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From Cube to Tube: What About the Mac Pro?

Apple has a thing for relatively small, sexy form factors with complicated internal designs. Sometimes they are difficult to assemble, and sometimes the promise of elegance isn’t fulfilled. Perhaps the Power Mac G4 Cube was a prime example of the obsessive focus on a cool design to the exclusion of practicality. It was also overpriced and failed to fill any significant gaps in the Mac lineup. It was mostly about form above function.

At the time of its release, I wrote of it as a potential museum piece, and it was discontinued after a big price cut failed to move product. So you’d think that Apple learned a hard lesson, and maybe they have, but there are concerns about a certain forthcoming product.

Coming some time later this year is a totally redesigned Mac Pro. Apple certainly promised big things with their professional Mac workstation, and all sorts of speculation arose as to what they’d do. The end result essentially confirms some early speculation, while setting a new standard for how a personal computer should look. Apple has not lost the penchant to surprise and sometimes amaze and even anger people.

So to Apple, the tower design, dating back to the earliest days of the PC era, is history. Tubes are in, well at least that’s how Apple has approached the Mac Pro, which seems designed to occupy as little space as possible, yet retain and improve on the performance of its predecessor.

But the early chatter of the forthcoming product is mixed. Predictably, some adore the smaller form factor, which occupies one-eighth the volume of the original, which was a pain to transport from place to place. Certainly Apple made smart choices in picking state-of-the-art graphic chips, and high performance busses all around. Having six Thunderbolt 2 ports will certainly make it relatively easy to add stuff. As a new update to the standard, however, don’t expect much in the way of peripherals for now. It’s hard enough to find stuff that supports the original version of Thunderbolt.

However, the other shoe drops with the curious decision to eliminate most of the expandability capabilities of the Mac Pro. Some content creators are already howling about the changes. What about their collections of peripheral cards and storage devices? What about the lack of an internal optical drive? What do to?

Apple’s response would be to buy an expansion chassis, and use them as before. With Thunderbolt, all of these peripherals can work on any reasonably current Mac, although the Mac Pro let’s everything run to its maximum potential speed.

But it’s also true that many existing Mac Pro users never upgrade anything beyond RAM and perhaps the hard drives. But since the latter can be outfitted externally, maybe it’s not such a huge loss. The larger concern is the graphics. Sure, Apple is getting state of the art FirePro chips from AMD, but some would prefer NVIDIA’s CUDA parallel processing architecture, which promises better rendering performance with apps that support the technology. So will Apple offer NVIDIA graphics for those who need them, or make it possible to replace the onboard chips with such alternatives?

That the Mac Pro may still be weeks or months from release also means that Apple still has the time to make some changes, although one doesn’t expect them to be substantial. The prototypes were shown to developers to, Apple hopes, reassure them that Apple takes professional content creators seriously and will deliver a product that will, in the end, be enthusiastically embraced by them.

But Apple isn’t afraid to upset the cart from time to time, sometimes in a very inconvenient way. Clearly the company is stung by claims that the passing of Steve Jobs destroyed their creative center. Marketing VP Phil Schiller presumably felt that as an affront, so in response to the audience’s loud applause upon the introduction of the new Mac Pro form factor, he quietly dropped the phrase, “can’t innovate anymore my ass!”

It sounded spontaneous, but Apple is never spontaneous. The phrase was no doubt carefully rehearsed, and meant to be uttered at that very moment. Indeed, just about every second of the WWDC keynote was carefully rehearsed in the fashion of a play. Each member of the executive team knew their parts, and there was nary a stumble, except for one game developer, Anki,  who had a bit of trouble getting their toy cars running in proper fashion to display nifty artificial intelligence capabilities. That’s what happens with prelease products, and once things got going, the audience was suitably impressed.

At the end of the day, Apple is taking a calculated risk with the Mac Pro. Content creators who felt betrayed with the huge changes wrought in Final Cut Pro X are being asked yet again to trust Apple to deliver the computing solution they need to get their work done. The key to the Mac Pro’s success is a rich selection of Thunderbolt peripherals to replace the internal expansion choices. Apple clearly doesn’t want the Mac Pro to become the next Cube.