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Apple Continues to Marginalize the Mac Pro

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.