Why I fear a “modular” Mac Pro

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Worried by what I see, or imagine seeing, in the crystal ball regarding the future Mac Pro.

“We’re working on something really great for later next year.”

After years of seemingly neglecting Apple’s most hardcore, highest-paying users, a 2012 email from Tim Cook finally gave people hope. Hope for the first truly rethought version of the Mac Pro since it was introduced in 2006.

So starts the 2013 Verge review of the then new Mac Pro. And after that launch, Apple once again seemingly neglected their most hardcode, highest-paying users for years. I’m cringing ever so slightly as history is repeating itself. This time around, however, General Cook left it to Lieutenants Schiller, Federighi and Ternus to crawl to the cross and keep hope alive.

Most writers seems to assume a 2018 launch, however Gruber notes:

These next-gen Mac Pros and pro displays “will not ship this year”. (I hope that means “next year”, but all Apple said was “not this year”.)

Something didn’t sit right with me regarding the long timeline. As user barkingsheltie commented on Gruber's Daring Fireball article:

Not sure why Apple would need so much time to present modular based systems; these in large part already exist.

This, exactly. Why do Apple need so much time? To assume that something largely exist though is assuming that what will be launched is something similar to what Apple has done before.

I believe that this timeline signals that Apple are going to try be equally innovative with the next iteration of Mac Pro as with the old. Without designing themselves in to another proverbial thermal corner.

Modular, modular, modular

As I read the transcript of this roundtable, I noted that Phil Schiller really likes the term modular system these days:

As part of doing a new Mac Pro — it is, by definition, a modular system — we will be doing a pro display as well. Now you won’t see any of those products this year; we’re in the process of that. We think it’s really important to create something great for our pro customers who want a Mac Pro modular system, and that’ll take longer than this year to do.

We care about our Pro users who use MacBook Pros, who use iMacs and who use Mac Pros, who use modular systems as well as all-in-one systems, who use the pro software we make. It’s all important to us and we’re invested in that and we see a long future with that stuff.

Call me crazy, but it’s as if Schiller is shying away from using the word “desktop”. As if managing our expectations. More Schiller:

We are in the process of what we call “completely rethinking the Mac Pro.” We’re working on it. We have a team working hard on it right now, and we want to architect it so that we can keep it fresh with regular improvements.

Modular. That isn’t necessarily what we’d associate with a traditional desktop. That will be easy to update on a rolling schedule.

Add to that one of the design choices of the 2013 Mac Pro; No room for internal expansion, but ports that were so fast that all expansion was encouraged to be daisy chained outside the safe haven of the main unit enclosure.

How does these puzzle pieces fit together?

I suspect Apple may try to become the first company to successfully pull off a Lego-like stacked modular system, along the lines of the Acer Revo a couple of years ago.

Weighing a Lego-like approach

Pros

  • Virtually unlimited configuration combinations
  • No real baseline pricing — Priced to your need
  • Updates to individual modules on a staggered schedule as needed
  • Upgrade the CPU box, the GPU box, etc. as your needs change

While reviewers usually seem to think it’s an interesting concept, the counter arguments that this article brings up against Lego-like modular architecture seems to me like a fair summary of common objections:

Cons

  • Upgrades aren’t guaranteed
  • You lose buying power
  • The PC maker decides what you can swap
  • Your ability to repurpose old parts is hampered
  • Tweaking your own PC is kind of enjoyable

Apple fans have heard these kinds of objections against most of their hardware for years, from PC, Linux and Android tinkerers that hate the notion of enclosing their systems in any way so that they can’t easily hack it or tweak it.

Question is if any of these drawbacks would deter Apple. I’d say hardly.