The Mac Pro And Apple's Slide

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The new Mac Pro is a fanastic machine. It's arguably the best workstation money can buy, with a forward-looking architecture that should satisfy any professional in need of massive performance. Critics are, without exception, people who have no idea what a good workstation can do, why they cost so much, or why working professionals in A/V, design, and engineering really do need all that RAM and all those cores. But it doesn't signify a new direction for Apple. It's the exception that proves the rule.

I'm not an "Apple guy;" I'm one of the millions of computer users who has owned a few Apple products over the years. In particular, I had always been very fond of their laptops. I had a couple Macbooks before getting a Macbook Pro in 2012, a machine which remains my primary laptop. Its power connection has gotten finicky, though, and when it goes out, I doubt I'll get another.

There's been a noticeable decline in Apple quality under Tim Cook's leadership. You see, Tim Cook is a money guy. Steve Jobs was a...I guess you could say he was a "design guy," but he was more than that. Steve Jobs was like an engineer with user empathy. He understood both the technology and how people would feel and respond to it. Since leadership has a pronounced trickle-down effect on what a company does, long after Steve Jobs was personally involved in designing much of anything, Apple products were notable for their almost obsessive focus on high quality, sometimes at the expense of high performance.

I convinced myself to buy an Apple laptop about 15 years ago, when a friend of mine said the "Apple tax" was mostly a fiction, and it really was the best laptop money could buy. I set out to see if I could prove him wrong. Try as I might, when I truly matched part for part, Apples were rarely more than about 10% more expensive than a comparable Dell or HP. What I found when doing my product research is that Apple never skimped on the stuff you didn't think about, and which the big PC manufacturers knew you didn't. You're thinking about the fastest CPU, not the most responsive touchpad...until you'd used a Macbook and wondered why the hell you ever tolerated a sloppy touchpad.

I didn't become a passionate fan, but I finally understood where that passion came from. Apple products were just...they were just better. The attention to detail was insane. Even the operating system updates, the bane of any Windows user, made the machine better rather than slowing it to a crawl. I remember building a Windows XP gaming machine that, when SP 2 came out, turned into a stuttering mess. Apple never did that to you. 

But Tim Cook is a bean counter. His role at CEO was to cut costs, improve supply chains, and get those margins up. He's brought that same sensibility to his position as CEO, where it has been disastrous for the products. The first really infuriating thing Cook's Apple did was start soldering the RAM to the motherboards of their laptops. It used to be you could buy a Macbook/Pro, and if you were the remotest bit computer savvy, upgrade the RAM yourself for $50 to $100, well under what Apple charged for RAM. Seems Cook saw lost profit there, and besides, it saved them a few bucks on parts.

Next up was the much-reviled "trashcan" Mac Pro. It was in every respect an inferior workstation, targted at the "prosumer" who cobbles together and edits video game clips for his YouTube show, not somebody who needs to have multiple instanes of a cinema-quality 3D model open in Maya. I guess Tim Cook figured that there was an ocean of untapped prosumer cash out there, and *actual* professionals would just have to make do.

The Mac Pro is, like I said, a fantastic machine. Personally, I would have gone with Epyc over Xeon, but that's a minor quibble. The fact is it's a tremendous machine. But what really gets left out from most of the discussion is that consumers had to *force* Tim Cook to have Apple make this machine. See, actual pros complained endlessly over the trashcan tower. It just wasn't very powerful. Sure, it was far more machine than your average home user really needed, but compared to top-of-the-line Dell or HP workstations, you literally could not buy enough power from Apple. Some of the most important of Apple's high-end users---we're talking Hollywood, major advertising firms, that sort of things---basically had to threaten Apple with switching to PC if Cook didn't get his crap together and have them build a powerful workstation. And if those studios left, they were never coming back. And so much of visual design space is downstream of the big movie & TV studios, that it might have killed off Apple as a major player in any professional space.

This *never* should have happened. There was no legitimate reason for Apple's professional-grade product to be such a piece of crap. There's no real explanation for it other than the generally consumer-hostile, cost-cutting mentality that Tim Cook brought to Apple. So Macworld is really missing the point. The Mac Pro isn't a symbol that Apple is serious about its platform. Quite the opposite; it's a symbol of how unserious the company is. Serious companies don't have to get screamed at by their big-money clients to make something that isn't hot garbage, to actually make something "professional grade" that is actually professional grade. If Apple were changing, we'd see a big mea culpa over what a piece of junk the Macbook Pro has become. We'd have a come-to-Jesus moment over the embarrassing degradation in iPad quality. We'd see some serious overhaul in QA for new iOS and OSX updates. Instead, all we see is Tim Cook dragging his feet and begrudgingly throwing the professional community the machine they've been begging him to let them pay for.

I'm kind of a car guy, so this whole saga reminds me a lot of what GM does to its high-end vehicles. For years, a Corvette was an $80K+ sports car with a chintsy, budget-feeling interior. Cadillacs still look and feel on the inside like cars that cost significantly less. And this is because GM approaches them with that same relentless cost-cutting mentality that defines mainstream, middle-class vehicles. Problem is, if I'm spending $80K on a sports car, I'm not thinking that hard about cost. An extra $2K to make it really feel like a high-end sports car is not going to change my purchasing decision the way it would with a $15K car. This year, GM has, after decades of criticism, finally introduced a Corvette that feels the way a car in that price band should feel. But the rest of their vehicles are still...well...not great. Because it's not GM that's changed, it's just that they're getting one product right due to consumer pressure.

That's what Tim Cook is doing to Apple. He's turning it into the GM of computer companies. Hardware quality is visibly worse. Software updates introduce new bugs and creeping bloat. A $2000 laptop doesn't really feel like a $2000 laptop. And all this is in a time where Apple's dominance in the high-end laptop space has finally been noticed by its competitors. Microsoft has done  a pretty good job keeping Windows 10 from having the creeping bloat problem that XP and 7 did. New high-end Windows laptops, like Surface and Lenovo, are really, really nice. HP and even Dell are offering really, really well-built, high-end laptops now. And, you might notice that they're not much cheaper than equivalent Apple machines...quality parts & quality fabrication cost money.

You need money guys like Cook to keep the design guys living within parameters, but they can't be ones running the show. None of those guys has ever met a corner they wouldn't cut. And when it comes to a high-end product like Apple, at some point, you really are paying a premium price for  a mediocre product, just like critics of the company claimed 15 years ago.

Post-script (12/24/19): I don't like to change the body of the text much after publication other than to clarify things; I feel it's dishonest. So where I'm wrong, I'm wrong. If I said something stupid, oh well. So, yes, you can get dual-CPU workstations from Dell and HP that are even more powerful than the high-end Mac Pro, and they cost even more (apparently as high as $171K). I do need to add that by "user empathy," I don't mean Steve Jobs was a nice person or treated others fairly. I mean he seemed to overall have an intuitive understanding of how a consumer would feel when using a product, and this trickled down to the rest of the company. I don't think Jobs would have tolerated the laptop keyboard fiasco, or that Tim Cook would have been obsessive about getting the Apple II's boot time down. There are a million little things that go into a user's perception of quality, whether he feels warm or cold toward using the product, and Jobs seemed to understand that. By contrast, Microsoft has typically been really, really bad at this, which is a major part of why Windows Mobile never got off the ground, and why Windows 8 was such a clown show. To this day, Win 10 has lots of rough corners and janky bits, and I still prefer OSX. Even in the midst of the horrors of flat design, OSX manages to be less bad than Win 10 at being visually intuitive to navigate.