, we’re going to update the configs to make it faster and better for their dollar. This is not a new model, not a new design, we’re just going to update the configs. We’re doing that this week.” The two available Mac Pro configurations aren’t new, they’re just newly priced. So if you must buy a Mac Pro right now, at least it’s a better deal than it was. Not a good deal, mind you, but a better one.

A solution for people who need a better professional Mac this year. As excited as we can be that the soap-opera story of the fate of the Mac Pro has been resolved, the fact is, its replacement won’t arrive until 2018 at the earliest, and we know nothing about it. If you’re a professional Mac user with a long-in-the-tooth Mac Pro or iMac and you need more power today, or next month, or this fall, Apple won’t have a new Mac Pro to sell you. Perhaps a new iMac will appeal to you–Apple suggested on Tuesday that iMac upgrades that may appeal to professional users are on the horizon–but if not, it’s going to be a long wait.

A commitment to update the new Mac Pro in a timely fashion. Schiller suggested that the new Mac Pro will be more capable of receiving hardware updates, but on what schedule? It seems that Apple’s most high-end users want the company to track hardware updates as closely as possible with new chip releases from Intel. When this new Mac Pro debuts in 2018, will the company take that approach? Or will it do as it has done on most of its other computers lately, and lag behind Intel’s processor releases by months?

In the end, Tuesday’s announcement allows Apple to stop the bleeding of a self-inflicted wound. It should probably have come to this conclusion a lot sooner, but whether it was an inability for those who green-lit the Mac Pro to see that they had made a mistake or a simple lack of focus on this particular market segment, the product languished far too long and became an embarrassment.

At least now the deed is done. The “trash can” Mac is bound for the garbage dump itself. In the long run, it’s good news for Apple’s professional users. But in the short run, it doesn’t change Apple’s lack of competitiveness compared to other Intel PCs. At least now high-end pros can know that if they’re waiting for a solution from Apple in the next few months, they’re probably out of luck.

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