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.
Why does modularity matter?
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.
Software's workflow-centric approach
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.
Toward a workflow-centric world
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]
Calvin Chu designed and developed the modular computing hardware device called Palette Gear, an award-winning and patented product first launched in 2015. Calvin has dedicated the last 7 years of his life applying human-computer interaction research to product design. As CEO of a VC-backed company, he is also a speaker at design and entrepreneurship conferences, and a member of the ACM Special Interest Group for Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI). Calvin worked at Apple in 2011.