Apple is Listening
Something big changed at Apple around the beginning of 2017.
They had encountered significant turbulence in the product line over the preceding years, especially Macs. It was a rough time to be a pro Mac user.
The “trash can” 2013 Mac Pro addressed only a fraction of the needs solved by the previous “cheese grater” towers, aged quickly without critical upgrade paths, and suffered from high GPU-failure rates from its cooling solution — all because its design prioritized size and appearance over performance and versatility in the one Mac model that should never make that tradeoff.
Over the next few years, it became clear that the Mac Pro was an embarrassing, outdated flop that Apple seemed to have little intention of ever updating, leaving its customers feeling unheard and abandoned. I think Apple learned a small lesson from it, but they learned a much bigger one a few years later.
The current MacBook Pro generation launched in late 2016, and I think Apple was truly caught completely by surprise when the new Touch Bar, sparse USB-C-only port offerings, high prices, and highly polarizing butterfly keyboard were met with harsh criticism, mixed reviews, and high failure rates. This one really hurt: while the Mac Pro is a niche machine for the highest-end and most-specialized needs, the popular MacBook Pro is the lifeblood of the Mac.
By the end of 2016, in addition to the generally buggy, neglected state macOS seemed to be perpetually stuck in, Apple had replaced its entire “pro” Mac lineup with controversial, limiting products that seemed optimized to flex Apple’s industrial-design muscles rather than actually addressing their customers’ needs.
The only company that can make computers for our OS seemed incapable of making good computers anymore. Each update threatened to remove or break things we needed or loved. Their newest designs felt punitive, rather than feeling like a celebration of computing.
Then, in April 2017, out of nowhere, Apple held a Mac Pro roundtable discussion with the press to announce that they were in the early stages of completely redesigning the Mac Pro.1
The follow-up briefing a year later promised that the new Mac Pro would be released in 2019, and publicized the existence of a “Pro Workflow Team” of real pro users working inside Apple to inform the direction of their pro hardware and software.
It sounded like they’d gone from not listening to their customers at all to an institutionalized process of listening. And the newly designed Macs released since then have been great.2
The late-2017 iMac Pro, which I’m using to write this, is the best Mac I’ve ever owned by far. It’s versatile, incredibly powerful, beautiful, and silent. It’s so good that I’ll probably never really need a Mac Pro again,3 and if this was the only new “Mac Pro”, I’d be mostly fine with that.
The late-2018 Mac Mini replaced a pitiful, punitive, neglected relic with a practical, powerful mini-Mac-Pro. Apple could’ve let it die, or replaced it with a tiny, no-port marvel of uselessness, but instead, they made a computer so good that I started and ended a YouTube mini-career just to review it.
And the 2019 Mac Pro, finally unveiled last week, looks to be absolutely killer — it’s the first true successor to the tower Mac Pro, which saw its last real update almost a decade ago in 2010.4 It’s big, bulky, ludicrously fast, and almost obscenely upgradeable — exactly what a Mac Pro needs to be, and far better than any of us expected.
The new Mac Pro is, truly, a celebration of computing.
Even more importantly than any hardware releases, macOS itself has also seen massive engineering effort recently. For the first time in a decade, the Mac was a major focus of WWDC, with great new APIs poised to usher in a huge wave of fresh software.
To be fair, this story hasn’t ended yet. The Mac Pro isn’t actually out yet (and will be very expensive), they still need to resolve the problematic MacBook Pro with its next generation (rumors are promising), and the lack of standalone Apple displays under six thousand dollars really hurts the Mac Pro story.5
But I’m optimistic for the first time in years.
It’s hard to tell when Apple is listening. They speak concisely, infrequently, and only when they’re ready, saying absolutely nothing in the meantime, even when we’re all screaming about a product line as if it’s on fire. They make great progress, but often with courageous losses that never get reversed, so an extended silence because we’re stuck with a change forever is indistinguishable from an extended silence because the fix isn’t ready yet.
But there has clearly been a major shift in direction for the better since early 2017, and they couldn’t be more clear now:
Apple is listening again, they’ve still got it, and the Mac is back.
Based on what we’ve learned since, they had likely started the project a very short time before holding the roundtable. ↩︎
I’m excluding the 2018 MacBook Air because it feels like a stopgap that wasn’t originally planned to exist — the no-Touch-Bar 13” MacBook “Escape” seemed intended to replace it — that was rushed into the 2016-era generation mid-cycle, rather than being the first of a new design. Even so, with the large exception of the butterfly keyboard, it’s quite good. ↩︎
This doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t buy one. ↩︎
The 2010/“2012” Mac Pro was so good, and so upgradeable, that it’s still in surprisingly widespread use today for needs that weren’t possible or compelling on the “trashcan” successor. ↩︎
And the MacBook Pro. A very common setup for developers — Apple’s largest identified segment of pro users — is a 15” MacBook Pro connected to an external monitor, for which a good solution no longer exists. Developers would be much better served by a $1,500-ish standalone version of the iMac’s 5K display than a $6,000 XDR reference monitor for professional video colorists. ↩︎