Why Apple Announced the New Mac Pro Early & Likely Ship Date

Apple announced the new Mac Pro at WWDC last week. Some have asked why the announcement came so early. Apple's website says, "Coming later this year," and we all know that could be very late in the year. Also, what needs to happen for the new Mac Pro to ship?

First, Why Now?

The first question is why Apple announced the new Mac Pro at WWDC, which is a Apple developer conference. There are several reasons.

1. It's been too long since Apple announced a major new product. The last new product was the iPad mini, back in October 2012. The gulf of more than seven months has been a topic of heated discussion that has provided plenty of ammunition for Apple naysayers.

The new iMacs started shipping in quantity early in 2013 and it isn't the right time for a MacBook Air with a Retina display. That would raise the price of this entry-level MacBook too much, and also ruin the battery life. For the time being, it remains smart to continue that differentiation in the MacBook product line.

As a result, the new Mac Pro was the leading candidate for a new product announcement.

2. Apple has been under pressure to show some innovation. The new Mac Pro design, independent of technical quibbles, is a daring, innovative, sexy design. It has people talking. Dramatically, Apple showed one of its signature introductory videos, and Phil Schiller, carefully—and scripted—jumped in at the end with, 'Can't innovate anymore, my ass!"

Here's the Mac Pro introduction with that smack down by Senior VP Phil Schiller.

3. The WWDC keynote is heavily covered by the press and was, in fact, streamed live. Apple was eager to get some positive press and regain control of its news cycle. An exciting new Mac showing Apple's renewed commitment to, according to Phil Schiller, "video editors, musicians, photographers, graphic designers," not to mention computer scientists, researchers and scientists, would make dramatic, positive news.

4. iPhone and iPads are mass market devices that always have their own very special, dedicated event. With no distractions.

5. It's always smart for Apple to get 5,000 developers excited about the sexy, desirable hardware that will be in the hands of customers later this year. It creates a vivid sense of business opportunity for all developers, even if most of the developers are likely focusing on iOS.

6. After last year's WWDC Keynote, a customer famously asked Tim Cook about the future of the Mac Pro. Mr. Cook said: “Our pro customers are really important to us…don’t worry as we’re working on something really great for later next year." So this year's WWDC was an excellent time for Mr. Cook to cater to that promise.

Given all these reasons, it made perfect sense for Apple to announce the new Mac Pro at WWDC. Now the question is, when will it ship?

Next, the Gating Factors

There are several prerequisites required for the new Mac Pro to ship.

1. The CPU. Apple has to wait until Intel can supply enough of the Intel E5 chipset for Apple's needs. Intel's roadmap says that the chips required will be available in calendar Q3 (July to September). That's probably the easiest part.

2. Mountain Lion is limited to recognizing 96 GB of RAM, but the new Mac Pro may well support more than that, perhaps 128 GB (4 x 32 GB). It's likely that Mavericks will recognize all the RAM that the new Mac Pro hardware supports, and so Apple would probably want to ship the new Mac Pro with Mavericks, not Mountain Lion. Apple has said that Mavericks will ship "this fall." Which gives them until Friday, December 20. Several of us at TMO are thinking much sooner, perhaps mid to late September [Editor: Bryan is calling Mavericks in October].

3. Perhaps the most restrictive factor is Thunderbolt 2. TB 2, the principle mechanism for external expansion, doubles the speed of the current Thunderbolt with a 20 Gbps bi-directional channel. According to AppleInsider, Intel "has yet to nail down a specific date on Thunderbolt 2's release, but said it should be in production by the end of 2013, with a ramp into 2014."

Given that Mavericks is under Apple's control and that plenty of E5 chipsets will be available in late Q3, the gating factor appears to be Thunderbolt 2. One can only imagine the pressure Apple will be putting on Intel to deliver the TB2 chipset, which, incidentally, will support the 4K displays that Apple will probably want to tout for video professionals.

In fact, it's possible that the rumors we heard earlier in the year about a not-so-family-affordable 4K HDTV project were really Apple's initial testing for a 4K display for professionals to use with the new Mac Pro.

It's still a SWAG, but the signs seem to point to early December. That's a long time to wait, but still, Apple was smart to whet our appetite, allay our worst fears about the Mac Pro's future, and excite developers at WWDC.