WWDC 2013: Can’t Innovate My Ass

One of the more dramatic reveals during the 2013 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWC) Keynote presentation was the unveiling of the newly designed Mac Pro. To review some history: the Mac Pro, in its current incarnation, is a workstation-class desktop computer initially released in August 2006. The latest revision to the Mac Pro line was released in June 2012. In terms of the Macintosh product line, the Mac Pro traces its linage directly back to the Macintosh II.1 While the specifics of this type of computer have necessarily evolved over the years, there are a few key items that have always been considered essential to the definition:

For people of a certain vintage—myself included—this is the very definition of a “computer”. It’s also a definition that Apple has turned on its head.

Of the points listed above, I’d argue that there are really only three that are unique to the Mac Pro among the Apple product line. Those would be the high-end CPU and the internal storage and expansion slots. Every other Apple computer2, from the lowliest MacBook Air to the 27 inch iMac share the other points to a greater or lesser extent. It is interesting, then, that Apple has deleted two of those “Mac Pro only” features from the new Mac Pro: specifically the ability to add additional internal storage and expansion cards.

I’d argue that Apple has taken this route because they have the ability, possibly unique among major PC vendors, to ask what is the actual job a product is intended to do.

I’d like to take a brief aside to point out that I’m not necessarily arguing that Apple is making the right choices with the Mac Pro. The Mac Pro has yet to be released to the market, and will succeed or fail on its merits. What I want to focus on is the culture within Apple that allows the experiment to even be performed.

I think it’s safe to say that, when faced with the task of producing a next-generation workstation computer, any other computer manufacturer in the market today would have taken a familiar path. Slap in the latest Intel processor, give it a shit-ton of internal RAM slots, HD expansion bays and PCIe slots, bolt on a few of the current industry standard expansion ports (as well as a full complement of every port used in the last fifteen years—who knows, someone may want to use their $5000 workstation with a PS/2 mouse and a VGA monitor) and call it a day.

What Apple has done with the Mac Pro is go back to the drawing board and ask, what does a “workstation” do, and how can it best get that job done.

As I wrote above, the current generation of Mac Pro, along with the Dell workstation I used as an example, trace their design linage back to the dawn of personal computing. Things have changed vastly since then. Now, instead of “massive storage” meaning a shit-ton of spinning disks crammed into the chassis, professionals are using Storage Area Networks (SANs) and Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems. Instead of “expansion” meaning a motherboard the size of a pizza box to accommodate an array of expansion slots, “expansion” is being handled by fast busses such as Thunderbolt 2. Instead of performance being solely determined by the clock-speed of the CPU, high-end computing applications often utilize parallelization to leverage massively parallel GPUs.

Apple obviously looked at those trends and engineered a product to leverage the new realities of computing. Will the Mac Pro succeed? Only time and the market will tell. What the very existence of the new Mac Pro tells us is that Apple is not done looking at products and questioning the assumptions behind them—and that is what real innovation is.

  1. Of course, outside of the Macintosh product line the lineage continues even farther back. 

  2. I’m explicity excusing iOS devices here, so don’t start with me.