Seemingly neglected with the latest round of Mac refreshes are Apple’s desktop offerings. While the MacBook Pro was dramatically overhauled this year with a new design, faster internals, an all-new Touch Bar, and more, the desktop offerings, specifically the Mac mini and Mac Pro, were left untouched.
In fact, while the iMacs were last updated a little over a year ago, it has been since 2014 when the Mac mini saw even a speed bump and you have to go back over 1000 days to 2013 when the Mac Pro was updated with Apple VP of Marketing Phil Schiller rather ironically saying “can’t innovate anymore my ass.”
Apple’s inattention in this area has left many to question whether or not either standalone Mac has a future or if Apple could push the less lucrative desktop business into the hands of another company. Doing so could keep Apple’s customers happy and offer significant time and monetary incentives for Apple…
Apple dramatically overhauled the Mac Pro back in 2013 with an all-new cylindrical design. The design is significantly smaller than the previous tower-esque Mac Pro, giving it a much smaller footprint. Apple also, of course, notably improved the speed capabilities of the Mac Pro with the 2013 refresh. But the updated design made it more difficult for users to perform their own upgrades after purchasing the machine.
As CPUs and GPUs have gotten faster since 2013, Mac Pro users have been left behind. Almost a year ago, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said:
It boils down to the fact that Apple doesn’t prioritize high-end GPUs. You can a buy $6,000 Mac Pro with the top of the line AMD FirePro D700 and it still doesn’t meet our recommended spec. If they prioritize higher-end GPUs like they used to for awhile back in the day, I think we’d love to support Mac.
Since 2013, the Mac Pro has not been touched by Apple. There haven’t been any spec bumps, design tweaks, or port changes since then. In fact, the Mac Pro still features four outdated USB-A ports and 6 Thunderbolt 2 ports, technologies that Apple is quickly moving away from on their laptops, as evident by the new MacBook and MacBook Pro.
It’s much of the same with the Mac mini. That machine was first released in 2005, and eventually morphed into the small aluminum square that we have today. The point is that for years Apple kept the Mac mini up to date, with yearly design refreshes, and/or spec upgrades.
In fact, both machines had been updated almost every year prior to Tim Cook taking over Apple in 2011. After Cook’s takeover, Mac mini/Pro updates all but stopped. It’s impossible to know if these things are related but it is certainly notable.
The Mac mini was last updated in 2014 with an under-the-hood spec bump to bring it up to date with Intel’s Haswell processors. The last dramatic design update to the Mac mini came in 2010 with the switch to a unibody aluminum design, meaning the Mac mini has been largely the same in terms of design for 6 years now.
With the Mac Pro and Mac mini both lagging significantly behind in terms of upgrades, I’m really starting to question Apple’s commitment to the Mac desktop market. Apple didn’t mention either device at its Mac-focused event last month, and that’s just the continuation of a trend that has been ongoing for years now.
Apple’s inattention to the Mac Pro and Mac mini comes at a time when PC manufacturers are pushing forward with machines similar to the ones Apple pioneered. For instance, just yesterday HP introduced its new Z2 Mini (Above), which if you’ve ever seen a Mac mini and imagine it morphed with a Mac Pro, should look very familiar. The Z2 Mini comes starts at $699 and significantly out-powers the most recent Mac mini by a long shot. In fact, with the latest Xeon processors and NVIDIA Quadro Pro Graphics, I’m pretty sure it could give the 3-year-old Mac Pro a run for its money.
Further proving its lack of interest in desktop machines is Apple’s move to seemingly outsource its display business to LG. Alongside the new MacBook Pros, Apple announced that it had worked with LG on new UltraFine 4K and 5K standalone monitors, just months after the (very outdated) Thunderbolt Display was discontinued and it remarked that it was out of the display business. How is Apple going to market standalone Mac models without offering a first-party display to go along with them? While LG’s displays appear to be very good, Apple/Mac purists aren’t in love with the black plastic matte bezels, and quite frankly, the lack of an Apple logo.
Furthermore, Apple’s own marketing seems to suggest that it designed the new MacBook Pro as a machine that can be used both on-the-go and at a desk. During the unveil event, Apple showed the above image while touting the capabilities of Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C. The image shows a MacBook Pro powering an entire desk setup, including two monitors and a variety of other equipment. Apple’s logic here seems to be, “Why should a person have two different machines for desk and on-the-go work when one can do both?”
It’s clear that Apple’s interest in the desktop market is waning. And given the company’s focus on lucrative, mass markets, it makes sense that the Mac mini and Mac Pro wouldn’t be a top priority. There are, however, ways that Apple can continue to please desktop users while also focusing on other products.
One possibility here would be for Apple to set macOS free and license it to be installed on the hardware from other companies. Apple could work closely with the companies to ensure that everything is up to par, but this still seems like a long shot. Apple of course ran a clone program as its fortunes waned in the 90s at the hands of Microsoft. After fighting off fakes for years, the company launched an official clone program for Mac OS that saw it license the operating system to other manufacturers in order to help it penetrate the market at a faster rate. Mostly, clones just cannibalized Apple sales and undercut its pricing. One of the 1st things Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple was kill off the clone licensing program.
But Apple doesn’t seem care about its waning desktop Mac numbers (or so it would seem). If Apple could create a lock in system on its own terms, it could stand to make a lot of money with very little effort (even less than it is exerting now).
When you think about it, there’s very little Apple-exclusive hardware in a Mac. Apple’s newest Macs feature the Apple T1 chip for Touch ID and Touch Bar, but everything else is pretty much off the shelf PC product purchased from other companies: RAM/SSDs from Samsung, GPUs from Nvidia/AMD and of course processors from Intel. As for the Touch Bar, Apple could sell a standalone Magic Keyboard with Touch Bar, as we’ve suggested in the past. This would allow for Apple to still have control Touch ID and the secure enclave which gives access to the Mac identity whether it is stored in the cloud or on an encrypted local SSD.
So picture this: a pair of desktop-oriented Macs, manufactured by a third-party, with licensed macOS running on them and a standalone Magic Keyboard with Touch Bar sold by Apple. This would allow for Apple to focus its attention on its other products and continuing to innovate in new categories, as well.
Even if this doesn’t come to fruition– and let’s be honest, it’s a long shot – it’s becoming more and more apparent that Apple is shifting its focus from the desktop to the laptop, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch. With the company’s product lineup becoming more personal (whether or not that’s a good thing is an entirely different argument), less commercially popular devices like the Mac mini and Mac Pro are seemingly being ignored. And Apple seems to have no regrets about that.
It’s been 1,064 days since the Mac Pro was upgraded and 763 days since the Mac mini was upgraded…and counting and no other products are expected until 2017. As a comparison, Apple last updated the iPod Classic in 2009 and discontinued it 5 years later in 2014 after it couldn’t get any more parts.
What do you think about Apple’s commitment to the desktop market?