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On the Mac Pro's future

The Mac Pro is a strange outlier among Apple's products. It's insanely powerful, but it's priced out of the reach of most mortals. It's by far Apple's most "traditional" computer; the Mac Pro is a tower you can crack open and customize quite easily, far different from its sealed-up cousins the iMac, Mac mini, and the MacBook line. The Mac Pro's design is positively ancient by Apple's standards, with only minor cosmetic alterations since its predecessor, the Power Mac G5, debuted in 2003. It's also a neglected product, last updated in July of 2010, and currently the only Mac Apple sells which has no Thunderbolt connectivity.

All of this led us to ask awhile back whether the Mac Pro has much of a future left. According to AppleInsider, people at Apple itself are asking that very same question. Citing "people familiar with the matter," AppleInsider says that back in May of 2011 management was "in limbo" on whether or not to discontinue the Mac Pro in the face of faltering sales.

Predicting what Apple will do with regards to its products is a dangerous game. We learned that the hard way when a source we trusted told us the iPod classic and iPod shuffle were getting the axe this year. Apple apparently decided both products were still profitable enough to keep around, and that's really the bottom line for the future of any product in Apple's pipeline: if it still makes money, Apple will keep making a product until it has something better to replace it. When a product doesn't make Apple money, it's unsentimental about dropping the guillotine.

There are arguments both for and against discontinuing the Mac Pro, and I've outlined a few of them below. Ultimately Apple's going to do what's in its own best interests, so bear that in mind as we wade through a puddle of speculation sauce.

Why Apple might keep the Mac Pro around

Power: Although the iMac is an extremely powerful machine in its own right, the Mac Pro's performance still kicks the iMac's butt all the way up and down the block. Benchmark performance in Geekbench shows the 12-core 2.93 GHz Mac Pro coming in with an astounding score of 21,789. That's nearly twice the 11,581 score earned by the most powerful iMac, a quad-core 3.4 GHz model.

Benchmarks only tell part of the story, however. A Mac Pro that's been maxed-out on Apple's online store with as much RAM and hard disk capacity as you can shove into it is a Godzilla of a machine:

  • Two 2.93 GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon processors (for a total of 12 cores)
  • 8 TB of internal storage
  • 64 GB of RAM
  • Two ATI Radeon HD 5770 with 1 GB of video RAM -- each.

The best you can do with an iMac via Apple's configuration options?

  • 3.4GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7
  • 2 TB HDD + 256 GB SSD
  • 16 GB RAM
  • AMD Radeon HD 6970M with 2 GB of video RAM

The top-end iMac is an incredibly powerful machine by consumer and even professional standards, but a fully-upgraded Mac Pro is practically ostentatious in the amount of raw processing power it can wield. Professional consumers in areas like 3D rendering, video editing, and other extremely processor-intensive applications surely appreciate the much greater power the Mac Pro can afford them.

Customization:

The Mac Pro stomps the iMac in the customization department. Folding down the Mac Pro's side door gives you easy and almost instant access to its innards, and virtually every component is simple to swap out. Hard drives in particular are extraordinarily easy to swap in the Mac Pro.

Contrast that with the iMac, where the RAM is essentially the only user-serviceable component. Swapping out the hard drive on an iMac is a harrowing procedure that requires removing the entire front display -- not something you're going to want to do more than once, if ever. You could argue that the iMac's Thunderbolt capability vastly expands its customization options (and I will, later on), but it still doesn't quite measure up to the amount of customization available to a Mac Pro.

Server applications:

Since the discontinuation of the Xserve, the Mac Pro is Apple's only high-end server option. The Mac mini server simply doesn't measure up to the performance you can get out of a Mac Pro server -- it's not even close. The Mac mini server is a decent choice for low- to medium-demand applications, but if you need powerful servers (and want to stick with OS X Server), the Mac Pro is the only game in town.

Bottom line:

While it hasn't been updated in over a year, the Mac Pro is still by far Apple's most powerful and most customizable Mac. Though the iMac's performance and much lower price are driving the Mac Pro out of the consumer market and increasingly pigeonholing it into the "pro" niche, the fact remains that for some applications and some customers the Mac Pro is still the best choice.

Why Apple might discontinue the Mac Pro

The niche:

Outside of a very few specific applications, a vast number of customers who might have bought a Mac Pro now opt for an iMac instead. Many high-end media shops have decided the iMac affords them enough power for their needs and at a much more comfortable price than the Mac Pro. We've been told that even Apple's own developers have largely moved to the iMac.

When it was first introduced, and for much of the last decade, the iMac was unquestionably a consumer-grade product. But recent advances have put it within throwing distance of the Mac Pro's performance, and the most powerful iMacs afford users enough processing power that for many applications a Mac Pro is simply no longer necessary. In years past the iMac may not have been "enough machine" for professional photographers or other media types, but that's no longer the case in all but an increasingly smaller set of circumstances.

With the rising power of the iMac and Apple's portables, the list of applications where the Mac Pro is the optimal Mac for the job is getting shorter and shorter every year. It's become a niche product compared to Apple's other Macs, and Apple isn't known for keeping niche products around forever. The ones Apple does keep around wind up being neglected, sometimes for years. Witness the Xserve, a product even more niche than the Mac Pro, now discontinued. The iPod classic is a niche product too, without even a minor update in more than two years and blogosphere calls of "dead iPod walking" every September.

Over the past decade Apple has increasingly focused on products with wider appeal while slowly paring away the "pro" market. Apple offers far fewer "pro" software applications now than it did in the past, and even the ones it's kept around have been tweaked to give them broader appeal to the "prosumer" market -- Final Cut Pro X is a good example of this, and it's also a potential harbinger of Apple's true disposition toward the "pro" market.

When I hear that even internally at Apple developers are moving to iMacs, I can't help but hear an ominously tolling bell for the Mac Pro.

Thunderbolt:

Every Mac now offers Thunderbolt connectivity, even the MacBook Air -- every Mac except the Mac Pro, that is. Thunderbolt offers extraordinary I/O capabilities and vastly expands the customization options for every Mac that supports it. An iMac may not offer much internal storage compared to what a Mac Pro can support, but once you plug in a RAID array via Thunderbolt that gap closes very quickly.

The power of Thunderbolt doesn't stop at external storage; it can drive multiple external displays, provide fast connections to peripherals, and even connect to rigs that accept PCI cards, basically replicating many of the capabilities of the Mac Pro.

Thunderbolt doesn't completely close the gap between an iMac and a Mac Pro, but it makes that gap less relevant for many consumers and drives the Mac Pro even farther into its niche status.

The money:

More than anything else, this is what's going to determine the Mac Pro's future. All the arguments for keeping the Mac Pro on the market simply melt away if Apple isn't making any money on it.

The numbers are not especially encouraging. In Q4 2010, Apple sold 1.24 million desktop Macs for a total of US$1.68 billion in revenue. A year later, sales amounted to 1.28 million desktop Macs for $1.69 billion in revenue. The year-over-year change amounted to a scant 3 percent rise in unit sales and a 1 percent increase in revenue. Apple doesn't break these sales down by model, but with the Mac Pro competing for sales with both the iMac and Mac mini, it's unlikely that it amounts to a large proportion of Apple's overall desktop sales.

In fact, with the Mac Pro an increasingly niche product and effectively stagnating (and unlikely to receive any upgrades until early 2012), it's very likely that Mac Pro sales have steeply declined year-over-year, with increased sales of 2011-model iMacs and Mac minis just barely pushing the desktop lineup back into profitability.

If the Mac Pro is indeed losing money for Apple, you could make a strong argument that some of the blame falls on Apple itself. Since March of 2009, the Mac Pro has received only two major updates. During the same period, the iMac and Mac mini have both been updated four times. Some of the Mac Pro's stagnation may be due to limited availability of pro-class processors -- delays in Intel's production of next-gen Sandy Bridge processors are reportedly one root cause behind the Mac Pro's lack of updates.

No matter where the blame falls, it's getting harder to recommend a Mac Pro to anyone at this point, even to professional customers who need the extra power the machine affords.

Bottom line:

Apple's focus has clearly shifted away from the professional market that was once its bread and butter. Power Macs once made up the majority of Apple's unit sales and profits, but that hasn't been true for years. Take a look at the current numbers:

  • Unit sales of portable Macs outnumber desktop Mac sales by nearly three to one.
  • iTunes Store and iPod accessory revenues almost equal revenues from desktop sales.
  • iPhone unit sales exceed desktop Mac sales by over 13 to one.
  • iPad unit sales exceed desktop Mac sales by nearly nine to one.
  • Revenues from desktop Mac sales account for only six percent of Apple's overall revenues.

Keep in mind that those comparisons are for all Mac desktops, which includes the Mac mini, iMac, and the Mac Pro. If we want to be extremely generous and say the Mac Pro accounts for a full third of desktop sales, it still means Mac portables outsell it nine to one, iPhones by 39 to one, and iPads by 27 to one, with revenues from sales of the most expensive Mac making up perhaps three percent of Apple's overall revenues (I gave the Mac Pro an extra percentage point since it's that much more expensive than the iMac).

If Mac Pros account for much less than a third of desktop sales (and I don't think anyone could convincingly argue otherwise), the Mac Pro's future gets even grimmer. All of the arguments for the iMac's unsuitability for high-end applications blow away like leaves in the wind if Apple isn't making money selling the Mac Pro.

Prognosis:

There are certainly arguments for keeping the Mac Pro around -- despite over a year of neglect, it remains Apple's most powerful Mac, and for certain applications Apple simply offers no substitute for the power it affords. At the same time, the arguments for keeping the Mac Pro around sound ominously similar to the arguments that sprang up around this time last year when news of the Xserve's impending demise became public.

Obviously some consumers actually do need what the Mac Pro offers, but are there enough of them to justify keeping it on the market? Only Apple knows for sure, but the numbers aren't looking good. Apple has already shown that it won't hesitate to exit from market segments that don't drive profitability, and if it turns out the Mac Pro isn't contributing to Apple's balance sheet, expect the axe to fall swiftly.

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