Will Apple cut pro users adrift?

Sections: Desktop Macs, Features, Laptops, Mac Pro, MacBook Pro, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Opinions and Editorials

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T-GAAP’s E. Werner Reschke notes that when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he drew a grid on a white board that looked something like this diagram.


Jobs then proceded to gut Apple’s product lineup of everything that didn’t fit gracefully into one of these four neatly-defined quadrants. If it wasn’t a desktop or laptop that was specifically aimed at creative professionals on the one hand or consumers on the other, it got thrown under the bus.

That was then. Today, the tidily buttoned-down Apple product quadrant of 1997 has been shattered, with—as Reschke notes—over 70% of Apple’s sales revenue deriving from a category that didn’t even exist in 1997: the iOS family of devices. To be accurate, their conceptual ancestors, the Apple Newton PDA and digital notepad, and the Newton-based E-Mate—which combined some attributes of both the later-arriving netbooks and touchscreen slates—were among the products that got the bum’s rush in the Steve Jobs restoration purge.

In his blog, Reschke observes that while last quarter Mac sales were up 26% year–over–year, Macs only made up 22% of Apple’s revenue, and the Mac Pro towers that power-user professionals use to crunch large video, create music, work on scientific equations, create 3D models and more have become niche products that represent the needs and preferences of only a small part of the proportionally shrinking (even though actual numbers are up) overall Mac user population. Mac Pro users have one thing it common: a need for powerful computers with extensive expansion capabilities. An iOS device, or even a desktop iMac can’t provide what they need.

The current Mac Pro models are showing their age, and Reschke says one is obliged to to wonder if the Mac Pros aren’t going to be ushered out of Apple’s Mac system lineup like the XServe was a year ago. He hopes the Mac Pro gets the update it badly needs and that recent rumors of its demise are “greatly exaggerated.” If not, he suggests the Mac Pro may become the next Apple product to “walk the plank”.

Dan Knight, publisher/editor of the Low End Mac site, thinks not, contending that while the Mac Pro is Apple’s lowest-volume Mac system, it’s also Apple’s most expensive (and undoubtedly most profitable per unit) computer.

In Dan’s estimation, the boilerplate argument is that for all but a tiny minority of users most of the time, a quad-core i7 MacBook Pro or iMac can provide all the power they need and then some, so with every step forward those models take, the market for the Mac Pro shrinks. A subsidiary argument is that the new ultra high speed Thunderbolt I/O data interface eliminates the need for the Mac Pro’s four internal hard drive bays, two internal optical drive bays, and three available PCI Express expansion slots. After all, Thunderbolt can be used to connect a daisy-chain of external drives and, in theory, anything PCI Express supports, so all your Mac requires is a sufficiently powerful processor, a fast boot drive, and whatever memory you need. The latter is a key aspect; some users need more than the 16 GB of memory a MacBook Pro supports or the 32 GB you can put in an iMac.

However, he notes that, In reality, there just aren’t a lot of Thunderbolt peripherals available eight months after Apple introduced the first Macs with Thunderbolt. So, while somewhere down the road it may become practical to rely on Thunderbolt for your next video card, that’s just not the case today. Moreover, Thunderbolt devices cost more than standard external USB and/or FireWire devices, which invariably cost more than internal drives and video cards. If Apple were to kill of the Mac Pro, it would make system expansion a lot more costly for power users.

Consequently, Dan Knight doesn’t see the Mac Pro going away, but thinks Apple is probably waiting on the availability of Intel’s next generation chipset before releasing a new Pro.

BeatWeek’s Bill Palmer also weighs in, maintaining Apple will keep a Pro minitower in its Mac lineup because it has to for creative professionals, and attributes the leisurely update schedule to the fact that for these customers it’s not necessary to revamp the design very often or work on, making it smaller.

I agree in theory with Dan and Bill, but not with any great degree of assurance. What Apple will actually do about the Mac Pro remains inscrutable until they make their move.

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  • Tim

    Take a look around your nearest Apple Store for any Mac Pro towers. They aren't there anymore.