There’s widespread talk of the demise of Apple’s Mac Pro workstation. But reports of its death are greatly exaggerated, says Seb Janacek.
Apple is quietly considering the future of the Mac Pro, according to reports circulating online. Some may be forgiven for wondering what the Mac Pro actually is. It’s a massively powerful beast of a machine lurking at the rear of the Apple Store.
If, heaven forbid, you could find a dusty corner in an Apple Store, the Mac Pro would be there. Sleek aluminium, massive price tag, awesome power – and cobwebs.
Apple CEO Tim Cook once mentioned that the company’s whole product range could fit on a single table. If he were so inclined to slash the Mac Pro from the range, he could downsize to a far smaller table. This is a beast of a machine.
In many ways it’s the antithesis of everything iOS devices are. By extension, given the iOS devices are far more central to Apple’s marketing focus, the Mac Pro is drifting dangerously close the event horizon of Apple’s brand.
The Mac Pro is everything iOS is not. It’s all about raw power defined through gigahertz, expandability, openness, power and a large case that allows the powerful and hot components inside to operate without melting a hole in the Earth’s crust.
The Pro is highly configurable. If you go to the Apple website and max out the computer with all the bells and whistles and throw in a couple of 27-inch monitors, you get to a final price of £16,225 – and a machine that could probably rival the processing power of Deep Thought, the computer which determined the meaning of life in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker novels.
If you play this game, it is absolutely imperative you leave your credit cards in a separate room, especially if you have opened a bottle of wine.
Time for a quick history lesson. When Jobs returned to Apple, one of the first things he did was simplify the company’s bewildering product range. He focused on four product sectors: two notebooks, two desktops. One each for consumers and professionals.
As product strategies go, it was simple, elegant and easy to understand and to sell. The Mac Pro, or Power Mac, occupied the sector for creative professionals who needed a workhorse and expansion options. These were the video editors and graphics professionals who needed the extra grunt for working with video compression and massive, multi-layered Photoshop files.
They are the Mac’s traditional customer base, the one that kept the company ticking over for the darkest days of Apple’s history.
‘History’ may prove the key word. These professionals are no longer…
…Apple’s core audience. Things have moved on. With iOS devices and Macs like the MacBook Air and iMac, Apple is revelling in a marketplace where it once used to lose out.
Apple is a consumer technology company. At the launch of the iPad, Jobs referred to Apple as “a mobile devices company” and boasted it was bigger in this field than Sony.
The company’s actions since then have underlined this position. Apple’s Xserve, a foray into server territory, was shelved. Final Cut Pro, the company’s professional video editing software, was given a consumer facelift, infuriating the faithful who have had to be re-educated by Apple.
The Mac Pro has drifted to the periphery. By my calculations it hasn’t had a speed bump for the best part of 18 months, a lifetime for a modern computer, particularly one that represents the most powerful device in Apple’s line-up.
Yet, the Mac Pro remains despite the lack of updates. You have to suspect it makes a profit as it is inconceivable that Apple would continue with a computer that failed to add to its coffers, no matter the machine’s lack of glamour and its resolute inability to fit into a pocket.
If the Mac Pro were to go, what could take its place? For all its elegance, the iMac is simply a glorified notebook because it largely uses notebook components. And if the Mac Pro were to go, what next? The iMac itself? The computer that reignited Apple’s fortunes?
My guess is that the Mac Pro still has a few years in it. The company will not wish to relinquish its presence in high-end workstations for creative professionals. Not while Apple continues to produce and update pro software for those markets.
It still has a strong presence in those markets and it makes no sense to abandon it. The Xserve was abandoned because it failed to get sufficient traction – Apple suggested users switch either to the Mac Pro Server or the Mac Mini Server.
Furthermore, I suspect that Apple wants to continue to serve its core audiences if only for the knowledge that burned bridges are difficult to rebuild.
A report from Macrumors suggests there is evidence in the beta version of OS X 10.7.3 of support for forthcoming desktop graphics cards from AMD. The rest of the Mac range uses mobile GPUs, so only the Mac Pro could support them.
As mobile devices become more powerful, we will inevitably evolve towards more power in smaller packages. However, Apple is betting heavily on the cloud to replace the need for massive storage, and the processing power for that is far from ready.
What we might have previously referred to as a Mac Pro could have filled a room 25 years ago. There’s still enough space on Tim Cook’s table for the time being.
The Mac Pro may be out of sight, but not out of mind. Not yet.