Post-WWDC 2012, many of us in the nerdsphere were disappointed by the lack of a significant Mac Pro update this time around. Soon afterwards many reports surfaced, including some from within the mothership that new designs are coming next year, perhaps by late summer or early fall. The reasons for the delay aren’t clear. Marco Arment originally speculated that it may have to do with Cinema Retina Displays in a Build & Analyze podcast, then discarding the theory the following week for the (perhaps more likely) reasons outlined by Ars Technica. In a nutshell, this theory says that the delay is related to Xeon die size, and perhaps chipsets– in real-world terms, inability on Intel’s part to meet Apple’s requirements for heat, power, or feature support, such as Thunderbolt or USB3.
While this seems like a reasonable explanation I think there is another factor at play: the market, both in terms of size (units sold) and of who participates in that market.
As for market size, It seems to me that if Apple (and/or Intel) really wanted to push this forward quickly they could, and if they’re not doing that it’s more likely that it’s in part because the market size or internal metrics don’t make a strong case for it. Apple, more than other manufacturers, is exceptionally disciplined and systematic about how they update their products. They don’t follow Intel’s timeline in the way PC manufacturers do, adding new chips and new systems pretty much every time Intel can manufacture them in volume–if anything, sometimes it even seems that Intel closely follows Apple more than the other way around. Apple sets their own timeline, and they do so not based on the components available or the ever-present rumblings of the tech press (“Apple will surely release X now that competitor Z has done it!”) but based on a deep understanding on who is buying and using their products.
Which leads me to the “who participates” part of my theory. Unlike other manufacturers, Apple has a lot of knowledge of who is using their products, not only because purchases are generally tied to an iTunes account, which is tied to the Apple Store, but also because since MobileMe, and now more broadly with iCloud, we typically sign into all the machines that we own with one ID. I’m sure a significant percentage of Apple developers sign in with iCloud in all their devices, at least large enough to reach statistically valid conclusions. They can use this to understand update cycles, simultaneous system use, you name it.
I think we’d all agree as well that the people likely to get a Mac Pro often will also have a Macbook Pro, and that it seems plausible at least that those that fall into the Mac Pro buyers group update often. So if you’re about to unveil a kickass high-end Retina Macbook Pro, which would, at the beginning at least, be most attractive to developers and nerds, a group which surely overlaps with the group that would has also been waiting for a Mac Pro refresh, what do you do? If I was faced with the choice of upgrading a Mac Pro, last refreshed more than two years ago, or a Macbook Pro, of which I likely have a newer model, it would be a no-brainer. Retina can wait. And since there’s not that many people that could upgrade both (too expensive), that would have a noticeable effect on Retina Macbook Pro sales out of the gate. Ensuring that demand exists for a product, to the degree that you can control it, is a good idea. A situation like the Retina MBP finds itself in, where it’s supply-constrained, is clearly desirable. And you can afford to let down people who really want a new Mac Pro, since you know it’s a small market that has nowhere else to go to get a competitive product, whereas leapfrogging everyone in the portable market with a high-end Retina MBP has far-reaching consequences not just for that small market, but for your broader position in the portable market as well, and cements your lead in it.
So while we’ll likely never know exactly why the Mac Pro wasn’t updated, I think it’s a fair bet that the Retina MBP release at least played a role, as far as Apple trying to ensure that they were maximizing the potential market demand for it. At least that’s what I’d do if I were them.