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The 2018 Mac Pro (???): Why is it Taking So Long?

So if you take Apple at its word, the next Mac Pro is being developed as we speak, but it won’t arrive this year. That said, there has been some speculation it might not arrive next year either, but it’s not as if Apple would offer too many specifics.

I will take Apple at its word that an all-new Mac Pro is forthcoming, but there are loads of unanswered questions, and plenty of room to speculate about what’s will come. But if you look at what little we know, that it’s going to be a “modular” computer that’s easy to upgrade, they appear to be describing something like the original cheese grater Mac Pro. But if Apple were to go that route, it would have been done long ago, and clearly there’s going to be a new direction.

My feeling is that the new box will be sized somewhere between the 2013 model and the previous model, still compact but allowing for some level of internal expansion. So you could add multiple drives, more RAM than you can now, and perhaps expansion cards. How many is an open question mark, but Apple ought to consider what a typical user would require, while leaving plenty of external expansion ports for the edge cases.

That said, is there something Apple is doing that takes more than the usual time to design such a computer? What about the designs that didn’t make the cut? Apple certainly constructs different prototypes before settling on a final design, and it’s always possible a proposed design that’s closer in concept to what they want was previously started and discarded.

The other question is when it all began.

During the roundtable with a handful of journalists, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, Philip Schiller, admitted Apple has misjudged what its pro users wanted, that they planned for a workstation with twin GPUs capable of parallel processing rather than a single powerful GPU. Clearly they hadn’t considered the need for internal expansion.

When it comes to graphics, no doubt Apple talks to the people at AMD, Intel and NVIDIA about their product roadmaps, so I think they knew early on about the direction of future graphics processors.

That said, the Mac Pro languished for quite a while as professional users wondered about Apple’s end game. Were sales so low it wasn’t worth producing them? Despite the high price, were profits sufficient to justify production at a company that can sell hundreds of millions of iPhones every year? What were Apple’s priorities?

Some tech pundits suggest that Apple really didn’t come to a conclusion about what direction to take with the Mac Pro until very recently, and that’s why it will take another year or longer to get the work done.

Is it at all possible Apple is waiting for a new CPU family from Intel and perhaps a new graphics processor to flesh out the package? I suppose, but the graphics are more intriguing in light of a recent development.

So Apple has announced that it will be moving away from using GPU technology from Imagination Technology and rely on its internal team. But Apple’s A-series processors, despite being developed in-house, use ARM technology under license. When it comes to graphics, Apple evidently wants to roll its own, and that makes sense if it can do the job justice.

You’ll find extensive background on the move in Daniel Eran Dilger’s detailed study on the subject for AppleInsider. Apple’s switch to in-house graphics designs is mostly viewed from the perspective of GPUs for Apple’s mobile gear, the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV. Daniel deals with Mac graphics only in passing.

But what if Apple is also working on a super powerful Mac GPU to debut in the next Mac Pro? While Schiller says that Apple won’t switch from Intel to ARM CPUs, building its own graphics chips could be done and not force developers to do any major redesign work other than to better optimize their apps for the new silicon.

If Apple gets it right, and the A-series chips have rolled past anything developed for Android smartphones, it would result in a Mac Pro perfectly capable of delivering the powerful graphics pros require without reliance on outside components. It may even be possible to deliver superior gaming performance from the same GPU for those who are accustomed to paying extra for such gear on the PC platform. It would mean chips focused strictly on the requirements of the Mac and macOS, without the unnecessary overhead present in a GPU that serves the needs of multiple platforms and hardware priorities.

Obviously it will take a while for Apple to get it right, if that’s what is in the cards. More to the point, it’s quite possible Apple designed GPUs will also be used in other Macs that require discrete chips, such as the 27-inch iMac and some MacBook Pros. With the focus strictly on Apple’s own needs, the end result would be better performance and, for notebooks, more power efficiencies. Exclusively relying on Apple GPUs may make it possible to deliver a MacBook Pro that doesn’t have to engage in a clumsy graphics switching process, between Intel internal graphics and a discrete GPU, to maximize battery life.

At the same time, it’s possible Apple will be handing off more low level functions to custom designed A-series processors, in the spirit of the Touch Bar.

By its decision to phase out the use of Imagination Technologies intellectual property for future GPU designs, Apple’s plans are crystal clear. It’s even possible we’ll see the fruit of this project beginning with the so-called iPhone 8 or iPhone Edition. But it may well be that future Macs will incorporate Apple’s in-house GPU technology as well. That is in keeping with Apple’s obvious desire to bring more and more chip design functions in-house.