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  • Not a Rumor: Why Apple Might Release Pro Desktops Early

    June 30th, 2006

    Not so long ago, a lot of us suggested that the Mac Pro, the expected successor to the Power Mac, would probably be announced in August during the keynote at the WWDC. It makes sense, since the newest updates to Intel’s chip line will be in full production.

    But wait just a moment! Maybe we’re missing something. You see, it’s clear that the next great version of Mac OS X, code-named Leopard, heads the August agenda. Apple has said as much in a recent press release, which is why you’re going to read lots and lots of stories about what might appear in the new release, along with various and sundry wish lists.

    I know I’ve given mine, but what about the remaining members of Apple’s Mac lineup? With consumer desktops and consumer and professional note-books out the door, only the release of the latest members of Intel’s revised chip family might have held up the new Power Mac and, of course, the Xserve.

    You can expect that Apple wants to get the products out as soon as the new chips are in production, just as they did when the Intel-based iMac and MacBook Pro were announced in January. Yes, even though they’re only small customers to Intel, dwarfed by Dell and HP, Apple didn’t find itself placed at the end of the food chain. Apple is clearly the prestige customer for the world’s largest chip maker, and I have no doubt this was part of the deal that made them switch processors.

    This week, intel introduced its Woodcrest processor, which is officially known as the Dual-Core Xeon 5100 series. Topping at at 3GHz, this is a high-end 64-bit chip that’s earmarked for both servers and high-end workstations. You can be certain that Apple has already gotten prototypes and that it is developing ways to harness the extraordinary power of this new chip, and certainly an Xserve would be as good a place as any to place it.

    So with the chip shipping now, and designed for “high-volume server, workstation, communications, storage and embedded market segments,” according to Intel, what is Apple waiting for? Yes, you read that correctly! The word “workstation” is used there, and the Power Mac G5, in the past, has been compared to a Xeon-equipped workstation.

    So with the new generation chips at hand, is there any reason for Apple to wait much longer before completing its Intel migration? That magic 3GHz point ought to be particularly tempting, in light of the failed and embarrassing promise Steve Jobs made about delivering a Power Mac G5 with that rating within a year after the initial model was introduced.

    In announcing the new chip, Intel claims “135 percent performance improvements and up to 40 percent reduction in energy consumption over previous Intel server products.” Does this mean that the Mac Pro, the expected name of the Power Mac’s successor, won’t need liquid cooling? I wouldn’t know, and I wouldn’t pretend to possess secret information about the status of Apple’s design scheme for its new desktops.

    But I will say this: Unless there is some unexpected delay in developing and testing its professional model, I don’t see any reason for a further delay. Accordingly, I’m going out on the limb here, and I may end up being the fool as a result. But that doesn’t matter. I fully expect that Apple will announce the Mac Pro and a brand new Xserve before the middle of July.

    I expect both will have form factors similar to the existing designs, largely because the customers who buy such computers aren’t as style-conscious as those who buy the new MacBook or an iPod. They simply want something that delivers the computing horsepower and reliability they need for their work. If cooling requirements are more modest, of course, Apple might find room for more internal drives, but I’m not taking any bets.

    Of course there is another factor that Apple has to consider: With Adobe’s Creative Suite and other applications still not ready in Universal form, early adopters of the new Mac professional desktops will have to rely on Rosetta emulation for large portions of their work. Now if Intel’s claims of tremendous performance improvements are true, and the Xeon 5100 series can trump a Power Mac G5 by a comparable margin, you will experience only a negligible performance loss with, say, Photoshop. But Universal applications will just soar.

    As to Adobe, one might expect that, with the Intel transition done, they’d have their work cut out for them in delivering a Universal Creative Suite. Maybe they can even advance their timetable, but I’m not going to go that far. Besides, my crystal ball is getting a bit cloudy, and I need some sleep.

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