The 2013 Mac Pro: The Last Mac Workstation?

December 19th, 2013

So, as promised, the Made in the U.S.A. Mac Pro became available for ordering on Thursday, December 19. Coming so late in the month, though, I expect that all or most of the units ordered, particularly the ones that are heavily customized, will not actually reach the hands of customers until some time in January.

Certainly the photos and descriptions show a potential work of art that is remarkably small, at just 9.9 inches high. Remember that’s a bit more than an inch shy of an 11-inch sheet of paper to give you the appropriate perspective. Width is 6.6 inches and it weighs just 11 pounds.

I emphasize these numbers because the cylindrical Mac Pro seems a lot larger in the photos, and it certainly sets a new standard not just for personal computers, but for high-end number crunching machines known as workstations.

As I ponder the size of the Mac Pro, I think of the last one I had, a 2008 model that tipped the scales at just shy of 40 pounds. I’ve lugged those beasts around many times over the years, and certainly they exuded computing power. Big, powerful, fast — and expensive.

The older Mac Pro started at $2,499 before you added stuff; the 2013 model is $2,999 and it’s a sure thing that you’ll be able to boost the price to north of ten grand by a judicious selection of options in the customize box, though it requires adding some apps and an AppleCare extended warranty to the maxed-out hardware. Consider the cost of replacing the stock CPU with a 12-core Xeon processor, upgrading to the maximum of 64GB of RAM, adding more powerful AMD FirePro graphics and a 1TB solid state drive and you’ll get to the stratosphere really fast. And don’t forget a keyboard and mouse, since the Mac Pro doesn’t include either.

But since most of the Mac Pro’s expansion possibilities are external, you can see where adding a RAID drive or two, or maybe an expansion chassis with some PCI cards will put you in the neighborhood of a compact car by the time you’re done.

That is as it should be. Apple promises gobs of external expansion with six Thunderbolt 2 and four USB 3.0 ports. They aren’t there for decoration, but one potential roadblock to sales is the fact that so many power users are accustomed to sticking most of their extras inside the case. Obviously Apple made a different decision, but I hope it was a matter of practicality rather than design considerations. When the latter supplants the former, it works against the user. Don’t forget the failings of the Power Mac G4 Cube.

But why do I suggest that the Mac Pro may be the last Mac workstation?

First and foremost, it’s a question of where Apple can take this design. The previous cheese crater box survived nine years when you include the Power Mac G5 in the mix. It was very much a descendent of a traditional design philosophy behind PC towers. You make them big, put in lots of slots inside, so customers can outfit them to a fare-the-well. Indeed, that’s what many of you probably expected of the new Mac Pro before it debuted in a decidedly surprising form factor.

What’s more, I do not expect sales to be particularly high. In the older days, consumers bought an iMac or a Mac mini, while the pros had to have a Mac Pro. I was one of these people. But after moving the iMac up market beginning in late 2009, a lot of you doubtlessly felt that it was no longer necessary to rely on a large, heavy and expensive box to get work done. A fully outfitted iMac could do a lot of the chores that formerly were the province of a Mac Pro with extremely good performance.

Indeed, that’s the choice I made, and I haven’t looked back. Although the Mac Pro has intriguing possibilities, my workflow is more about audio than video, so I fail to see the need for the extra power, not to mention the price of admission.

I also expect sales will be pretty good from the starting gate because of pent-up demand from people who have been waiting for a new Mac Pro for several years after tepid updates of the previous model. Once these machines are incorporated in workflows around the world, we’ll begin to see whether Apple’s approach to emphasize external expansion was the right one.

Over the next few years, Mac sales will no doubt continue to erode. It’s a sure thing that more and more Mac users will come to rely on an iPad for many tasks. I can see where many road warriors might begin to move off a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro. But Apple may have to add a few things to iOS to hasten this migration, such as the ability to have multiple apps and windows open and visible at the same time, as you can on a Mac. Offering real access to the file system and allowing a higher level of data sharing among apps would also help, but iOS and OS X do not need to merge.

In saying that, if the Mac Pro does well after the early adopters are satisfied, it’ll have a long useful life, and maybe it will be the last workstation produced by Apple. That is, unless there’s a Mac Pro 2 in our future that’s half the size of the current model. No doubt future models are on the drawing boards at Apple, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever see the light of day.

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4 Responses to “The 2013 Mac Pro: The Last Mac Workstation?”

  1. dfs says:

    There’s still one major flaw with the iMac: every time you buy one you have to pay for a monitor as well, whether you need one or not. To get a really satisfactory product lineup, Apple needs to add a headless equivalent. Look, I already have a first-gen 27″ iMac. I’d otherwise be interested in a more recent model, but it’s a huge disincentive to know I’d have to spend a fair amount of money to purchase a duplicate of something I already have. If a lot of people think this way, it can’t be good for iMac sales.

  2. Joe Gurman says:

    Reality has already provided a check on one statement you made: “I do not expect sales to be particularly high.” I have no idea what the absolute number of orders so far might be, but the ship date for even the stock configurations went from December 30 first thing this morning to “January” to “February” by mid morning EST. I suspect there was huge pent-up demand, as measured relative to the number of current Mac Pro owners who really use them for high-end graphics work. If the supplies of the high-end Xeons (they are all really server chips) become less constrained, I could even see the Mac Pro sales lifting Apple’s gross margin by a per cent or two.

    Guess we’ll need to wait until Apple’s conference call next April to find out.

    • @Joe Gurman, I presume there’s plenty of pent-up demand. But once that’s satisfied, the larger question will be what sales rate Apple can achieve. It is possible Apple underestimated demand, or that it will take time to ramp up production since it’s a totally new design. Or a little bit of both.


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