The new Mac Pro: The audacity to say “Yes” in a design culture of “No”
Much of modern Apple’s design philosophy is to relentlessly strip down most products to the bare minimum in certain areas as technological progress allows, following (and largely defining) the modern design fashion of nearly-unquestioned devotion to minimalism.
Saying “no” is the easiest path to what’s considered good design today: if something cannot be easily accommodated, or most people won’t complain too badly in its absence, just omit it.1
While minimalism is one aspect of one view of good design, it’s often overused, underconsidered, and misunderstood, resulting in products with surface-level appeal that don’t actually work very well because they were optimized for visual design and minimalism rather than overall real-world usefulness.2
As with every design decision, removals and omissions have major trade-offs that need to be very carefully considered. Today’s design culture of “no” often goes unquestioned or is assumed to be the best outcome, but minimalism should not be axiomatic in all areas. Often, less is more. But sometimes, it’s just less.
* * *
A lot went wrong with the 2013 Mac Pro. Some of the leading factors that led to its failure:
- It was more expensive than its predecessor, while also removing major features that many of its customers still needed. (The 2016 MacBook Pro has the same problem.)
- It was designed to accommodate exactly two GPUs with relatively low heat output each, but CPU-heavy users didn’t need the second GPU, and GPU-heavy users needed hotter-running GPUs (and often just one really hot one).3 So the only configuration it was offered in was either overspecced (and overpriced) or underpowered for most Mac Pro customers.
- Less than a year after its release, it missed the desktop Retina revolution started by the 5K iMac, and it was beaten handily in single-threaded performance by a CPU generation that Apple never updated it to use.
The last factor was poor timing that could’ve been fixed with regular updates, but the first two are simply major design flaws by making the wrong choices for this product.
I understand why Apple went down that path, and it’s all in the context that led to my favorite line ever spoken in an Apple keynote, right after the unveiling of this Mac Pro during the 2013 WWDC keynote:
“Can’t innovate anymore, my ass!”
Back then, Jobs hadn’t been gone for long, Cook had a lot to prove, and the overwhelming press and analyst narrative had been that Apple couldn’t innovate anymore and Samsung was the king of innovation, whatever that meant. (It turned out to just mean big phones.)
This clearly bothered Apple, and it almost certainly influenced their overly aggressive decisions with the design of the 2013 Mac Pro.
But the Mac Pro is the worst place in the entire Apple product lineup to drastically remove capabilities and versatility (and then to not update it for over four years).4
Overly aggressive minimalism fails most spectacularly when there’s no clear consensus among customers on what can be removed. And if you ask Mac Pro customers what they need and want, there’s very little overlap:
- Video creators need as many CPU cores as possible, one or two very fast GPUs with support for cutting-edge video output resolutions (like 8K today), PCIe capture, massive amounts of storage, and the most external peripheral bandwidth possible.
- Audio creators need fast single-core CPU performance, low-latency PCIe/Thunderbolt interfaces, rock-solid USB buses, ECC RAM for stability, and reliable silence regardless of load. (Many also use the optical audio inputs and outputs, and would appreciate the return of the line-in jack.)
- Photographers need tons of CPU cores, tons of storage, a lot of RAM, and the biggest and best single displays.
- Software developers, which Federighi called out in the briefing this month as possibly the largest part of Apple’s “pro” audience, need tons of CPU cores, the fastest storage possible, tons of RAM, tons of USB ports, and multiple big displays, but hardly any GPU power — unless they’re developing games or VR, in which case, they need the most GPU power possible.
- Mac gamers need a high-speed/low-core-count CPU, the best single gaming GPU possible, and VR hardware support.
- Budget-conscious PC builders need as many PC-standard components and interfaces as possible to maximize potential for upgrades, repairs, and expansion down the road.
- And more, and more…
The requirements are all over the map, but most pro users seem to agree on the core principles of an ideal Mac Pro, none of which include size or minimalism:
- More internal capacity is better.
- Each component should have a reasonably priced base option, but offer the ability to configure up to the best technology on the market.
- It needs to accommodate a wide variety of needs, some of which Apple won’t offer, and some of which may require future upgrades.
Or, to distill the requirements down to a single word:
Just as macOS’ versatility allows iOS to remain lightweight, the ability of the rest of the Mac lineup to be more aggressive, minimalist, and forward-looking depends on the Mac Pro to cover everyone whose needs don’t fit into them.5 The Mac Pro must be the catch-all at the high end: anytime someone says the iMac or MacBook Pro isn’t something enough for them, the solution should be the Mac Pro.
Try to narrow the Mac Pro’s focus any further than a big, versatile, modular box, and it stops serving the needs of big slices of its market, forcing valuable and influential pro users to either sacrifice major areas of their needs or leave the Mac platform entirely. That’s why so many previous-generation Mac Pro towers are still in use today (and highly demanded on eBay), which all have components that are at least seven years old: Apple hasn’t made a Mac Pro since then that has addressed their owners’ needs.
The more needs you try to accommodate, the more you arrive at capabilities similar to the previous Mac Pro tower, just modernized to new components and redesigned to remove outdated options like optical-drive bays, that’s easy for Apple to update every 1–2 years as new components become available.
The 2013 Mac Pro went in completely the wrong direction: satisfying only a narrow subset of pro users, with such tight tolerances that it couldn’t be updated.
There is no single design, no single set of trade-offs, that addresses a large set of pro users: they all want different things, and the only way to serve that with one product line is to have it be extremely versatile and offer a wide variety of configuration options. You can’t do that with a minimalist industrial-design indulgence like the 2013 Mac Pro.
I hope the Apple of 2017 (and beyond) has learned this, and is confident enough in its own abilities and innovation to stare down a minimalist design culture of “no” and ship a maximum viable product at the top of its lineup that says “yes” to everything we can throw at it.
Like open-plan offices, minimalism is also usually cheaper, making it an easy sell to the finance people. And like open-plan offices, its profitability contributes to its ubiquity, making it seem like a better or more universally applicable idea than it really is. ↩︎
I’m trying to make it through this entire post without any Steve Jobs quotes. It’s not easy. ↩︎
I’m not well-versed in the specifics of this, but I believe they also lost the huge bet they placed on AMD GPUs and OpenCL. High-end GPU computing has largely gone to NVIDIA and CUDA, and Apple seems reluctant to offer NVIDIA GPUs in their products for unknown reasons (likely cost and old beefs, which I suggest they find a way to get past). ↩︎
It hasn’t been four years yet, but by the time the next Mac Pro ships, it’ll likely be about 4.5. ↩︎
I suspect that reactions to the 2016 MacBook Pro would’ve been significantly more favorable if more pros were accustomed to the Mac Pro addressing their needs. Instead, the message from Apple last fall was clearly, “Wedge all of your high-end needs into these laptops because the desktop is dead,” putting a significantly higher burden on them that they couldn’t meet. ↩︎