Why Apple's Mac Pro promise matters so much to pro and corporate buyers
By now, you've probably heard the news: Apple is working on a new, redesigned Mac Pro. The company also announced that the current Mac Pro is getting a processor bump this week, and that there will be a new pro-user focused iMac coming later this year.
The importance of this news cannot be overstated.
Let's not beat around the bush. The continued existence of the entire Mac ecosystem has been in question. Yes, Apple has said it cares about the Mac, but its actions haven't reflected that in ways that matter to the folks who need to make some tough decisions.
It's all about the ecosystem
At the core of an ecosystem like the Mac are, of course, the products. These include the Macs, and also MacOS, as well as various accessories ranging from mice to monitors. When a company introduces popular products, a market is formed.
If there are enough customers, the market becomes attractive for companies to create aftermarket products designed to enhance and extend the core. This has been one of the strengths of the Mac market for decades. The popularity of the Mac has inspired a strong army of software and hardware vendors to build products that enhance the use of Macs, and, in some cases, overcome limitations.
Customers buying Macs provide an opportunity for developers, giving them the justification to invest in the research, development, production, and distribution of products designed to work with Macs.
Since 1984, the Mac has suffered its share of slumps; but since the days of the first iMacs, it's been a solid market. It has a strong base of loyal application developers providing excellent software products. It also has an equally strong base of hardware add-on manufacturers providing both broad market products (like laptop cases) and specialized hardware products (like broadcast video capture cards).
While there are many mainstream applications (like Office and Adobe's Creative Cloud) that work almost identically on the Mac and on Windows, there are also a great many specialized applications that only work on the Mac. Because the Mac found its early differentiation from the Microsoft world in the creative community, there are many tools that appeal strongly to creative professionals. Over time, some of them became available on both platforms, but some tools remain available only on the Mac.
The decisions that aftermarket developers and manufacturers make when choosing a platform to support often involve enormous investments, so they're not made lightly. Careful consideration of the current market, the history of the market, and -- especially -- the future of the market goes into any analysis. Only if the prospects look good for a reasonable ROI does a vendor choose to build a product for a given platform.
But it's not just vendors who must make careful ROI calculations before investing in a computing platform. So, too, must customers. Individual users, especially with Macs, need to decide if the price premium is worth it. Do they want to invest in applications for that platform? Will they get enough value from the platform long term to invest in the time to learn and optimize it for their needs?
Corporate customers and professionals have even bigger decisions. Corporate customers must decide if they can justify the costs of provisioning and support to outfit an entire fleet of hardware and software, thereby creating their own internal ecosystem. Professionals have to decide if they're willing to base projects they're working on upon a hardware platform, essentially linking the success of their projects to the promise that the computing platform can perform well enough to meet their needs.
Backseat to the iPhone
For more than three decades, the Mac platform has provided the capabilities needed by its professional, corporate, and individual customers to allow them to derive value. In doing so, it has created a strong enough market to justify investment by aftermarket vendors.
Of course, a lot has changed since 1984. Back then, Apple was a nascent computer company, and was still finding its footing. Today, Apple is the world's most valuable company. Back then, Apple made all its money selling computers. Today, the vast bulk of Apple's market value is derived from the iPhone.
For almost any other company, the Mac would be the star player. In Apple's portfolio, the Mac takes a back seat to the iPhone. Frankly, just about anything would take a back seat to the iPhone. And therein lies the problem.
You see, Apple has behaved, in its events and promotional activities, exactly like one would expect, showcasing the iPhone as the star and the Mac as ... not so much.
Mac product refreshes have lagged behind. Some products have gone a very long time between updates. In a business where product performance still generally increases according to Moore's Law, long delays in upgrades seem even longer to those in need of performance.
The poster child of this problem has been the Mac Pro. By any measure, the odd, trashcan Mac Pro introduced back in 2013 was eye-wateringly expensive. But for those professionals in need of performance, sometimes it's necessary to pay the price to get the job done. In 2013, weird though it was, and without any internal expansion, the Mac Pro showed its performance chops, at least for certain types of applications.
But after 39 months without an upgrade, the situation has become problematic for many professional users. See, the issue isn't just the Mac Pro. If the Mac Pro were the only high-performance desktop computer, that would be one thing. But it's not.
There's the entire world of completely customizable, boiling hot desktop PCs out there. No, it's not a market the size of the iPhone. But for a pro who needs to transcode 4K video in realtime, or a scientist who would like to get calculations done this century, it's been getting increasingly hard to remain loyal to the Mac platform.
Yes, the Mac platform does have certain advantages that speed the productivity for professional users. But when Mac hardware can't keep up, and is substantially more expensive than its alternatives, it becomes increasingly hard to justify.
At some point, you start to consider whether it's time to switch.