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Apple Does the Unexpected—Announces New Modular Mac Pro Design Underway

April 4 is now an important date in Apple’s Mac history. This is why and Mac Pros will love this news.

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The most amazing thing has happened. Apple executives Phil Schiller and Craig Federighi have met privately with a small, select group of technology journalists (the exact number is unclear) to proclaim their utmost commitment to Mac professionals and machines that serve them.

In particular—the Mac Pro.

A New Modular Mac Pro (with Display)

While a new performance boost to the existing Mac Pro (aka: Darth Vader Mac) has been announced too, that machine will be a stop-gap of sorts to continue to serve the dedicated pro segments which are currently buying the beleaguered and oh-so-interesting Mac Pro desktop.

But let’s get directly to the facts. Here is what is on record.

  • Apple is in the midst of a total rethink of the Mac Pro
  • Apple is totally committed to the Mac professional (and wants to serve every pro segment)
  • Schiller noted that the Mac Pro needs to be “modular” (more on that in a minute)
  • The new Mac Pro is a total redesign and won’t ship until 2018 at the earliest
  • Apple will ship an iMac oriented at some Mac pros as well (coming later in 2017)
  • Apple is also making a Pro Display

Those are the core facts but there is a lot more to this story and why Apple chose now to invite selected journalists to basically send a message to the market and their customers this particular way. The two publications who have attended this event and have published reports on it are Mashable and TechCrunch (thus far), and you can read their deeper complete reports here and here.

Analyzing Apple’s Statements

But let’s take the top statements (to us) and analyze them.

“We want to be as transparent as we can, for our pro users, and help them as they make thier buying decisions. They invest so much in the Mac, we want to support them, and we care deeply about them. That’s why we’re here [having this interview].” – Phil Schiller

On some level, this statement holds the most disruptive innovation for Apple itself, insofar as their pro customers are concerned. Apple appears to recognize that they can strike a balance between a vitally important line of communication with their pro users and keeping their competitors in the dark. As for as the news of a future redesign of the Mac Pro, Apple has acknowledged they have been on a field trip tour talking to their customers about what is working and not working about the Mac Pro.

“As part of doing a new Mac Pro—it is, by definition, a modular system—we will be doing a Pro display as well.” – Phil Schiller

It will no doubt please people to hear of a new Apple Pro display in the pipe too, but the most striking thing about this comment is the word chose with “modular.” One hopes that Apple looks at this future Mac Pro as modularly as possible.

“There’s certain scientific loads that are very GPU intensive and they want to throw the largest GPU at it that they can. There are heavy 3D graphics applications or graphics and compute mixed loads. Those can be in VR, those can be in certain kinds of highend cinema production tasks where most of the software out there that’s been written to target those doesn’t know how to balance itself well across multiple GPUs but can scale across a single large GPU.” – Craig Federighi 

In a nutshell, this is what went wrong with the current Mac Pro many pro customers. Apple’s brilliant current design had a tri-planed, triangular core but each side of that triangle got cooled equally by the cooling system. This meant even if Apple could shrink extra power GPUs to fit those planes, their thermal requirements could not be met.

More importantly, Apple made a huge bet that developers would retool their apps for dual GPUs, with a mixture of OpenGL and OpenCL retooling for both graphics and compute. Few developers went in this direction. Some did. But more kept moving in the CUDA direction and this too was another flaw for the current Mac Pro.

MORE: Viewpoint: Steve Jobs told us to ‘Think different’—does Apple still agree?

What we see in this statement is Apple knows they need to provide a system that can be flexible across thermal dynamics. While many users may benefit from dual mid-range workstation GPUs, many need just one monster GPU or an asymmetric arrangement—all unworkable with the Darth Vadar Mac’s clever but ultimately inflexible system.

Closing Comments

Today is a pretty glorious day. Folks—including myself, regretably—have been on the brink of looking into what PC options were out there…which ones would give a refugee Mac Pro some design love. And which could replace the days of quality Mac Pro desktops?

It looks like that looking can now stop. Apple has just saved thousands from a slow mass exodus over the next year or two and instead, if they do things correctly this time, bring in a renaissance for the Mac professional.