Taking out the trash and sparking the Imagination

This week we received two pieces of Apple news that could have a noticeable impact on the company and its customers.

First, the news that spawned a million horrible headlines, including mine, above: The Mac Pro Lives. Apple did something it doesn’t do very often and held a private roundtable with five journalists yesterday to brief them on the state of the Mac Pro (as well as the iMac, albeit in less detail). The basic gist of the briefing is that the Mac Pro isn’t dead, and that the current trash can model will be replaced by something better (something actually upgradable) in 2018.

John Gruber’s writeup of the story on Daring Fireball includes some background material that resonated with me immediately:

Three years ago you launched a radical new lineup of Mac Pros. For multiple reasons, you haven’t shipped an update to those machines since. At some point you came to the conclusion that the 2013 Mac Pro concept was fundamentally flawed. It was tightly integrated internally, which allowed for some very nice features: it was small and beautiful (a pro machine that demanded placement on your desk, not under your desk) and it could run whisper quietly. But that tight integration made it hard to update regularly. The idea that expansion could be handled almost entirely by external Thunderbolt peripherals sounded good on paper, but hasn’t panned out in practice. And the GPU design was a bad prediction. Apple bet on a dual-GPU design (multiple smaller GPUs, with “pro”-level performance coming from parallel processing) but the industry has gone largely in the other direction (machines with one big GPU).

At the risk of sounding like a revisionist of history yelling about how they saw the future coming, when Apple introduced the trash can Mac Pro in 2013 I took one look at it and wondered how on earth this thing was ever going to be future-proof. The answer: it wasn’t. And that’s the reason the Mac Pro has suffered for so long. It’s not upgradable and it’s not designed for hardware more modern and demanding than what it came with 3 1/2 years ago. What’s a bit of a head-scratcher to me is that Apple didn’t see this at the time. Surely the thermal design challenges would have clued them into the razor’s edge they were walking with the design?

Experience is one of those things that can either inform your views for the better, or it can trick you into doubting something new that winds up being a successful change in a given industry. In other words, experience can be a clarifying lens, or it can be a distorting filter. In the case of the 2013 Mac Pro,1 a couple decades in the semiconductor and computer industries told me that Apple was proudly unveiling a beautiful monument to immediate obsolescence. I was right, but I don’t mean that as a boast, because other people saw the same thing. Also, it doesn’t prove my intelligence, it only proves I was right this time.

Which makes me wonder: am I also right about the risk involved in Apple’s early announcement of their plans to take over their own mobile GPU design, or am I fooling myself based on experience? A lot of companies with semiconductor and CPU design have tried graphics in the past and failed. Based on my experience in the industry, I’d be forced to say that Apple doesn’t know what they’re in for. However, the reverse argument is that other companies have mastered GPU design, so clearly it’s possible.

I think the argument that Apple wouldn’t inform Imagination of their plans without some knowledge that they could succeed at GPU design makes sense, but again, companies have made grandiose announcements in this arena and then crashed and burned. Imagination certainly thinks Apple is underestimating the scope of the challenge:

Apple has not presented any evidence to substantiate its assertion that it will no longer require Imagination’s technology, without violating Imagination’s patents, intellectual property, and confidential information

But then Imagination would say that, and they also manage to come off as defensive and combative in their gut-spilling all over the Internet. I don’t pretend to know the legalities of the disclosure rules involved in component supplier relationships. It’s one thing if Imagination is legally compelled to reveal Apple’s plans to phase out their GPUs in the next couple years, and another entirely if they could have sat on this information a little longer since Apple has only stated their intentions and nothing changes for 15-24 months anyway, according to what I’ve seen.

Interesting times at Apple. If they do succeed at making a mobile GPU lineup as capable as their current ones, it can only be a good thing. It can also only be a good thing if the coming Mac Pro and iMacs are as professional-worthy as Apple says they will be.

  1. Case… get it?