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Does Thunderbolt Signal the Potential End to the Mac Pro?

Not so long ago, some people ragged on The Night Owl because they misunderstood my statements that the Mac Pro might be an endangered species in the near future. My point was not that it would happen this year, or the next, but that the future might be bleak for its continuation several years from now. That fine point of distinction was lost to some.

But it’s clear to me that Apple’s product development path is clearly designed to bring workstation-class power and performance to less expensive gear. The new Thunderbolt connection port, as far as I’m concerned, is clearly the harbinger of major changes that won’t take long to manifest themselves.

Consider the major advantages of a Mac Pro. One is the more powerful Intel Xeon processor, the ability to install high-end graphic cards for 3D and CAD design, and those expansion ports for RAID cards and other peripherals that are essential tools for many content creators. I know that, in the past, I always bought the top-of-the-line Mac, or something quite close, and that choice was first made in the late 1980s.

But it wasn’t just the desire to cut expenses that made me switch to a 27-inch iMac with Intel i7 quad-core processor a little more than a year ago. The arrival of desktop-class multicore processors means that you can come awfully close to the power of a Mac Pro for a much lower price. Indeed, I was able to sell a 30-inch display plus a 2008 Mac Pro, buy the iMac with a faster processor and memory upgrade, and still get $300 in change to pay some bills. And I don’t think I’m alone in making this move. I expect that sales of the Mac Pro are far from being the shining light of Apple’s Mac product lineup.

Apple’s biggest move yet to equalize your access to a powerful personal computer came with the Early 2011 MacBook Pro family. Two models are available with quad-core Intel i 7 processors, from the Sandy Bridge family, which deliver benchmarks very close to a Mac Pro. More important, however, is the arrival of Thunderbolt, which means you have an external PCI Express connection port that can support up to six daisy chained peripherals, not to mention an external display.

Sure, it’ll be a while before Thunderbolt comes into its own. Accessory makers are just starting to gear up with gigantic hard drives, RAID configurations, and other products that’ll benefit from Thunderbolt. Imagine a MacBook Pro, a portable computer that’s easily transported between work and home, which can be easily connected via a single cable to a desktop configuration with an external display and powerful peripherals for whatever work you plan to do.

I would expect to see Thunderbolt included in the next iMac upgrade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a future Mac mini refresh had it too. Apple is famous (or infamous) for leveraging parts across as many product lines as possible to keep production costs down. With millions of Macs outfitted with Thunderbolt ports — and Windows PC boxes will ultimately have them too — you can expect a rich selection of high-speed peripherals to connect to that port.

Some have suggested that a future iPad might also sport Thunderbolt connectivity, but I rather that’s overkill. At least for now, but it’s inevitable that more and more of the functions of a desktop computer will pass on to tablets. After all, the iPad 2 sports a level of computing power that you might have expected from a traditional Mac or PC not so many years ago.

As far as the Mac Pro is concerned, I’m looking at the long picture here. Much of how Apple handles that product depends on demand. If it still offers features that a sufficient customer base of content creators and power users crave, it won’t disappear anytime soon. At some point in time, though, as other products continue to assume the Mac Pro’s functions, more or less, that situation will change.

Remember that the Xserve was discontinued, not because it wasn’t any good, but because demand was not sufficient to justify development. Apple doesn’t have a romantic attachment to products that have outlived their usefulness. Even the Power Mac G4 Cube, clearly a pet product for Steve Jobs, got axed because they couldn’t find  a way to continue to sell them.

Remember that Apple won’t stop building the Mac Pro simply out of piqué or disdain for professional customers. It’s all about sales, and you are the people who will determine its future, now and in the years to come. More to the point, if other Macs can deliver the performance and flexibility you need, maybe it won’t matter.

Now I expect some of the folks who misquoted my previous columns on the subject will now flex their fingers to do it yet again. But make no mistake about it! I don’t see the Mac Pro disappearing immediately. The end of the tower computer will take time to happen. It’s also possible that future iMacs will add a tiny bit of extra internal expandability, such as the ability to easily install an extra drive, to compensate.