With the iMac Pro, Apple Rediscovers the Creative Class

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At its annual developer’s conference keynote, Apple introduced the usual suite of software upgrades, with an added dose of augmented reality and the (sort of) surprise appearance of HomePod, Cupertino’s high-end Echo competitor. The products themselves, though, felt of secondary importance to the audience they were pitched to: the creative professionals that had, in recent years, faded from Apple’s view.

For the designers, developers, video editors, and other pro-grade creatives who grew up on Apple, it’s been a long, lonely stretch. The last significant update of the Mac Pro line came in 2013, in the form of a so-so cylindrical waste bin. More recently, Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro refresh seemed to ignore the second part of its name entirely, lacking performance-focused specs, and topping out at a relatively wimpy 16GB of RAM. Even Apple acknowledged that its Pro line had fallen behind, offering something close to an apology to hand-picked press outlets in April.

At WWDC, Apple offered a reprieve from that neglect. It came primarily in the form of Apple’s hulking, space-gray iMac Pro desktop—which won’t ship until December—but also in features and demonstrations that introduced the latest iPad Pro. The message from the stage was clear: We haven’t forgotten you. And it couldn’t have come soon enough—both for Apple’s customers, and the company itself.

Jason Henry for WIREDJason Henry for WIRED

Back to Pro

The iMac Pro is a beast. At $5,000 for the base model it’s an expensive beast, sure. But cost aside, the mere option to max out an Apple computer with 18-core Xeon processors, high-end Radeon graphics, a 4-terabye SSD, and 128GB of memory give hardcore users the kind of macOS horsepower they’ve been sorely missing.

“I think they have sort of let it slip, homogenized across their line,” says Brett Lovelady, founder of design firm Astro Studios. “They haven’t really made me feel like, as a developer, or small business owner, that I’ve got to have the new, best tools for XY and Z functionality for people on my team. Part of that is maybe grabbing that back before it’s too far away.”

Lovelady and other creative class professionals still use Apple products, of course. Plenty of specialized software requires it, and the chasm between Mac offerings and their needs hasn’t become unbridgeable. But it’s certainly widened in recent years, thanks in part to Apple providing relatively lackluster hardware, and to Microsoft encroaching on the company’s turf.

The Surface Pro, after all, has for years provided the built-in stylus functionality that Apple only recently shunted off to the iPad Pro. And more recently, the Surface Studio redefined the scope of how desktops could behave, converting into a digital drafting table that made Apple’s years-old Mac Pro look downright wimpy. It also kindled a realization among a certain number of the creative class: This is what it feels like to be courted.

The iMac Pro is still an imperfect vessel. “A couple of years down the road it could be obsolete,” says Avi Greengart, research director for Global Data, noting that it doesn’t offer expandability. You get what you get, and hope it’s still enough a few years later. Still, you can get a lot. And certainly a lot more than you could before.

The iPad Pro, too, took a good nod at professionals. While its file folders and drag-and-drop software updates appeal more broadly than just to the developers and illustrators that have Apple’s renewed attention, Apple still offered some potential red meat.

“In the creative space, sketch features, and notes, and quick access and sharing of reference material is super important,” says Lovelady. “I’m hoping maybe this product helps raise the bar on that.”

IPadInline.jpgApple

Future-Proof

Overdue as this appeal may be, it’s also not altruistic. At WWDC, Apple didn’t just outline the shiny tools it offered to its cadre of creative users. It made clear why it needs developers to embrace them.

Apple spent precious little time today on tvOS and watchOS, two pillars of its hardware strategy. Where the company dwelled, instead, was on emerging technologies in which it’s ceded ground to not just Microsoft, but Facebook and Google as well: augmented and virtual reality. Particularly, in iOS 11 Apple will introduce ARKit, a framework that allows developers to create iPhone and iPad-friendly augmented reality experiences.

“Across the board, VR support was added,” says Greengart. “And the demos were aimed not at VR consumption, not at playing games, but at designing those games for VR. That was another area where creative professionals who were building content for VR have been forced away from Apple. Now Apple’s saying, ‘Please come back, we understand your needs, we’re here for you.’”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having VR and AR developers on your side. While there’s certainly a chance virtual and augmented reality will fizzle, they—along with voice assistants—represent the platform wars of tomorrow. Or today, really. If Apple doesn’t address the needs of the people creating experiences for those platforms, it risks being left behind. A framework doesn’t mean much without the hardware required to leverage it.

With the iMac Pro and iPad Pro—along with next year’s reported Mac Pro overhaul—Apple mitigates that risk. It may not have addressed the entire litany of gripes creatives have had about Apple’s recent treatment, but it took an important first step.

In doing so, it didn’t just once again ingratiate itself to its most loyal users. It helped ensure its own future as well.