2023 Mac Pro plan would be understandable, but still worrying

The weekend saw Mark Gurman reporting on his understanding of a revised 2023 Mac Pro plan by Apple. Essentially, he believes Apple to have abandoned plans to make the machine the ultimate Mac, relying instead on user expansion options to unleash the full potential of the machine.

In a sense, that’s a return to the original concept of the first-generation Mac Pro way back in 2006…

The first Mac Pro

Leaving aside the technicality of whether the 2005 Developer Transition Kit counts as the first Mac Pro, the official launch was in 2006.

The unique selling point of the machine was not that it was an incredibly powerful machine at the point of purchase, but rather that it could be configured to meet the specific needs of different customers.

The actual Mac Pro spec which Apple used as the main focus of its marketing was a rather modest one – and actually less powerful than the Power Mac G5 it replaced – but the company emphasized the expansion capabilities over the base power.

If you need modest power but a ton of storage, no problem – add all the drives you need. If graphics performance was key, add the most powerful graphics cards. And so on. The idea was that Apple sold you a solid and flexible platform from which to customize the machine to your exact needs.

The Mac Pro we don’t talk about

2013 saw the replacement of the tower case format with the infamous “trash can” design. This effectively took the opposite approach, presented as the most powerful Mac in the line-up, but offering limited expansion possibilities.

While somewhat well-received at the time, Apple’s subsequent neglect meant that the machine gradually grew more and more outdated, and is now widely viewed as a mis-step by the company.

The third-generation Mac

By 2019, Apple had returned to a tower design based on an updated version of the original Power Mac G5/1st-gen Mac Pro design.

With this machine, Apple aimed to offer the best of both worlds. enabling users to spec-up a phenomenally powerful machine at the point of purchase, combined with excellent expansion possibilities (albeit with some Apple-esque quirks).

Previous expectations for the 4th-gen Mac Pro:

With the overdue switch to Apple Silicon, the company was originally expected to continue the path set by the 3rd-gen machine. a Mac Pro which would be by far the most powerful model in the Mac line-up as standard, while also offering excellent user-upgrade options.

As recently as October, Apple was reported to be testing a 24-core CPU, 76-core GPU, 192GB memory spec – and an earlier report suggested that the plan could be an M2 Extreme chip offering a 48-core CPU, 160-core GPU, and 384GB of RAM.

Newly-reported 2023 Mac Pro plans:

However, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman said over the weekend that Apple’s plans have now changed.

Apple has apparently scrapped plans to make a new Apple Silicon Mac Pro with a high-end “M2 Extreme” chip featuring 48 CPU cores and 152 GPU cores. […]

Complexity and cost concerns seem to have shelved those plans. Gurman still says Apple is preparing to launch a new Mac Pro with an M2 Ultra inside, with a design that enables expandability of some components, like RAM and storage.

This is essentially back to the original Mac Pro concept. Instead of the most powerful Mac on the planet, you get a box which you can turn into the most powerful Mac on the planet. Notably, as my colleague Benjamin Mayo pointed out, the revised expectation would in some ways make the machine less powerful than its predecessor.

It’s worth pointing out that 192 GB of RAM will still be significantly less than the 1.5 TB of RAM supported by the current-generation 2019 Mac Pro. It’s also unclear how the 76-core GPU will stack up, as the current Mac Pro can theoretically be configured with four internal graphics cards.

If correct, this is unstable

If the report is correct, I can understand why Apple would make this decision. The impact of the pandemic and global chip shortage has led to the company struggling to keep up with demand for its mass-market products. In this environment, how much sense does it make to allocate valuable Apple Silicon production capacity to a new super-chip with such niche appeal?

Financially, the Mac Pro as a product at all probably makes little sense for Apple. Sure, if you max out the spec, Apple sends you a bill for a cool $52,847.98. But by the time you factor in all the development time it takes to create such a machine, for such a tiny number of sales relative to any other product in the line-up, I find it hard to imagine that the company makes a lot of money from it.

But I would still be worried

But this brings us right back to the reason why the Mac Pro exists at all. First, it’s a “halo” product that shines a light on the entire Mac range. Second, by giving major movie studios and top-end commercial photographers a machine which meets their incredibly demanding needs, Apple has helped establish the Mac platform as a whole as the default choice for video and photo pros as a whole.

So while the Mac Pro may not be important to Apple as a source of revenue, it remains important for the symbolic and practical role it plays in establishing the Mac as king in key sectors which bring in a whole heap of revenue for the Cupertino company. Any compromise on the power of the machine could do more harm than it might at first appear.

That’s my view – what about yours? Do you think it matters that Apple may be planning to offer a less-than-ultimate Apple Silicon Mac Pro? Please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.

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