It’s time to talk about big-iron computing performance, which, to be honest, hasn’t been a topic associated with Apple for a while.
At this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple finally introduced the new Mac Pro, a redesign of the high-end, monitor-less desktop computer that’s been in the works for two years. The current Mac Pro has been unchanged since its introduction in 2013.
Although new hardware news always dominates attention at WWDC, Apple also introduced iOS 13, iPadOS 13 (an iOS offshoot just for iPad), tvOS 13, watchOS 6 and macOS Catalina. That’s a lot to deliver in the fall when the final versions of each are released, so for now, I want to touch on some of the highlights.
Mac Pro. For the sake of sanity, I’m not going to cover all of the specifications of the new Mac Pro other than to say: they’re impressive. Think Intel Xeon W processors with up to 28 cores and as much as 1.5 TB (yes, terabytes) of memory, powered by 1.4 kilowatts of electricity. Remarkably, Apple says the thermal system is so efficient that the Mac Pro will be quiet. In fact, the specifications come across as the product of development teams who have spent the last six years feeling like they have something to prove.
The short version is that the new desktop supercomputer returns to a tower design that’s extremely modular, from the range of PCI cards and specially designed data processors to the case itself, which lifts entirely off the frame to provide internal access from any angle.
To demonstrate its capabilities, Apple showed Final Cut Pro playing three 8K video streams simultaneously without requiring the footage to be rendered first. For audio, Logic Pro was loaded with 500 separate audio tracks playing in sync.
If you’ve heard anything else about the Mac Pro so far, it’s likely the price. This will be an expensive system when it goes on sale in the fall. The base system starts at $6,000; additional components and specs haven’t yet been publicly priced.
But as a friend of mine said during the keynote, “If you don’t know you need it … you don’t.”
This is a Mac for the most demanding users who are able and willing to pay for it, which some people have taken to mean Apple is abandoning the wide middle field of professionals who also need processing power at a more moderate budget.
I suspect Apple is fully aware of this, and is deliberately positioning the Mac Pro as the top-of-the-top-tier machine to establish bragging rights and, frankly, respect among the pro audience that has either walked away from Apple or have felt that the still-mighty-powerful iMac Pro is a compromise.
With this as the ceiling for now, Apple can always adjust the components and release a more affordable version, or perhaps a desktop sibling that falls in between the Mac Pro and Mac mini. And in the meantime, they get the higher profits from those customers for whom spending $25,000 on a system to cut rendering times in half is a snap decision.
Oh, I didn’t even mention the amazing Pro Display XDR, a 6K Retina display with accurate color that starts at $5,000, which doesn’t include an optional $1,000 stand.
Find My everything. Big hardware aside, there was plenty of information in the keynote that will affect all the rest of us. One of the most intriguing is a new Find My app (yes, just “Find My”). It replaces the Find My Friends and Find My iPhone/iPad/iPod apps to help you locate devices that have been misplaced or stolen, as well as friends who have let you track their locations.
Aside from the convenience of having all that in one app, the most interesting bit is how Apple is making it work. If you left your MacBook Pro at the office or in your car, it’s likely asleep and otherwise unreachable. Under the new systems, the laptop transmits an encrypted location signal via Bluetooth.
But Bluetooth has a very limited range, right? Yes, but that’s not a problem when there are literally millions of Mac and iOS devices in the world. That location signal is automatically picked up by other devices, owned by other people, and relayed to iCloud.
No identifying information is exposed, other users don’t notice the transaction and Apple claims that the technology doesn’t impact performance or battery life. For more fascinating details, read Wired’s Andy Greenberg’s article, “The Clever Cryptography Behind Apple’s ‘Find My’ Feature.”
Privacy. Hey, did you know Apple thinks privacy is important? It’s gone from a smart marketing bullet to a competitive cudgel to wield against competitors. Apple employs privacy in many ways, such as storing your fingerprint on-device in a special hardware chip that even Apple can’t access, but it extended its focus at WWDC. Here are a few examples:
Many websites and apps include the option to sign in using an existing Google or Facebook account, which makes it easy for you by not having to create yet another password. However, those companies use that data to track your browsing and purchase histories, and then sell the results to advertisers. A new Sign In with Apple feature is an alternative that uses your iCloud account to sign into multiple sites or apps.
However, in the background, Apple reveals only your name and email address to the owner of the site or app. The feature can also generate unique email addresses that forward to your real one, so the vendor never has it (or can sell it). That alternate address can also easily be deleted.
Another privacy feature is HomeKit Secure Video. Currently, many home-security camera devices upload footage — often what happens inside your house — to cloud servers, and holding onto that data costs a monthly or yearly subscription. Apple’s implementation encrypts the video, makes it available only to your Home app, and stores it in iCloud for 10 days for free (it also doesn’t count against your iCloud plan’s storage quota).
Oh yeah, iTunes. The lead up to WWDC involved a lot of coverage about how Apple is killing iTunes, which was something I’ve been expecting for a long time. Quite simply, iTunes is a duct-taped collection of old code that tries to do too much. When the new operating systems are released in the fall, iTunes will be gone, replaced by dedicated Music, Podcasts, and Apple TV (video) apps.
We’ll need to see the implementation as we get closer to the release to make sure people’s music and video libraries remain intact, but ultimately this is a good thing. Device syncing duties will be taken up by the Finder.
I want to wrap up with two neat audio features that are the type of convenience Apple often excels at. If you own a HomePod, you can hand off audio from an iPhone to the smart speaker simply by moving the two devices close to each other.
And lastly, we’ll be able to share audio from an iOS device to two sets of AirPods. I hope this will also work with the Apple TV — sometimes my wife and I each take an AirPod to watch a movie without disturbing our sleeping daughter in her room adjacent to the living room.