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  • Apple Continues to Marginalize the Mac Pro

    August 5th, 2011

    Some months back, I wrote a piece suggesting that the high-end Mac Pro workstation might be on the long-term endangered species list. In other words, Apple won’t continue to build them indefinitely, that they ultimately planned to phase out the line, but I also didn’t expect that to happen for at least a few years.

    In response, a few people, including someone who also hosts a Mac oriented radio show, erroneously concluded that I was referring to something that might happen now, not at some amorphous time in the future. However, I have begun to alter my view, largely because of what Apple has done in revising other Macs.

    But I want to caution the reader that I still expect to see new Mac Pros for a while, just not for as long as I might have otherwise expected. But this is strictly a matter of sales. So long as there are reasonable numbers of customers who want the most powerful Mac on the planet for business or home use, it seems sensible that Apple will continue to build them. This might also be a matter of prestige, since having one of the world’s most powerful personal computers in their lineup counts for a lot when it comes to content creators who need to do such tasks as movie special effects, which are incredibly processor intensive.

    At the same time, Apple has clearly made the lower priced models far more powerful. Indeed, the differences are lessening over time.

    Take the Mac mini, once the image of a no-frills compact computer with essentially low-end performance. It didn’t even come with a mouse and keyboard, unlike the standard desktop Mac. However, the latest version is delivering performance benchmarks that take it really close to more expensive Apple gear, even the iMac. What’s more, the new Thunderbolt connection port, developed by Apple and Intel, essentially means you can add external peripherals that perform identically to the internal accessories you put inside the Mac Pro.

    So if you find the internal drive pokey, you can add external RAID drives and get amazing performance. Sure, you can add an internal SSD as well, if you want to take the thing apart. More to the point, you can leave your heavy-duty externals at the office, and shuttle the Mac mini between both locations in a smaller container than you’d need for a note-book.

    The MacBook Air has also acquired an amazing level of performance with the latest Intel processors. In some respects, it can match the MacBook Pro, although you have obvious tradeoffs, such as the lack of an optical drive; the same holds true for this year’s Mac mini.

    For power users, a fully decked out iMac is capable of amazing benchmarks, outfitted with the top-of-the-line Intel i7 processor, internal SSD and standard hard drives, and 16 GB of RAM. Sure, all the extra internals can up the price to close to $4,000 with an AppleCare service contract. But don’t forget that the Mac Pro easily becomes a five-figure purchase if you go for all the extras.

    This doesn’t put the iMac on an equal footing with the Mac Pro. Certainly having two multicore processors and twice the RAM of the iMac is going to have considerable impact in some installations. Maybe you don’t want to have to buy a display every single time you buy a new Mac, but don’t forget that the Mac Pro can be over three times as expensive as the iMac, and a business is going to have to do some careful number crunching in order to justify that sort of investment. It’s far from a trivial purchase.

    I suppose the other question is where Apple wants to take the Mac Pro for as long as it remains under development. Some suggest the next model will be slimmer, configured for installation in a rack, where you’d have a bank of them rendering movie special effects, mathematical calculations and other chores that would still tax even the most powerful iMac.

    Being able to add extra internal drives and graphic cards is also a huge plus. Today, Thunderbolt remains a promise. Very few peripherals are available, although that should change now that all Macs, other than the Mac Pro of course, have Thunderbolt ports. Certainly Windows PCs will be getting them too over time, meaning that peripheral makers will have a rapidly growing population of potential customers.

    There is one other factor, which some might regard is the more overt consumer focus on Macs these days. The changes in OS X Lion, ostensibly to bring it closer in concept to the iOS, also simplify user interaction. Even the home or user Library folder, repository for preferences and other files, is hidden without going through a special process, such as holding down the Option key when choosing the Finder’s Go menu. That is a deliberate decision that isn’t so much dumbing down the OS as making it more difficult for most users to screw things up. But the critics are also complaining about missing features in the server version of Lion, which will make it less attractive for business customers.

    And I haven’t begun to talk about the ongoing controversy over the changes in Final Cut Pro. The key issue is whether Apple is on the road to abandoning high-end customers who don’t deliver huge revenues for the company. If that’s the case, the Mac Pro may also be on life support, and it’s questionable how long it’ll be built.



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    24 Responses to “Apple Continues to Marginalize the Mac Pro”

    1. dfs says:

      I’m not sure we have a business/personal dichotomy. The chief selling point of the MacPro remains its very superior flexibility: you can add colossal amounts of memory, gobs of internal storage (you could even, I suppose, load it with four SSD drives in a RAID array), and all kinds of specialized PCI cards that let you do things like drive more than two monitors, and you can get more processing cores than the iMac has to offer. Who needs this stuff? It’s difficult to imagine many folks in The Enterprise needing (or being willing to pay for) such heavy artillery. These days you might more typically find a MacPro in some kind of medical or scientific laboratory environment or in a video editing shop. So the MacPro has become a kind of exotic niche product. But this is probably a sufficiently large and profitable niche that Apple has no intention of abandoning it. Think of cameras. Most of the world is happy with Canons and Nikons. But there’s always going to be a specialized, although much smaller, demand for super-high-end cameras to satisfy the needs of the real pros, who need and are willing to pay for such gear. You might say the MacPro has become the Hasselblad of the computer world.

    2. John Fallon says:

      At the moment, Thunderbolt is an idea and not a lot more. The $50 connector cable may be enough to keep it a niche product. It’s not like the Display Port was any great success.

      • @John Fallon, DisplayPort is strictly for displays. Thunderbolt supports a host of devices, and it’s up to different manufacturers to come up with adapter cords, drives and other products to support the technology. Understand that the $49 connector is just the start. Over time, they will be able to lower the price with newer manufacturing techniques. Remember what you had to pay for HDMI cables once upon a time for your flat panel TV? Even now high-end HDMI cables are more than $49, a lot more.

        Peace,
        Gene

    3. Michael says:

      I am a professor in an engineering department at a major research university. We use lots of Mac Pros for heavy duty scientific computing. The Fortran compilers are excellent, it’s easy to take advantage of multiprocessing and multithreading, and we are successfully experimenting with CUDA. In our corner of the world Mac Pros are the “day job”, not an exotic niche. Yes, they probably are an exotic niche in the overall computing world, but we hope that niche stays healthy for a long time.

    4. Kaleberg says:

      It isn’t that Apple is marginalizing the MacPro, it’s that home and office computing have caught up with an older generation of Mac Pros. The applications have always had certain processing requirements whether they be for network browsing, video watching, rendering, movie production, sound processing, weather forecasting or what not. Meanwhile, the processors have grown more powerful. Since processor fabric is done at scale, it is hard to get any cost savings by producing much less powerful processors in a given form factor. If you look at the whole computer business, Apple hasn’t marginalized the MacPro. If anyone has, it has been Intel.

    5. Synth says:

      My hope is that the next Mac Pro will be small enough to fit into a rack and that Apple will use its creativity to give a server version of the machine as well as the desktop version. Server version could omit the optical drive for an extra PSU.

      The Thunderbolt port should allow Apple to ditch some of the internal drives and PCI slots which even many pros don’t need. Many pro will switch to the new iMacs unless Apple give them some new compelling reasons for the Mac Pro. Right now the only compelling reason for a Mac Pro is the extra RAM, and that is outrageously expensive for everyone but the most high-end pros, even non-Apple RAM is crazy expensive for Mac Pros.

      Now that every iMac can support multiple monitors, 32GB RAM and multiple high speed drives with no performance hit, it is very hard to justify the entry price of a Mac Pro of $2500 with a meager 1TB HD and 3GB RAM. That’s really quite pitiful.

      • C C says:

        @Synth,
        Great point about the possibility of omitting the optical drive in the server configuration, for an extra power supply! Makes a lot of sense.

        Because of Thunderbolt’s speed and inherent compatibility with respect to PCI(e) hardware, it makes a LOT of sense to offer a breakout box option and provide fewer built-in slots. Would inevitably be some howling from pro users who REALLY want 4 or 5 internal slots, but there is certainly the potential for Thunderbolt to replace the need for some of those slots. For example promise is advertising a Thunderbolt to Fibre Channel adaptor, and it will be interesting to see if a TB to SCSI adaptor is feasible…would replace the need for SCSI or FC cards right there. Sonnet also has some adaptors/devices in development (including Ethernet and FW800 adaptors which will be handy for MacBook Air users etc.)

        For higher-end users, one of the big drawbacks of the newer iMacs is, they now have a drive-specific connector to the thermal sensor, instead of being taped on the drive. This means that you can’t just replace a iMac’s original Apple OEM hard drive with any other drive, unless you want to try disabling the thermal sensor and/or using software like SMC fan control. That doesn’t always work well. With a Mac Pro you can just add/swap in any standard SATA drive(s).

        It’s great that with the mini and the iMac you can now spec an SSD boot drive and a 2nd drive for projects, files, archiving, etc…but for some situations it’s best to have at least one more dedicated drive for a scratch disk. You can only do that with a Mac Pro. But because the higher-end iMacs are so much better and the Mac Pros are currently long in the tooth, a lot of people will be happy with the 2 drives in the iMac and forego a dedicated scratch disk. And of course when Thunderbolt enclosures are available, you could put a Velociraptor or similar fast drive in one of those and there’s your scratch disk!

        But it’s definitely a mixed bag right now. Doesn’t help that the next generation of Mac Pro-class Intel processors aren’t available yet (AFAIK) – at least not in 8/12/16?-core versions which would really provide a step beyond the iMac etc…so the current Mac Pro continues to look outdated.

    6. Chris Muir says:

      In the pro audio world, slots are still important.

      Maybe someday there will be Thunderbolt audio interfaces, but many people have an investment in high end audio cards, and it will be a while before they want to get all new equipment.

      • @Chris Muir, I suppose someone could make a Thunderbird-connected breakout box for legacy cards.

        Peace,
        Gene

        • Chris Muir says:

          @Gene Steinberg,
          Yeah, although I know several audio engineers that had bad experiences with Magma Chassis back in the old days.

          • @Chris Muir, Well, what happened then doesn’t necessarily impact what is going to happen in the future.

            Peace,
            Gene

            • Chris Muir says:

              @Gene Steinberg, Of course, but a real tower with built-in slots will always be preferable to an expansion chassis, I think. At any rate, there are only rumors of an expansion chassis, anyway.

              • C C says:

                @Chris Muir,
                Actually some single-card chassis boxes are actively in development. Should be out later this year but nothing official. Can daisy-chain up to 6 of them:
                http://www.sonnettech.com/news/nab2011/
                I really expect that other companies will come out with these, and that at least one vendor will offer 2, 3, or 4-card boxes. That’s just a guess on my part though.

                It’s important to note that Thunderbolt hardware and drivers * combine * PCI Express and DisplayPort into a new single interface. So essentially the PCIe protocol and compatibility is already there! Very different story if you are trying to make a TB-to-FireWire or TB-to-SCSI adaptor. So from a compatibility and speed standpoint, I expect that TB breakout boxes will work very well.

    7. dfs says:

      “and it’s up to different manufacturers to come up with adapter cords, drives and other products to support the technology”. I’ve been around long enough to know that when Apple invents a new technology and leaves up to other developers and manufacturers to exploit it, sometimes not very much happens. But when itself Apple leads the way in exploiting it, others often follow. I suspect the reason is that if other companies don’t see Apple making very much of a capital investment in its own technologies, they start asking themselves why they should take the risk.

    8. arw says:

      It is easy to grasp why sales would continue to decline for true desktop/tower Macs as Apple just doesn’t play in that arena. If the Mac Pro is discontinued, I will have no choice but go hackintosh. I have no desire to buy a pseudo desktop such as an iMac as AIO products do not interest me. This is but one area I seriously diverge from that of Steve Jobs, and one that might eventually lose me as a long time Mac user and ardent supporter.

    9. Sandra Block says:

      That’s the very reason I decided to get completely off the Apple bandwagon, because I got tired or wondering or worrying about what Apple would change or do next to their hardware or software. The changes and debacle with the new Final Cut X was the last straw for me. Therefore, I plan to just stock up on as much of the current high-end hardware as I can afford (for example, I plan to buy a Mac Book Pro with Quad-processors to run Snow Leopard or older (I have no plans to ever upgrade to Lion) and to use that MBP with Final Cut Studio 3 and other programs I already own and programs which perfectly serve my needs. I also have any plans on ever moving to Apple’s iCloud.

      The best way to understand how I feel is to say back when the music industry moved from cassette tape and vinyl LP’s to digital downloads, many hard-core music fans decided to remain with vinyl (for the superior sound quality) and will still only buy vinyl today. I have the same feelings about all these new changes at Apple. I may not can stop or prevent Apple from always making new changes, but I can draw a line in the sand and say I will go no further and will just stick with the current hardware and software. And that’s precisely what I have done.

      It is perfectly clear to me now that Apple’s only reasons and motives for making so many changes to their hardware and software, and doing so so soften, has nothing to do with whether we as a society is ready for or even needs those changes, but has everything to do with Apple trying to make more money and to fatten it’s bottom line. That is the only thing truly driving Apple right now – the pursuit of the the dollar bill. For example, I am perfectly content with the current technology as it already is. Yet Apply insists on changing it every 6 months for the sake of change all because changing it allows them to earn more money. Therefore, I’ve decided to get off that bandwagon…

      • Al says:

        @Sandra Block,

        This is the high tech industry. If you’re not innovating at break neck speed, you’re being left behind. If you pause for even a moment, someone else might overtake you and your retaking the lead is dependent on their pausing too long or making a bonehead mistake. To let yourself fall into a situation where your fate is not in your hands but your competitors’ is not a very smart thing to let happen.

        There is no such thing as stasis in the high tech industry. You innovate or die. What you want Apple to do is to be like Microsoft and stick with a particular technology (Win XP for Microsoft) far too long then is healthy for the company. Yes Apple is making money hand over fist. But it’s not about the money, it’s about survival.

    10. Al says:

      @Sandra Block,

      To elaborate further, you say you’re “perfectly content with the current technology as it already is”. That’s whom Microsoft listened to, the people who said that Windows XP works for them just fine. Now they are in serious danger of their company’s future being severely diminished by tablets and mobile phones and Mac computers. They are seriously behind on every major trend in their industry and mostly because they catered to customers like you who were “perfectly content with the current technology as it already is”.

      Furthermore, I own Macs exclusively, but I have never felt compelled to buy a new Mac (or a new iPod, iPhone or iPad) every time a new model comes out. Heck I’ve never even owned an iPhone or an iPad. My first Mac lasted 6 years, and my current Mac will last me at least that long again. I certainly never felt that my machines became obsolete the moment the next hardware/software upgrade came up. But I certainly like the idea that when the time comes to upgrade, my next machine will be leaps and bounds ahead of my last one.

      • Sandra Block says:

        @Al,
        The reality is, sometimes the wheel is perfect as it is. Which means Apple does NOT need to keep recreating the same wheel every 6 months and with us going through changes each and every time.

        Your two posts only underscore my point – that Apple is only thinking of itself and it’s own long term survival and own best interests – rather than thinking about or focusing on the best interests of it’s users. As an example of this, I currently own Final Cut Studio 3. That program is near perfect and serves all of my needs. In contrast, Apple’s new Final Cut X is a step DOWN from Final Cut Studio 3 and with many important features and capabilities missing. I don’t consider that an improvement. I consider it “de-evolution.” Likewise is Apple’s rumored intent to “remove” the dvd drive from all future models. What in God’s name is Apple thinking? And another example, Apple want everyone to move to iCloud. Why? (so THEY can make more money). When the reality is, many people are perfectly happy with things just the way they are…

        You spoke about the ability to buy a new computer that’s leaps and bounds over your last one (so what? a simple processor upgrade will do the same thing, and without radically altering the hardware or software). What you said may sound good but what if every time you replaced your computer you had to replace all your favorite programs as well (and at some expense), and what if none of your current programs would even run on the new computer? (for example, no PPC compatibility in Lion). And what if the newer programs wouldn’t open your old documents at all? You wouldn’t be so happy about upgrading then would you? And what if even if you replaced your older programs, the newer programs had completely done away with certain features and capabilities you had really liked and depended on? You wouldn’t be so joy joy about it then would you?…

    11. dfs says:

      I’m having a lot of trouble believing the turn this conversation has taken. Look, people, Apple is a corporations, not some kind of non-profit charity organization. Like any other corporation, it exists to benefit its officers, employees, and shareholders. Which it does very well indeed, mostly in a benevolent way without becoming the sort of evil predatory corporation Noam Chomsky rails against. So why should anybody register any surprise when Apple is driven by the profit motive in making a lot of its choices? As a Mac and iPod Touch owner, and also as an occasional shareholder, I have nothing but admiration and gratitude for all Apple has done for me over the years. That doesn’t mean I approve of every decision they make or climb aboard every bandwagon Apple or the electronics industry in general creates (for doing much more than synching my family’s various Macs and portables in the way I want them synched and when I want them synched, I’m not very anxious to get involved with the Cloud). And nobody can force me to upgrade my hardware or software or otherwise adopt new technologies when I don’t want to, right? Heck, I know a couple of audiophiles who still swear by amplifiers that use vacuum tubes rather than transistors. And there’s no Tech Police to come by and make them stop.

    12. C C says:

      About the new mini being a viable option for more users, as opposed to the underpowered mini models of yesteryear:

      There is GREAT potential for an Thunderbolt miniStack: Imagine suddenly being able to add full-size drives (and additional ports) to a new mini, with a vastly-faster-than-ever-before connection. There is evidence in the channel that OWC is working on a new MiniStack, but nothing official, and no guarantee that it would incorporate TB. But a TB miniStack certainly makes sense.

      The video cards for the mini aren’t as good as the higher-end iMac or Pro, but good enough for a lot of people. IMO having the extra capacity in a still-compact footprint will be a nice draw for a new mini + miniStack.

    13. Rob says:

      Some companies support their users over time, some don’t. Apple doesn’t. It’s crazy to depend on an Apple program when there’s an alternative. When Apple ends a product that people depend on, it kills it so dead so nobody else can start it up. Not only does Apple discontinue it, it blocks anyone else from doing so. Why can you emulate Windows on a Mac but not OS9? Surely Apple could have found a way to either continue Rosetta or allow others to do so. Why can’t modern Macs even open an AppleWorks document? This is why I keep an array of old Macs functional. I’ve always thought this was a Steve Jobs characteristic, and not his best one, it was his spiteful, nasty side. Now, I hope that Apple continues to innovate but begins to work with its long time customers to allow them to stick with the programs they depend on. Let other developers pick up the things Apple choses to drop, don’t threaten them with lawsuits.

      There would be two big benefits to Apple. If Apple developed a reputation for software products that last, OSX adoption would finally be able to break out of single digit percentage market share. And, rapid adoption of new technology would increase if there weren’t so much well-justified fear that every step forward is also one step back. I look forward to new products, but never buy them until I’ve got my plan for how to deal with the lost features I depend on. The fact is much of the old software is actually better than the new stuff, and that’s the way it’s been throughout history for all products.

    14. E-bike says:

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