Mac Pros – An Open Letter To Tim Cook

I apologize in advance for the length of this missive. Your time is valuable, and I will do my best to be concise while grappling with a difficult topic I think is very important for the future of Apple- the dilution of the “Pro” in Mac Pro and MacBook Pro.

I was very glad to hear that the Mac Pro was getting revisited after its several years of stagnation; however, based on the current state of the MacBook Pro, I am still quite concerned. I’ll go into specifics later, but I’d like to open with my reading of your marketing ecosystem.

Obviously, Apple has a large and diverse market presence- lots of famous aficionados, young creatives, students, soccer moms (and dads), even Fortune 500 executives who swear by your brand. It is, for now, a relatively healthy ecosystem. A forester I used to know once told me that one of the best measures of an ecosystem’s long-term health was its mushrooms. Not because of the mushrooms themselves, but because of the mycelium that weaves a vast, symbiotic network that links the ecosystem together.

Mycelium is a bit like The Force, but with plants instead of Jedi.

Yoda - "My ally is The Force..."
My ally is The Force. Image by https://comicvine.gamespot.com/profile/jaken7/

The “Pro” Mac users form your mycelium. Not only did they keep Apple afloat through the rough years before Steve returned, they embraced and expanded the power of Apple’s shared OS X/iOS computing ecosystem. They demonstrated its strength, ease-of-use, reliability, and versatility in ways large and small to an ocean of would-be Apple customers.

I know that “Mac pros” (people) are not a large share of your market. I recognize and fully agree with the assessment that “mass market” consumer electronics are the lion’s share of your customer base and that most of your products should be built with those folks in mind. Apple makes excellent consumer electronics and should continue to do so- absolutely!

Four or five years ago, I was a huge advocate for Apple products. That was not always the case. About a decade earlier, as an IT director for a Mac-only school, I’d advocated a switch to Windows because OS 9 was creating a lot of headaches for IT. Then we got an Xserve and the first batch of OS X Macs. Within a month, I reversed my assessment of Apple and Macs.

When I moved to Austin in 2013, that school was still decidedly Apple-based, with at least twice as many MacBooks as we’d had iMacs in 2003, and a whole passel of iPads to boot.

In Austin, I re-entered another world of “Mac pros” (again, the people) on the creative side. I currently work in game development, but I’ve been involved with film & video production, 3D art, graphic design, marketing, and so on. I have historically, and continue to, come in contact with past, present, and potential future “Mac pros”.

Here’s the problem- Your mycelium is drying up.

Dust Bowl Farmer in Cimarron County by Arthur Rothstein
Dust Bowl Farmer in Cimarron County by Arthur Rothstein

Because the current Apple products with “Pro” in the name are not built for actual “Mac pro” users, and have not been for several years, there are fewer and fewer of them feeding and sustaining your ecosystem. I saw another game studio’s office back around 2014 or 2015 and about half of the machines in the art department were Macs. The last time I saw those folk’s art computers, there was one single Mac.

It made me sad. At my current game studio, there is also only one Mac. It is an older Mac Pro that we use as a build machine so that we can offer an upcoming title to Mac users. I wish we could use Macs for development, but all of the current “Pro” Macs (even the super sexy iMac Pro) lack a very important element:

Versatility.

An older Mac Pro.
An older Mac Pro. Photo by http://flickr.com/photos/therift/

As a professional, sexy is less important than functionality. Apple used to provide a wonderful balance of Space Age glamor and Swiss Army Knife adaptability. After all, your computers can run three different operating systems like a champ!

Back when I was a Director of IT, I met another DIT at an Apple workshop. Earlier that year, his entire server room had flooded- to a depth of more than five feet! The only servers to survive were a pair of Apple Xserves. He successfully virtualized ALL of the other servers onto those two Xserves while waiting for replacement hardware. When he ordered those replacements, he got more Xserves and fewer of the other guys’ servers.

You stopped making Xserves in 2011. Apple no longer offers any Mac servers suitable for IT professionals’ machine rooms.

I used to carry a MacBook Pro for work. It was a fantastic machine! Solid, powerful, dependable… and the PORTS! Loads of different interfaces for all kinds of situations, versatility without the need for a collection of easily-misplaced dongles when traveling to give a presentation or record and edit a multimedia lecture.

When I moved to Austin, I happened to strike up a conversation with a Director of Photography on a short film I was helping with. He had one of the Retina MacBook Pros and I was a bit envious. The DP, however, was not so enchanted and expressed a great deal of frustration with its integrated battery. His previous MacBook Pro had mounted a removable battery, plus an easily exchanged HDD and RAM. It also had a SuperDrive, which was useful for his DJing on the weekends. Not so the Retina MacBook Pro.

While the newer laptop was a powerhouse by comparison, he found it to be less versatile because of the changes that made the machine smaller and lighter. In addition to requiring extra dongles to interface with his non-Apple equipment, many of his day-long on-location shoots now required him to pack a small generator (or plug into his running car) instead of simply swapping batteries, rebooting, and continuing to shoot.

The third-generation MacBook Pro was less versatile to him, as a professional, than the technically-inferior first generation.

I recently took a look at the Touch Bar MacBook Pro. Wow, it’s super small! It’s also the least “Pro” MacBook Pro I’ve ever seen. Small is not sexy if the versatility is lacking.

Professionals often have equipment. LOTS of equipment, much of it made by third parties. Even if the pro is made of money, they can’t simply chuck thousands and thousands of dollars worth of hardware just because Apple no longer supports the port. If nothing else, their accountants would strangle them for not fully amortizing it first! Obviously no single type of port will suffice for this menagerie of gear- unless you think professionals want to rely on dongles.

Dongles are a thing we lose. They are an additional complication that professionals do not need, want, or benefit from.

With this in mind, let’s compare the new MacBook Pro with one of its closest competitors, the Razer Blade. In terms of performance, they are well-matched. The MacBook Pro is 1.08 pounds lighter. The MacBook Pro has three more Thunderbolt 3 ports than the Razer. However the Razer has three additional USB 3.0 ports, plus a native HDMI port, and a separate charger port. That’s a lot fewer dongles for the Razer user!

Also, neither of these has a MagSafe charger.

It was a smart decision to incorporate Thunderbolt 3 into the MacBook Pro! It was not a smart decision to strip out the USB 3.0 and HDMI ports. It was a downright dumb decision to eliminate MagSafe connectors.

I cannot stress how important I’ve found MagSafe connectors. Did you know that an eMac can survive being pulled off a table by its power cord? Did you know they can sometimes even survive being thrown across the room? These are the kinds of things I learned in my decade as IT Mac pro in education. In that same decade, my wife had to replace three Windows laptops because of broken power connections. I never had to repair or replace a single MagSafe-equipped laptop for physical damage during that period.

Sure, Thunderbolt 3 connectors charge faster than MagSafe 2 (or so the guy at the Apple Store tells me). Why couldn’t the leading consumer electronics designers in the world make a magnetic connector for Thunderbolt 3 cables? Not all of them, of course, but ONE of your ports could have been a “MagSafe 3” or “ThunderMag” or whatever.

Why am I harping on this one little power port? Because professionals often have to work in less-than-ideal conditions. While every DP, Grip, PA, or Producer I’ve been on a set with has been scrupulously careful about cable management, there are still accidents. People trip over cables, even ones secured with gaffer’s tape. The cable that often has to run furthest from the laptop, and is thus in the most danger, is the power cable or the stinger it’s plugged into.

Even if we ignore high-pressure video shoots, think about coffee shops. I’ve lost track of the number of times someone’s tripped over my power cable in a coffee shop. A MagSafe power cord benefits general consumers and professionals.

So what about the USB 3.0 ports and the HDMI port? Again, these benefit both general consumers and the Mac pros. It was a great idea to introduce Thunderbolt 3 ports on the the MacBook Pro. Users, especially professional users, require time for the rest of the market to catch up to offering equipment with Thunderbolt 3 connectors. Instead, Apple handed out a terrible slap in the face of professionals and general consumers, then threw down the gauntlet- purchase an army of dongles or die.

If your computer requires a specialized dongle that may not be available at the nearest 24-hour Walmart Supercenter, you don’t rely on that computer for your professional life. Why? Because experienced professionals know what it’s like to realize your special dongle is not in your kit at 1 A.M. the night before a “first thing” presentation/shoot/demo/etc. and neither the nearest Apple Store nor the local Best Buy opens until 10 A.M.

I cannot stress enough how much dongles are an extra hassle for professionals. If this requires reiteration, please reread the two paragraphs beginning with “Professionals often have equipment.”

Okay, I’m done ranting about ports and dongles. I’m not done with my letter, though.

One of the other kinds of versatility professionals need is in core hardware. The non-trashcan-shaped Mac Pro was a fully-extensible desktop computer. If a musician needed to install a special sound interface card, there was a slot for that. If a video game visual effects artist needed to swap out an AMD GPU to test NVIDIA’s PhysX particle effects, they could. If a video editor needed a special bus interface card to use contractually-required hardware, they could install that card.

While the early MacBook Pros were not this flexible, they still offered easy opportunities to upgrade RAM and HDD. Sure, it would be great if all of that money could go to Apple as an upfront top-of-the-line purchase, but professionals are beholden to budgets like everyone else. If you need a new computer and Accounting says there’s just enough money in the budget for a base model Mac, you sure as heck want to make sure you can upgrade parts in six months or a year when the budget refreshes!

If you can’t buy a base model Mac Pro or MacBook Pro and upgrade it during its service lifetime, well, that office curmudgeon with the Bill Gates tattoo starts sounding a little less crazy.

By building every desktop and laptop with soldered-in or non-extensible parts, Apple is discouraging professionals, even long-time, brand loyal Mac pros. “Pro” used to mean solid, versatile computers that could be tailored to fit the needs of the professional, not one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter toys for the earliest adopters.

I hope that I’ve demonstrated the fundamental disconnect between Apple’s current design philosophy and the Mac pros who, like mycelia, create and sustain fertile ground that has thus far nourished Apple’s explosive growth in the early 21st Century.

I’m not suggesting that Apple abandon its design philosophies altogether- for general consumer products, they are often fantastic! For professionals, however- smaller and sleeker is not the Unique Selling Proposition.

It’s Versatility.

It’s a family of extensible, adaptable, port-rich desktops, laptops, and rack-mounted servers integrated seamlessly into one ecosystem with our tablets and smartphones.

If they happen to be lightweight and sexy, awesome!

But versatility has to come first.

Thank you for your time.

-Keith McCormic

Liberating My Life