One year after inviting a select group of journalists to chat with key Apple personnel, Apple invited TechCrunch's Matthew Panzarino back to talk to the Apple team responsible for bringing the new Mac Pro to fruition.
This time Matthew met with John Ternus, vice president of Hardware Engineering, Tom Boger, senior director of Mac Hardware Product Marketing, Jud Coplan, director of Video Apps Product Marketing and Xander Soren, director of Music Apps Product Marketing and the session included both conversations and demos.
The first piece of news was that the planned modular Mac Pro would not be released in 2018 but would it would be an Apple product in 2019. Tom Boger, senior director of Mac Hardware Product Marketing explained...
We want to be transparent and communicate openly with our pro community, so we want them to know that the Mac Pro is a 2019 product. It’s not something for this year.
We know that there’s a lot of customers today that are making purchase decisions on the iMac Pro and whether or not they should wait for the Mac Pro.
This second point might explain the real reason why Apple wanted to take this opportunity to be clear about the timeframe for the new Mac Pro, people are waiting to buy the new Mac Pro, not only professionals like us, as was shown in the results of our poll Replacing A Mac Pro 5.1 'Cheese-grater' For Pro Tools where the most popular option back in October 2017 was to wait for the next Mac Pro. It could be argued that the real reason Apple made this statement now was to make it clear to institutional buyers or other large customers waiting to spend their budget on, say iMac Pros or other machines, that they should schedule the spend without worrying that a Mac Pro might appear late in the purchasing year. In other words, spend the money now on an iMac Pro safe in the knowledge that a new Mac Pro won't be coming later in this financial year.
But this isn't the only thing to come out of this session. A year ago Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller accepted that pro customers and developers alike wanted evidence that Apple was paying attention to what they need.
We recognize that they want to hear more from us. And so we want to communicate better with them. We want them to understand the importance they have for us, we want them to understand that we’re investing in new Macs — not only new MacBook Pros and iMacs but Mac Pros for them, we want them to know we are going to work on a display for a modular system.
A year on from this and Matthew has discovered that Apple has created a team inside the building that houses its pro products group. It’s called the Pro Workflow Team, under John Ternus and works closely with Apple's engineering team. John Ternus is vice president of Hardware Engineering...
We said in the meeting last year that the pro community isn’t one thing. It’s very diverse. There are many different types of pros and obviously, they go really deep into the hardware and software and are pushing everything to its limit. So one thing you have to do is we need to be engaging with the customers to really understand their needs. Because we want to provide complete pro solutions, not just deliver big hardware, which we’re doing and we did it with iMac Pro. But look at everything holistically.
John's plan was to get their architects sat down with real customers so they can to understand what they are doing and see them working in real time. The problem is that a lot of customers are working on commercially sensitive projects, which can make it very difficult to share real first-hand experience with the Apple team. The example given was John Powell, who is a long-time Logic user and was working on the new Star Wars Han Solo project and the challenge of taking those unreleased and highly secret compositions to Apple to play with on their machines was a complete no-no.
Apple's solution was to begin hiring some these creatives directly, with some on a contract basis but many full-time, as well, all commisioned by Apple to shoot real projects and whilst on the campus, Matthew even saw a bunch of them walking by in Apple Park with kit for an on-site outdoor shoot. They then use these specially created projects to put the hardware and software through its paces to find the problems that could cause frustration and friction amongst their professional colleagues out in the real world. John explains...
We’ve been focusing on visual effects and video editing and 3D animation and music production, as well and we’ve brought in some pretty incredible talent, really masters of their craft. And so they’re now sitting and building out workflows internally with real content and really looking for what are the bottlenecks. What are the pain points? How can we improve things? And then we take this information where we find it and we go into our architecture team and our performance architects and really drill down and figure out where is the bottleneck. Is it the OS? Is it in the drivers? Is it in the application? Is it in the silicon? Then chase it down until it is fixed.
These aren’t necessarily always fundamental performance issues. These aren’t things that you’d find in a benchmark or an automated test flow. You know we have examples where we find something… like it’s a window that a 3D animator uses frequently to make some fine tweaks. The windows are not super graphically intensive in terms of processing and stewing but we have found an issue where that window was taking like 6 to 10 seconds to open and they’re doing that 100 times a day, right? Like ‘I can’t work on a machine like this, it’s too slow,’ so we dig in and we figure out what it was. In that case, we found something in the graphics driver was not right, and once you know where to look and you fix it, it completely changes the kind of live-on-ability for that system — the productivity for that user completely changed.
This change in strategy has meant that Apple has been able to fix problems they wouldn't have normally been able to identify with old-school development and testing workflows. Apple is also extending this methodology to 3rd party applications too, Tom Boger explains...
We’ve gone from just, you know, engineering Macs and software to actually engineering a workflow and really understanding from soup to nuts, every single stage of the process, where those bottlenecks are, where we can optimize that, and to John Ternus' point, because we build the hardware, the firmware, the operating system, the software, and have these close relationships with third parties, we can attack the entire stack and we can really ferret out where we are — we can optimize for performance.
All of this shows the care and attention the Pro Workflow Team are applying and this attitude is being translated to the new Mac Pro. John Ternus explains...
What’s really powerful through this exercise is that it’s helping us to kind of map out where we’re headed. Because we’re really digging in these workflows and figuring out how are the ways we can improve these in the future, and then that can help shape our future plans, as well.
To which Matthew asks whether this means that the Mac Pro will be shaped by this team’s work? Tom Boger...
So it’s definitely influencing the architecture of where we’re going, what we’re planning for. We’re getting a much deeper understanding of our pro customers and their workflows and really understanding not only where the state of the art is today but where the state of the art is going, and all of that is really informing the work that we’re doing on the Mac Pro and we’re working really hard on it.
Matthew was curious about whether the process over the last year has changed the timeline on the Mac Pro. John Ternus...
I don’t think that the timeline has fundamentally changed. I think this is very much a situation where we want to measure twice and cut once, and we want to make sure we’re building a really well thought-out platform for what our pro customers are doing today. But also with an eye towards what they’re going to be doing in the future, as well. And so to do that right, that’s what we’re focusing on.
Tom Boger picks up on the modular issue for the new Mac Pro...
As we said a year ago, working on modular was inherently a modular system and in looking at our customers and their workflows obviously that’s a real need for our customers and that’s the direction we’re going.
John Ternus follows up...
Well, it’s a need for some of them. I want to be clear that the work that we’re doing as a part of the workflow team is across everything. It’s super relevant for MacBook Pros, it’s super relevant for iMacs and iMac Pros and in the end, I think it helps us in dialogue with customers to figure out what are the right systems for you. There is absolutely a need in certain places for modularity. But it’s also really clear that the iMac form factor or the MacBook Pros can be exceptionally good tools.
However as before there is very little information shared as to what form the modularity might take but in his tours of the edit suites where Mac hardware and software is pushed to the limits, including extensive use of eGPU support, and Matthew saw a different vision of modularity...
First, we visit the room where they record new instruments for Logic and Garage Band and then on to an edit bay used by the Pro Workflow Team to put Final Cut Pro through its paces.
Throughout, the idea of modularity was omnipresent. An iMac Pro with two iPad Pros hooked up to it allows for direct control, shortcuts and live access to the Logic manual, all while you’re mixing a song on the main device: an eGPU with a MacBook Pro running a live edit of an 8K stream with color grading and effects applied.
External GPUs plugged into MacBook Pros, in my opinion, is going to be an enormous shift in the way that people think about portables. I got a live demo of a graphics stress test running on a MacBook Pro natively, then on one and then two external GPUs. The switching is nearly seamless, depending on the age of the app, and some modern rendering software can use all three in concert. It’s one of those things that works exactly the way you think it would, and it leans heavily on Thunderbolt 3.
Whether that informs the shape of individual machines in Apple’s future lineup I don’t know, but it’s certainly the way Apple is looking at the pro ecosystem. It’s not just MacBook Pro, iMac Pro, Mac Pro — it’s the enabling force of eGPUs, it’s iPad Pros as input devices, purpose-built extensions and portable workstations. And it’s even iPhone, as Logic and Final Cut Pro are both completely compatible with GarageBand and iMovie. You can start a project and continue it on iOS while traveling, then put it right back into your pro machine when you’re back and continue riffing. It’s Apple leaning into its advantages of having control of this stuff to the bolts.
The environment that Matthew describes gives an interesting insight into Apple's new Pro Workflow Team having a direct impact on the development of the new Mac Pro as well as the iMac Pro, Final Cut Pro and macOS. They all located just a few doors away from the engineering team running through real footage and mixing real tracks to figure out what works and what doesn't. And they use a mixture of software, not just Apple stuff including the likes of Adobe to find the pain points in the real world where we don't just use Apple's products to be creative with.
I would like to hope that Avid is involved in this new workflow at some level. One piece of evidence that suggests they may be is the improved performance of Pro Tools on the new iMac Pro, with Avid taking advantage of the new hardware and architecture introduced in the iMac Pro.
The bad news is that we are going to have to wait even longer for the long-awaited new Mac Pro, but the good news is that with the new Pro Workflow Team, Apple's products are being tested in real-world workflows, in the lab where they can get to the bottom of the problem. However, it may be some time before we hear any more about the new Mac Pro. Matthew doesn't expect Apple to say anything about Mac Pro at WWDC in June and suggests we might need to wait until 2019 for any more info on the Mac Pro.
If you are one of those waiting for the new Mac Pro, how does this make you feel? Are you prepared to wait another 12 months or so, or are you going to select another route for a Pro Tools computer?