Why Apple's secrecy is frustrating Mac Pro customers

Apple's habit of keeping things close to the vest threatens the allure of one of its oldest, and still important, products.

Apple's Mac Pro desktop tower.
Apple's Mac Pro desktop tower. Apple

It's not exactly a revelation to say Apple executives are fond of secrets. While that sense of mystery may work marketing magic with consumers, many Mac Pro customers in the professional world would very much appreciate it if Apple would cut it out with the cloak-and-dagger stuff.

At a starting price of $2,499, the Mac Pro is one of Apple's most expensive products. It's still the go-to workhorse for creative types who work in film, photography, print, and architectural jobs. But many of them are losing patience with Apple following a series of erratic product updates and poor communication about future plans, and there's only a vague indication their concerns will be addressed anytime soon.

"Pro users aren't the kind of people that hang on rumors," said longtime video producer Lou Borella, the creator of a Facebook group called "We want a new Macpro," which was started last May and has since received more than 19,300 likes. "If you're not going to release on a yearly cycle, let us know. You're not going to lose us. You're going to lose us because you're not saying anything."

That waiting game reached a tipping point last year, when after nearly two years between upgrades, Apple finally updated the Mac Pro with newer technology. For some, what Apple delivered was too little, too late .

Many "pros," or Mac Pro users, were miffed that while Apple updated the Mac Pro's processors and the amount of memory, it didn't include many of the newer technologies it's been building in its notebooks and its other desktops for years. One customer who e-mailed Apple CEO Tim Cook bluntly asked whether the company really cared about the pro community. Cook then did something unusual for an executive at any company (let alone Apple): He replied in an e-mail , saying Apple was "working on something really great for later next year" and not to worry.

Even with Cook's promise, tension remains between Apple and the Mac Pro customer community. CNET interviewed more than a dozen professional customers who said they have needs that aren't met by Apple's other machines, but they are in a tough spot because they don't want to switch to a machine running Microsoft's Windows.

"Pretty much in every instance we'd rather put a Mac on someone's desk than a PC," said Brian Miguel, a senior audio video engineer at Trailer Park, a Hollywood company that creates major film and TV trailers, posters, and other promotional content for the entertainment industry. "Even in a lot of our business apps and accounting we've deployed boot-camped Mac minis instead of a cheap PC."

Trailer Park is a longtime Apple customer and has about 300 Mac Pros among its 450 employees. It uses the higher-end machines for things like video editing and graphics work. Miguel said the company is not prone to waiting to buy a new computer if there's a need, but it will hold off on an order if it's for a large group of users. "If the processor's only an incremental upgrade it's really not turning our attention toward that," he said.

A change in priorities
That minor update is just what the Mac Pro got last June . The machine didn't improve or add several inputs or internal technologies like USB 3.0, speedier Serial ATA technology for hard drives, or Thunderbolt, the high-speed connection Apple began shipping on all its other computers in early 2011.

A lack of those things is, perhaps, one of the best illustrations of how Apple's focus on hardware has changed. For years, the Mac Pro (formerly the PowerMac) was the first Mac to get the good stuff after it was introduced a decade ago. In 2006, it was the first Apple machine to make the jump to Intel chips as part of Apple's developer kit, and for a time was the first to get other goodies like Apple's SuperDrive technology and USB 2.0.

Nowadays, thing are reversed. If you want the newest tech, you'll have to go with another Mac. Apple's reasoning is simple: More people are buying notebooks than desktops, and of the desktops it sells, the Mac Pro makes up a very small portion. Just how much, Apple does not break out. A look back at the last 10 years' worth of sales makes it clear where things began to diverge:

CNET

So why buy the Mac Pro? Despite the lack of big recent updates, it still has several things you can't get in any other Apple notebook or desktop. You can have dual processors, and twice as much storage and RAM as you can in Apple's latest iMacs: up to 8 terabytes of storage, and 64GB of RAM. That works because there's space for it, and all of it can fit in a single box.

"I absolutely hate having external storage on my desk," Borella said. "With the Mac Pro, I turn one thing on or off -- there's no cable jockeying. The iMac throws all that out."

There's also tech you won't find on the rest of Apple's computers. That includes multiple PCI Express slots for updating the computer's graphics card; dual optical disc drives; and a Fibre Channel networking port, which is typically used to connect with large storage systems.

What pros want
Apple has provided few hints about what's next for the Mac Pro, short of that it's coming later this year and will be "really great." The company declined to elaborate on its plans for the Mac Pro beyond Cook's e-mail.

Talking to the people who use it, the most common request was to give it some of the latest technology that Apple's putting in the rest of its machines, like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. They also want faster processors and better compatibility with the beefier graphics cards rival PCs have been getting to speed up their work.

Thunderbolt, a connector that's made its way into the rest of Apple's Macs is still absent on the Mac Pro.
Thunderbolt, a connector that's made its way into the rest of Apple's Macs, is still absent on the Mac Pro. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Some pros say it's not just the hardware, it's also Apple's Pro software that needs more attention. That includes Apple's photo editor Aperture and music production tool Logic, which received their last major updates in 2010 and 2009 respectively. Curiously enough, OS X -- the operating system that ships on all Macs -- was on that list too.

"For creative professionals,10.6.8 was the last true powerful operating system from Apple," said one media production pro, who preferred not to be named since he's a part of Apple's beta testing program for new and upcoming versions of its operating systems. "10.7 and 10.8 are like Microsoft's Windows Vista -- bloated, buggy blingware. They are focused so heavily on the consumer that they made the machines terribly inefficient for those using them eight to 10 hours a day." (Apple is currently on version 10.8.2, and is expected to introduce 10.9 in the next few months.)

Can't hardly wait
Even with some of the benefits of Apple's current hardware, and the promise that something better is just around the corner, some pros have moved on, or are eyeing alternatives in a way they weren't before.

"If the iMacs become a little more powerful or equivalent, and I can get them at half the cost, then it financially makes sense to use iMacs and a cinema display," said Rich Oldfield, the chief technology officer at Ignition Creative, a nearly 200-person agency in Santa Monica, Calif., that like Trailer Park, also specializes in video, print, and other promotional content.

Oldfield says the company uses Mac Pros, but is also testing iMacs hooked up to external monitors, and could roll it out to replace aging workstations if the results are good enough. "We can't put it in the work environment, but we can put it in an R&D environment, and see if [editors] can keep up the same speed they're used to," he added.

Apple's rivals have taken notice, too, and tried to capitalize. After noticing Borella's group on Facebook, Dell's marketing team offered him a three-month test run with its $13,000, top-of-the-line workstation with the offer to keep it if he wrote about it. After his experience, Borella decided to keep the machine, though said he still misses many of his favorite workflow tricks, and plans to continue some of his work on his old Mac Pro.

"You really have to be so fed up with Apple that you're going to run into the arms of a Windows environment," Borella said, but warned that Apple is on the brink of that happening with pros if the next model is not a hit. "If Apple doesn't release a machine that's close to what we're all hoping for, all of us are going to have to seriously consider making the jump."


 

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