At Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference earlier this week, Apple finally unveiled its new and modular Mac Pro. When John Ternus, Apple's VP of Hardware Engineering, took the stage, most of his presentation was a listing of super performance specs and showing off its intricately machined lattice enclosure (the cheese grater is back!).
But what he didn't share was the 6 year journey that Apple's designers and engineers took to get there. Lots of people have been commenting on how the modular aspect was implemented, but not why it was done in the first place. The 2019 design solves the restrictions of its previous one-size-fits-all architecture and makes customization a feature instead of an afterthought. Like other Apple products that came before it, the new Mac Pro has raised the bar for a new trend in product design: modularity.
In one word: diversity. Today's professionals span a huge range of skills and specializations which are constantly evolving. Just look at the last decade where there's been a surge of entirely new industries like real-time 3D rendering, virtual production in film, or scientific simulation. These industries have introduced new and unique workflows, which pose a moving target for workstation design.
Presenting the new Mac Pro on stage, Ternus said "in designing this product, we wanted to build an architecture that can meet the incredible diversity of pro needs." A year prior, he and other Apple execs shared that its product development was being driven by the many different workflows of its professional users. The end result is what Ternus called "the most configurable Mac ever".
Historically, product designers had to make tradeoffs: either design a product that is highly specialized but for a small group of users, or design a solution for the mass market but exclude users that deviate from the common denominator. Modular products are flexible enough to fit both. But of course, supporting a modular design comes at a cost. There's a lot more design complexity, more testing, and planning for future compatibility. In the case of computers, electrical connectors can be surprisingly challenging to design reliably despite being overlooked by users.
However, these costs are worth it if modularity enables product designers to achieve both the depth and breadth of a product's utility. A modular design meets the evolving needs and diversity of many different individuals in industries that are becoming vast, varied, and complex.
To date, building products for a large variety of individuals has been most easily done in software, where developers can create multiple flavors of products tailored to a very specific workflow. This behavioral understanding is the core of modern software UX design. The emergence of Adobe Lightroom out of Photoshop is just one example; the former conceived around a photographers' tasks in managing and converting thousands of RAW images.
Hidden from the public for decades, Apple actually had a modular Macintosh prototyped in 1985. It was codenamed "Jonathan" and led by Joseph Friedman and John Fitch at Apple. Frog's Hartmut Esslinger led its design as he did for other products from that era. The Jonathan Modular Macintosh was made of black plastic, had a 13" CRT monitor, and a lineup of modules that sat like books on a shelf. Different configurations could be made by stacking multiple modules together.
In an internal slide deck to Apple's execs, Esslinger writes "Modules = the concept of the future for PCs and MICROs". Apparently the concept was not well received and the project was eventually killed by then-CEO John Sculley. Maybe Esslinger was 30 years early but that future is now here.
Apple wasn't the only one to try a modular computer. Prior to Apple's prototype, Convergent Technologies had a similar-looking design in the mid 80s, as do the more recent ones like Razer's Project Christine, the HP Slice, or Acer Revo Build. Sure, PCs always had the ability to be modded; research compatible parts, find a screwdriver to unscrew the case and install an aftermarket component. If customization is common and inevitable then it's irresponsible design practice to make the user figure it out themselves. What's changed now is that customization is being considered within the product design scope.
Leading up to the new Mac Pro's launch, Ternus had been managing a new group at Apple: the Pro Workflow Team. It was created to collaborate with industry professionals, like the film composer who scored Solo: A Star Wars Story. Evidently, this workflow-centric approach is what shifted the focus at Apple towards its new approach to hardware design and engineering: modularity and flexibility.
With Apple applying this process to its most high-end Mac, it brings workflow-centric products to the spotlight. As new ways of working constantly emerge, and new software is made to meet this explosion of variety, modularity will inevitably extend into modern hardware products. 2019 will finally be the year it all comes together.
[Prototype photos: Keep it Simple: The Early Design Year of Apple. Hartmut Esslinger. Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart, Germany. Copyright 2013.]
[Apple product and presentation photos: apple.com]
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Modularity is certainly a thing but, what about this Mac Pro is modular in a way that differs from every non-Apple PC in the last 30+ years?
You mention that on a PC you have to research compatible parts and find a screwdriver and install an aftermarket component. But that's if you bought a Dell from Best Buy and want to slap in a new graphics card. But that undersells what is actually a thriving market of computer component makers and houses, where you aren't replacing "quality name-brand stuff" with "crazy aftermaket upgrades" like some kid putting a fancy exhaust on his Corolla. Instead you have computers being built from the ground up with a tailored suite of components made by the various respected brands in the industry, by experienced builders. And then if you decided over time to upgrade there are upgrade paths whereby you can swap specific components without having to rebuild a whole new machine, and keep the bulk of your experience identical while enjoying more speed to keep up with new technology.
The whole point of the PC is that it is made of compatible interfaces and standards. You pick and choose the specific motherboard you want. You choose a processor and graphics card based on the workflow you anticipate. You pick whether you need more or less cooling fans, or water-cooling loops. You can choose a minimalist case with minimal I/O and then later decide to upgrade to a nicer case with better cooling and ease of access and more I/O ports. There are dozens and dozens of companies, in a massive industry, all making modules that manage to work together because there's a lot of money riding on the fact that they follow set standards to allow professionals to build a high-performance modular computing machine.
Apple has simply been the closed garden monolith that said "we know the best configuration for our environment" and by and large that can be true. But the reality is that less and less can one configuration rule them all in high-end computing where you need niche hardware and lots of horsepower as we've tapped out our speeds per core. The fact that they are finally conceding that many professional users want flexibility to tailor their machines to their workflows, as was pointed out in the article, is just them avoiding becoming completely irrelevant to the true professional class that is worried about performance and bottom line more than what brand of computer they use.
And does anyone think for a second that in 5 years when it's time to upgrade your CPU and Mobo that Apple will just sell that stuff and let you piecemeal upgrade while keeping your case, PSU, HDD, SSD, etc? No. They will try and pawn everyone off on a brand new tower whole-hog. Sure, that will be what most professionals need anyway, because no-one has time for the logistics of simply upgrading a bunch of machines, but it ultimately means that Apple could just as well offer simply a highly configurable base machine and let users buy exactly what hardware they need, which is already common for every single PC maker,
A telling example for me is when Casey Neistat chose to ditch his beloved Apple and his R2D2 Mac Pro for a swanky custom-built PC, because Apple simply diddn't offer anything that could remotely do what he needed done.
That all said, I do like the actual industrial design of new Mac Pro case. If Apple was just selling it as an fancy ATX chassis I could see people buying one for a regular PC build, because it's a slick piece of hardware. But ultimately you can get a really excellent, well designed, stylish PC case today for under $200 without even trying so, that's still not a huge selling point.
You left out the best (by far) modular computer - the Acorn RISC-PC.
Wow this is amazing haha. There's actually a kitchen sink on top???
Yup. Mind you , as best I can remember, the pizza oven didn’t actually get to true cooking temperatures.
With this new MPX module, isn't Apple basically reinforcing their walled ecosystem approach by saying "you can upgrade this over time, you just have to do it our way"...?
It's a tower PC, they've existed for decades. Is this one better than other workstation machines? Maybe, but it's so far from being new or innovate it's laughable.
I'm starting to suspect these articles are paid shill editorial verticals.
Really? Modularity is not new, and it should not come at such a paid premium.
The previous article saying Apple is right to charge a thousand bucks for a piece of equipment that doesn't even have a single capacitor in it, is madness.
A thousand dollars could change a family in Botswana's life forever, and you're defending the ability to tilt a screen 90 degrees as some sort of religious experience.
Face it guys, Apple is the Supreme of personal computers.
After several years of nothing but links to terrible Eric Strebel videos and reposts of six year old blog entries from some dude that sells overpriced chisels *this* is what you think is payola?