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How To Make An iMac Pro

June 3, 2017

WWDC is nearly upon us once again. Usually this marks the software focused portion of Apple’s year. New OS’s will soon be previewed, with new APIs to play with and new features to fuss over. This year, however, there are strong rumors of new hardware. Siri-in-a-can, new Mac laptops, and iPad Pros. To be frank, there aren’t many Apple products for sale right now that aren’t due for some attention.

Apple’s recent willingness to let old hardware linger notwithstanding, it’s past time for new iPad Pros. With signs pointing to an upcoming refresh, or even re-design, there’s been a lot of speculation about what Apple could add to these new devices. One possibility the hosts of ATP were discussing was the ability to pair your iPad with your Mac and use it as a second screen. As John says, there are apps that will let you do this today, but ideally Apple could add tighter integration and make for a better experience. Imagine being able to use your Apple Pencil to draw in real desktop Photoshop. What design professional wouldn’t want that? 

This got me thinking about the iMac Pro that Apple execs hinted at during the recent Mac Pro roundtable. We know that new versions of the iMac are due this year, including, in Phil Schiller’s words, “configurations of iMac specifically with the pro customer in mind”. The unanswered question is, what would distinguish a pro iMac? I’ve seen suggestions that this could mean Xeon processors squeezed into an iMac casing, or ECC ram. But those answers seemed too boring for modern Apple. What if the answer is something a little crazier. 

My Crazy Prediction 

There’s been a lot of discussion this year about who Apple considers a professional. For iOS, the answer is clear. The iPad Pro—the only explicitly branded “Pro” iOS hardware to date—is aimed squarely at visual artists. The Pro iPad is built around its screen and it’s support for the Apple Pencil. Apple is saying that Multi-Touch is good for casual interactions with your iOS device, but pros need more precise input. The Apple Pencil is, in Apple’s words, “the ideal tool for artists of every kind”.

Defining a pro Mac user has been more difficult. Marco Arment has discussed this at length on ATP this year, and I won’t rehash his arguments here. Instead, I just want to look at how Apple themselves presents their Pro hardware in use. On the MacBook Pro landing page, most product photographs show the laptops open and running either 2D image-editing software such as Photoshop or video-editing software such as Final Cut. (The Mac Pro page, which has not been updated significantly since 2013, does not show or discuss any software).

Apple seems to believe the following:

  • Visual-design and video professionals are important markets for them. 
  • The Mac is an important product for these customers.
  • The Apple Pencil is the best input device for visual design and video professionals

It’s possible that Apple thinks the best way to serve the customers is to turn the iPad Pro into a glorified Cintiq. But what if they’re thinking… different?

iMac With Apple Pencil Support

I’m going to start with a disclaimer. I’m not a visual artist. I don’t so much as doodle in my notebooks. So to me this is purely a thought experiment. But the more I weigh the pros and cons, the more this seems like a no-brainer. 

Apple has been clear that they see no room for Multi-Touch on the Mac. Their two main arguments against this seem to be:

  1. macOS is designed for the precise input of a mouse and pointer, not big kludgy fingers
  2. The ergonomics would be terrible.
Lets take these in turn. First, I am not suggesting that Apple bring Multi-Touch to the Mac. It’s possible to implement Apple Pencil support without full touch support. No need to worry about trying to poke at macOS’s small touch targets. In my scenario, if you were to stab at your iMac Pro screen with your finger, nothing would happen. The Pencil, though, wouldn’t have to be an all-purpose input device. Maybe at first there’s limited support for it in AppKit, where it could scroll an NSScrollView and click an NSButton for free. If, as rumors suggest, Apple has come up with a drag-and-drop paradigm for iOS, maybe they could port that to the Mac for use with the Apple Pencil. From there, developers could decide for themselves how to best support the pencil in their apps.

Now for the second objection. Yes, drawing on an iMac, as we know it today, would be no fun. But there are other ways to design a big screen on a hinge. I believe Apple’s designers could find a to make an all-in-one PC that allowed you to draw without gorilla-arm. They’ve already shown themselves to be flexible regarding ergonomics. Using an iPad with a smart keyboard are exactly as uncomfortable as using a MacBook with Multi-Touch, and yet that is a product you could buy today. 

The success of iOS proved that removing abstraction can drastically improve user experience. Creative professionals have shown that they want to be able to interact directly with the UI, but many have also shown a preference for Macs, whether it’s because of advanced file system access and scriptability, large screens, or just because that’s what their IT departments expect them to use. They square this circle by using Wacom tablets, but that’s just another layer of abstraction waiting to be removed. 

I’m not suggesting that Apple will simply copy the Surface Studio. For one thing, the lack of full Multi-Touch support would make this a completely different beast. I also think there’s a lot that their hardware designers could bring to the table. But the more I think about it, the more obvious it seems. The next step forward for the Mac is the Pencil.

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