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The 2019 Apple Mac Pro has to look backward to move forward

Commentary: Apple's researching professional workflows to inform its hardware design and strategy? Here's what I'd like to see.

The replacement for the "trash-can" Mac Pro you can buy today won't see the light of day until sometime in 2019. That was the big takeaway from an exclusive TechCrunch story story by Matthew Panzarino earlier this week, chronicling Apple's strategy for making up years of neglecting the professional creative market

The other big reveal from the story: Apple is so out of touch with the professional market -- as if the iMac Pro wasn't proof enough -- that it had to hire a bunch of creatives and create a Pro Workflow Team to understand their needs. An in-house focus group, if you will.

On one hand, admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. On the other, based on what that article says, the road now looks a lot longer and bumpier than anticipated. 

A comparison to the company's recent attempt to regain some lost traction in the education market is, well, educational. The apps and the classroom management tools look great, but by pushing an iPad that's priced too high for many schools to afford in bulk -- especially once keyboards, cases and Pencil styluses are factored in -- it feels as if Apple is actually exacerbating the digital divide rather than ameliorating it. 

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If it takes the same approach to the professional market that it did with its education update, Apple would essentially be doubling down on existing hardware strategies and potentially only addressing the superficial pain points within its Apple-centric walled garden. It's possible Apple could make a kickass successor for the current Mac Pro, but one that doesn't meet the meat-and-potatoes needs of a lot of workstation users. 

To that end, if I was on that Pro Workflow Team, this would be my list of priorities for the new Mac Pro that I would like to see in 2019:

Ugly design is fine, as long as it's practical

By that, I mean breaking from the bland, featureless aesthetic which has driven Apple design for at least the past 10 years. Why? Because it needs to have a ton more connectors, and at least some of them have to be accessible, which means on the front, like they used to be until 2012. Then Apple succumbed to the "everything around back" philosophy that debuted in 2002 with the Luxo Jr. iMac.

They can't all be tiny, unobtrusive USB-C/Thunderbolt, because most VR gear still uses Type-A connectors, and because not everyone's near-line storage has been updated to native USB-C connections. And if it is all USB-C, that means a ton of dongles hanging off or multiple hubs -- both ugly. And not including enough of the right connections, forcing the use of hubs, is the equivalent of charging extra for the Pencil and a keyboard. Don't assume everyone's using wireless input devices and daisy-chaining monitors and drives. 

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This is what a Mac Pro setup (one of our staff photographers') looks like in real life when you're not a DreamWorks or Disney design bigwig. It's not full of shiny, modern accessories; it's tethered to old drives, laden with cables and hidden behind everything. The chassis really doesn't need to look cool.

Staff/CNET

Plus, those connectors have to be spread out a lot better than they are on the current Mac Pro. It's impossible to get your fingers in to connect cables in the middle without removing the ones around it.

It has to play better with others

For hardware, that primarily means Nvidia at the moment, and not as an afterthought. AMD's Radeon Pro is good, but some people need Quadro graphics processors. If Apple wants to appear on the cutting edge of all technologies, such as RTX, it needs to get over itself. Plus, achieving game equality with Windows and consoles means game developers need to be able to work and test on its systems. That implies MacOS will need a major update as well; if we don't get official support for Nvidia graphics cards announced at this year's WWDC then that's an ominous indicator for the future. All the old tower models offered Nvidia configurations. Even if a theoretical Nvidia-supporting Mac Pro arrives 12 to 18 months after WWDC, having robust MacOS support by the fall of 2018 would come in handy as an eGPU stopgap. 

It has to come in more affordable, entry-level versions, too

Apple can't take the iMac Pro approach. Prices have to start at least as low as a midlevel iMac price, and/or models with six-core processors and an entry-level workstation GPU. Otherwise, there's no intermediate option for the cubicle-dwelling video producers, photo retouchers and their brethren. Apple can roll out marketing materials extolling the speed benefits of more expensive systems and how increased productivity will pay in the long run, but if today's budget for a system is $1,500, those factors don't really doesn't matter, do they? And if you really want to attract tomorrow's professionals, it has to be affordable on a student budget today. With the legacy Mac Pro and current iMac Pro starting at $3,000 and $5,000, respectively, this may sound impossible. But Apple has shown more pricing flexibility in some product categories of late.

It has to support off-the-shelf parts

Apple has occasionally required slightly nonstandard sizes of standard parts. That's great for resellers who'll sell you Apple-specific parts for a nice premium. But it's really unfair to owners and creates unnecessary confusion. Getting that extra 10 percent storage performance boost is not always better than being able to use the cash to afford an extra 512GB of SSD.

It has to be user upgradable

The word "modular" has been thrown around so much that I don't think anyone's promised to make upgrades regular-human friendly.  While the outside needs to be ugly, the inside has to be pretty -- tool-free and well laid-out for replacing memory, SSD, GPU and other core components. 

Ironically, the Mac Pro's ancestors of several generations ago was a great example of this: The blue-and-white Power Mac G3 and cheese-grater Power Mac G4 had the motherboard mounted to a fold-out side "door," allowing easy access to expansion cards, memory and drive bays. And handles. If it's big, give me handles to schlep it, like today's power gaming systems. 

It can't only be modular on the outside

The TechCrunch story references using external GPUs and iPads as controllers. That's nice and makes a whizzy demo, but not all your core applications will support iPad controls, and from what we've seen and heard, Thunderbolt eGPUs aren't quite ready for prime time. When they are, a docked MacBook becomes a more viable solution -- as long as Apple decides to put workstation CPUs in some of the models, reclaiming the "Pro" in the name. Plus, for workstation-certified models you'll probably have to buy it from specific companies and with the GPU bundled. Cha-ching. 

Notice I didn't really talk about how powerful it has to be or that it needs to incorporate the latest eighth-generation Intel processors, or possibly extend to some Ryzen Pro options. That's because it's a given, and something Apple probably knows how to get right already. 

But given the way application load time was called out as a surprise pain point in the story -- it is, but that's so obvious it's a facepalm-worthy comment -- maybe not. Clearly Apple doesn't have someone like me sitting in the office screaming "Why are you so SLOW?!" at her system: A 2013 Mac Pro, as it happens.

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