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Some Mac Upgrade Reassurance

Just this week, I read a report quoting Mac commentator Jim Dalrymple, Editor-in-Chief of The Loop, as saying that there’s no chance that Apple will discontinue the Mac Pro. Of course, when you ask Jim to expand on such pithy comments, you won’t receive any additional details But it’s also true that Jim almost always gets it right. So there you go.

It also make sense. Sure, Mac Pro sales are probably a fraction of what the used to be. Sure, Apple has moved the high performance bar downward a notch with the iMac, which features quad-core configurations and Thunderbolt, the high performance expansion port Apple and Intel developed. With Thunderbolt you can, in theory, install a breakout box that would incorporate the same PCI cards that you can insert inside a Mac Pro, or even a bunch of extra storage devices. Even better, this sort of expansion is available for every other Mac, including the entry-level MacBook Air and Mac mini.

That doesn’t mean that a Mac Pro can be completely replaced with “lesser” hardware. The Xeon processors in a Mac Pro are still capable of feats of performance that will stress the rest of the Mac hardware lineup. Maybe there aren’t many apps that require the extra cores, but it’s a sure thing that a large number of content creators would seriously consider a Windows workstation without a Mac Pro around.

Besides, it’s not as if Apple would have to spend a lot of money to fund developing a new model. It would largely involve installing the new processor and graphic cards, adding a couple of Thunderbolt ports, and updating the logic board accordingly. Yes, I suppose some of you would prefer a thinner, lighter form factor, but it’s not as if the current overweight hardware is necessary turning customers away.

It was also reported this week that Intel has released some more processors from the Ivy Bridge family, and these are low powered chips that would likely be suitable for a MacBook Air. Assuming they are shipping in quantities sufficient for Apple’s needs, it’s reasonable to suggest that the entire Mac lineup will be upgraded, perhaps at the WWDC, or perhaps even as early as next week. Recent Apple developer conferences have avoided much hardware talk, and a low-key hardware introduction a week earlier would allow Apple to concentrate on operating systems at the WWDC.

So far as 10.8 Mountain Lion is concerned, my feeling is that a final or release candidate will be distributed to developers at the start of the WWDC. The expected delivery date will be late July or August, in keeping with the promise of a summer release. I do not expect to see the final product arrive for the conference. I’d think Apple would want to give developers a month or two to play with it before the final release, to reduce the number of point-zero bugs. Besides, the stories from the rumor sites indicate Mountain Lion still has a ways to go before it’s ready for prime time.

When it comes to the price, I repeated my theory during the taping of this week’s tech show: Apple will very likely deliver the Mountain Lion upgrade as free download from the Mac App Store to Lion users. Snow Leopard users will have to pay $29.99 to upgrade to the latest Mac OS.

Maybe this is a romantic ideal, and certainly it turns back the clock to the early days of the Mac, when the OS was freely available for copying and downloading. But Apple will keep it on their online storefront regardless.

It makes perfect sense because this move follows the iOS tradition of free annual reference release upgrades. It’s not as if Apple needs the money. Besides, making Mountain Lion free will speed migration. Yes, the stragglers who never upgraded to Lion won’t get it free, but to do otherwise would be unfair to those who did pay for 10.7. With the highest possible early adoption of the latest and greatest OS X, it’ll make it more convenient for developers to jump on board with compatible apps.

I also think the action would have another goal, which is to freak Microsoft. With a final Windows 8 prerelease now available for download, I’m sure Microsoft is working out the final pricing. Very likely, Steve Ballmer and Crew will want to see how Apple handles Mountain Lion pricing, and they could very well be in for a rude awakening. All right, if you buy a new PC as of June 2, you will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 for $14.99. But that will leave hundreds of millions of potential customers who may already be highly skeptical about Windows 8 and the controversial Metro interface. If Microsoft doesn’t make the upgrade path reasonably inexpensive, they might find it hard to make the sale. Most early adopters may simply be people who buy new PCs with Windows 8 preloaded, or take advantage of a cheap upgrade path.

Meantime, this year’s WWDC will be one fascinating event, and not just because Steve Jobs is not around as the master of ceremonies. The WWDC will no doubt yield at least a few surprises, and I think I’m more right than wrong about the announcements I’m predicting here.