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So Are We Ready to Bid Adieu to the Mac Pro?

Some time back, I wrote a commentary suggesting that, one of these days, Apple might give up on the Mac Pro, for essentially the same reason that the Xserve is no more. If customers aren’t buying them in sufficient quantities to justify production, Apple isn’t going to produce. Period.

Unfortunately, a few online pundits misrepresented my statements, claiming I was talking about something that would happen in the very near future, and thus I was off my rocker. Well, I concede the latter, while at the same time I should point out that I didn’t suggest this was going to be something that would happen very soon. Having owned a couple of Mac Pros in my time, perhaps I was being too optimistic about its prospects.

Now since the last Mac Pro revision came out in the summer of 2010, you have to wonder what’s happened and why Apple seems to have abandoned their most powerful and costly computer, which is basically a workstation. The fault lies with Intel, since they haven’t delivered on any credible updates to the expensive server-grade Xeon chips that Apple uses. The next update is not expected until early in 2012, which is when you’ll see a new Mac Pro, or maybe not.

A few things have occurred since I wrote my first articles about the Mac Pro’s future. First is that portables are gaining a higher and higher share of Mac sales. It’s roughly at the three quarters level as of the last quarter. While Mac sales are still growing faster than the rest of the industry, with the exception of a few PC companies, most of that growth is obviously coming from the note-book segment, although the iMac and Mac mini continue to do well. Apple, of course, doesn’t break down models beyond desktop and portable, but it’s not hard to guess what’s going on. The Mac Pro is largely the province of heavy-duty content creators and gamers who find the iMac to be subpar in delivering maximum rendering speeds and superior frame rates with all the fancy rendering features enabled. Certainly the ability to install expansion cards inside the Mac Pro is a huge plus for such customers.

But Apple has begun to level the playing field between their professional and consumer Macs. Consider the arrival of Thunderbolt, a technology developed by Apple and Intel that, in effect, establishes an external PCI connection. Thunderbolt supports external displays, powerful hard drives, and all sorts of products that may still be on the drawing boards. You could even connect a PCI breakout box, such as a Magma ExpressBox 3T, and use it to install all or most of the same expansion cards you’ve been using in a Mac Pro. Maybe it’ll require special drivers and all, but it means that even a lowly Mac mini, the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro, and even the iMac can now support those cards.

Yes, as I said, a great equalizer.

The other value of a Mac Pro is sheer CPU horsepower. Although most benchmarks show the high-end Mac to be little faster than a loaded iMac, the equation changes when you run software that can exploit all those extra processor cores. The most powerful Mac Pro, starting at $4,999, utilizes a pair of 6-core Intel Xeon “Westmere” processors. The most powerful iMac, a $2,199 build-to-order option, contains a quad-core Intel i7. Other than the few truly multicore savvy apps, the iMac keeps up quite nicely with the Mac Pro, but the exceptions are the rule for professional customers.

Now Intel happens to have 6-core versions of the i7, the 990X, but Apple hasn’t configured any iMacs with this particular processor. Since it also carries a retail price of $999.99, even if you allow for a substantial discount because Apple would be buying them by the tens or hundreds of thousands if they decided to offer a higher-end model, your $2,199 iMac would become substantially more expensive, though still a whole lot cheaper than a Mac Pro. And that’s still a single processor, since you’d need a Xeon to support pairs.

Another problem is that, every time you buy an iMac, you are also buying a brand new 27-inch display, and Apple’s only “headless” option, other than the Mac Pro, is the mini. And don’t get me started about those failed hopes and dreams for an iMac sans display.

Would a souped up iMac serve as a worthy substitute for the Mac Pro? For most customers, probably. But there are still some for whom a Mac Pro is the tool of choice, and if Apple fails to provide that tool, they might consider jumping to Windows, assuming they’re not tethered to Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Logic Studio of course.

I wouldn’t presume to second guess Apple’s motives and future plans. If no new Mac Pro arrives once the refreshed Xeons are here, there will probably be room for concern. On the other hand, if Apple’s development costs are limited to simply updating the core components every year or two, and no other changes are made to the aging Mac Pro casings, maybe it’ll make sense for Apple to continue to build them. But there’s a point of no return, a point where sales are just too small to justify even carrying it in the catalog. It’s not as if Apple wants to build products in tiny quantities anymore.

It may even be that the latest round of speculation is little more than a trial balloon, designed to judge whether or not there will be much negative reaction to the possibility the Mac Pro is on life support. Or maybe some of those Mac rumor sites have too much time on their hands, and not enough new material.