The Mac Pro’s Future

November 8th, 2011

This is the last entry in a series of articles considering the future of computing, and particularly the Mac Pro, as a powerful traditional computer controlled by a particuarly aggressive company.

If you’d like to read more of the background to this article, start here.

The market for powerful computers, like the Mac Pro is now, isn’t going away any time soon, but the question is whether Apple will leave that market behind (for others to take). I don’t believe that’s what we’re seeing, although that also wouldn’t surprise me.

I believe that in the same way the iPad will increasingly replace our MacBooks, the MacBook Pro and iMac are replacing our Mac Pros. The more portable, less expensive computers are stepping up to the demands traditionally made of their big brothers.

This is already happening: the Mac Pro’s market is shrinking because the MacBook Pro is powerful enough to do much of what the Mac Pro has been used for. Thunderbolt is the technology that Apple is betting will allow that trend to continue, by addressing expandability. However, It’s early days, and Thunderbolt hasn’t yet got wide enough adoption to see that promise through.

Thunderbolt has been developed by Intel (it was formerly known as Light Peak). It gives a very fast (as fast as internal) connection for external devices, allowing traditionally internal devices to become external.

Right now, our perspective of the Mac Pro is unfairly bleak. It hasn’t been updated in over a year, and won’t be until at least Spring 2012. But this is because Intel hasn’t released any new workstation-level processors.

I don’t believe we’ll see a big redesign or reimagining of the Mac Pro. As Marco points out, “It’s impossible to significantly change the Mac Pro without removing most of its need to exist.” This observation illustrates that while there are a number of features of the Mac Pro that distinguish it from Apple’s other computers, none of the distinctions are that wide.

I can see Apple going in either of two directions, without giving up the Pro market. They could continue updating the Mac Pro with new internals for a long time, or they could push/encourage/force everyone onto iMacs and MacBook Pros (or onto whole other platforms, obv), by making them powerful and extendable enough for the Pro market.

The reality will probably be a combination of the two: The Mac Pro will continue getting updates until Apple is confident enough the last few people buying the Mac Pro would be better served by an iMac or MacBook Pro (even if they don’t know it themselves).

There’s quite a few niches that believe they depend on the Mac Pro’s power. Ars Technica and The Unofficial Apple Weblog both have articles about the Mac Pro’s future, with many comments, that point out a few of these niches.

The point is, the iMac and MacBook Pro are already viable alternatives to the Mac Pro for many (not all) applications. With Thunderbolt connected storage, display and processing expansion, even more of the Mac Pro’s market will be taken.

You should consider whether that future has already arrived for your needs, or if you’re best off investing in a Mac Pro before that future does arrive. And bear in mind that Apple not selling new Mac Pros doesn’t directly affect the value of your Mac Pro to you.

The MacBook Pro future has advantages.

  • You have a powerful portable system, with full power and capability when ‘docked’ at home (and probably just one Thunderbolt connection to fiddle with that connects all your desktop-environment peripherals).
  • You can upgrade your core computer independently of your Thunderbolt devices, allowing your capabilities to grow more smoothly, rather than in leaps every 10 years when you invest in a full new setup.

I’m sure Apple will release at least one more iteration of the Mac Pro, with the new processors from Intel (due to be released Spring 2012) and Thunderbolt. If Thunderbolt truly is what will allow the iMac or MacBook Pro to replace the Mac Pro, then having Thunderbolt during this transition period is helpful. In the second half of your new Mac Pro’s service life, you can start expanding your use of Thunderbolt peripherals – hard drive enclosures, display expanders, capture devices etc.

3 Responses to “The Mac Pro’s Future”

  1. JP says:

    Apple could drop the pro line. They have disappointed in the past and they show a proclivity for consumer ‘gadgets’. HOWEVER, they MAY do something brilliant like rethink what a Mac Pro should be. Right now it is as it has been since 1986, a big box with as much room to expand as they think a pro might want. This means expensive busses and drive bays (which may never be used). What they COULD do is make the pro into a component system. It would like like a big mini, but have no hard drive. In a distributed, or component system, the storage is separate from the cpu. The new Thunderbolt system allows external hard drives to be as fast as internal ones. Such a Pro box may have RAM expansion to 12GB and a basic Intel graphics system that could drive up to three monitors adequately for business users. The brilliant part would be if Apple designed these boxes to be chain-able. So if someone wanted more monitors, faster graphics, they could slave one box to the next, going from one 8 core box, to a 16 core “tower”. Yahoo, maybe allow up to four to be chained. Maybe unlimited chains and allow Apple to get into serious computing. All conjecture, but I am a professional developer and I would not want to lose my Mac Pro…and I can dream.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi JP. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog 🙂 I’ve been following yours for a while!

    When thinking about the people that just want as much power as possible (to reduced build/compile/render times), I wondered about the ability to have farm-like chaining together of computers. But, Apple like to keep things simple. It’s true that Thunderbolt opens up possibilities like this, but it’s the software that needs to glue it together. It’d be a big job, and I doubt the market is big enough to make it worth Apple’s while.

    Would be an awesome solution, though. I could imagine something like this coming from Google, with all the experience they have with their server farms running on cheap hardware, and they traditionally aren’t afraid of complex solutions.

  3. […] up from my post about the Mac Pro’s future, this article highlights that lots of people that think they couldn’t live without Mac Pro. […]

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