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When Will Desktop Computers Be History?

You know that Mac desktops now constitute over 70% of Apple’s sales, at least as of the last quarter of 2008. That means that note-book sales went up, while the iMac, Mac mini and Mac Pro declined rather substantially.

Now part of this is no doubt due to the perilous state of the economy. I sort of suspect that some people who might have preferred both decided they could only afford a single computer. So they choose a note-book, to get, as much as possible, the best of both worlds.

Of course, the entire PC industry is moving in the same direction, only Apple is leading the way.

Now this doesn’t mean that Apple is necessarily abandoning the traditional desktop any time soon. You will still see the iMac, which moves in good numbers, and the Mac Pro for high-end content creators. I also expect that the Mac mini will get its long-delayed refresh in the near future, though only Apple knows whether it’ll have the same form factor with just some new and faster parts, or will get a new look and focus.

This trend also means, of course, that the hopes and dreams for the so-called headless iMac, or the “mythical midrange Mac minitower” are not likely to come to pass. The demand for such a product just isn’t there and time has clearly passed it by.

Now as far as I’m concerned, I will find it difficult, at least for a while, to abandon my Mac Pro. Yes, my year-old 17-inch MacBook Pro, maxed out with 4GB of RAM, is a pretty snappy beast. For most of you, the screen real estate, CPU horsepower and hard drive are more than sufficient for any task you might toss at it. You could, if you want, hook up a separate keyboard and mouse, and even a 30-inch display if you like. In fact, I expect that if you hid the MacBook Pro behind a curtain, you would not likely even think of it as a “mere” note-book.

However, there are still some of us out there who require the ultimate performance that a Mac workstation can deliver, and it’s a sure thing that a pair of quad-core Intel Xeons is a far superior number cruncher when compared to the Core 2 Duo on Apple’s portables. But that situation is no doubt poised for change, as Intel continues to roll out mobile-based quad-core CPUs.

Consider a future MacBook Pro that contains two quad-core processors, with sophisticated power management that would put some of those cores to sleep, and extend battery life. You can already order your Apple note-book with a 7200 rpm hard drive for superior read/write speeds, and future generations of high-density solid state drives will deliver 500GB storage space and more at an affordable price.

Do you see where I’m going here?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Intel working real hard to make mobile processors essentially match the performance of their high-end desktop equivalents in the not-too-distant future, because they have a strong financial incentive to move development in that direction.

At the same time, don’t assume that a 17-inch MacBook Pro is the largest model Apple plans to produce. While it would be rather costly and somewhat heavy, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to foresee a 20-inch version as well. Now I don’t know that I’d want to buy one, because it would be a bulky load in a carrying case, and I don’t think many of you would want to lug one around an airport during a critical business trip. Air travel is torture enough as it is. But for taking around the office, or a rare trip between offices, it might be an ideal companion.

The key to the phasing out of desktop computers is the ability to migrate essentially all of the performance and most of the expansion flexibility to the portable segment. Now beyond processors and hard drives, there are still other issues. You can’t, for example, swap out the graphics processor in a Mac note-book today , but there is no reason that it can’t be done. Instead of putting the graphics hardware on the motherboard, they can be migrated to a separate printed circuit card that you can simply slide out.

Apple’s MacBook Pros have an ExpressCard/34 slot, which you might regard as the equivalent, in part, to the PCI-based expansion slot on the Mac Pro. Now very few people ever put anything in those slots; they go largely unused. They mostly serve as psychological props to shore up your confidence that, if need be, you could install a card if you wanted.

However, there are certainly a number of content creators who do populate those slots with specialty audio cards and other hardware. So I can’t see why Apple couldn’t come up with a MacBook Pro with two slots. That ought to serve a similar purpose, as would adding more RAM slots on the chassis.

I don’t say it’ll necessarily happen this year or the next, but I bet I’ll be writing a column on this subject four or five years from now on a successor to my 17-inch MacBook Pro. I’ll have a huge LED backlit display in front of me, and I won’t miss my Mac Pro. Not for a minute.