Is the Mac Pro dead?

Is the Mac Pro dead?

Summary: Apple's iconic tower system, the Mac Pro, is the slowest selling Mac. With the advent of ultrafast thunderbolt I/O on everything from the MacBook Air to quad core iMacs, do users need the Mac Pro anymore?

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TOPICS: Apple, Hardware
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As a product manager in a previous life, I often looked at products to see which should live and which should die. The decisions are mostly financial, but there are also judgments around the impact on key customer groups and the rest of the product line.

Let's start with the numbers Apple doesn't break out numbers by individual product line. They do tell us that of the roughly 4.5 million Macs forecast for this quarter, two thirds will be portables. That leaves about 1.5 million desktop Macs.

Desktop Macs include the iMac, Mac mini and the Mac Pro. I guesstimate that the iMac makes up 80% of the desktops, the Mac mini three quarters of the remainder and the Mac Pro gets the rest, or about 75,000 units a quarter.

At an estimated average sale price of $3500, Apple has a nifty little $1 billion business with gross margins that probably exceed most of the rest of the product line. Say a GM of 40% and you're talking over a $400 million annual gross margin contribution.

But, and it is a big but, given Apple's rapid growth the Mac Pro is probably the slowest growing - if not shrinking - Mac in the lineup. Not only that, Mac Pro sales have nosedived since the advent of Thunderbolt 6 months ago. MacBook Pro buyers are affluent and not stupid: as the only non-Thunderbolt Mac still made, it's clear that a new one should be on the drawing board.

Will Apple pull the trigger? The arguments inside Apple against the Pro go like this:

  • With Thunderbolt on the iMac the I/O advantages of the Mac Pro are rapidly disappearing.
  • Moreover, as Intel continues its march to 6, 8 and 12 core processors with lower total power requirements, we'll be able to put almost as many cores into an iMac as we do a Mac Pro.
  • As third-party Thunderbolt products proliferate, customers will have the option to upgrade their iMacs in a much more modular fashion than the Mac Pro ever allowed.
  • With the Final Cut Pro X introduction fiasco, many of our most loyal and demanding users - video editors - are deserting FCPX.
  • In short, the Mac Pro has a shrinking customer base while offering fewer unique features at a high cost compared to competitive Windows systems.

The Mac Pro team is responding:

  • Yes, sales are down, but only because we don't have Thunderbolt and we haven't upgraded to the latest and greatest Intel processors. Our sophisticated buyers are only waiting to see what we can deliver.
  • We will always be able to put more cores into a Mac Pro than we than an iMac, and as the benefits of multicore processing spread to more applications this will grow our total available market.
  • For many customers upgrading in the box is much more attractive than upgrading across multiple thunderbolt cables and little boxes. These are workhorse systems whose value is not only performance but also their ability to meet business needs for investment protection.
  • Yes, the Final Cut Pro X intro was poorly handled, but we will recover in unit sales because of the larger demographic the new product addresses. When that happens many of those customers will want the reliability, expandability and performance of a Mac Pro.
  • Finally, do not underestimate the halo effect of the Mac Pro for all Macs. A high-end system makes customers much more comfortable buying smaller systems for critical work, because they know that if they have to they can upgrade with minimal disruption to their workflow and training investments.

Inside Apple This discussion takes place in a larger context: the fight for engineering resources among all the different Mac teams. The Mac business has been overshadowed in the last 5 years by the iPhone and now the iPad.

At every budget discussion someone will ask why we don't take the engineering resources devoted to the Mac Pro and give them to faster growing product lines. There isn't an Apple engineering manager that wouldn't like more resources. The weakest teams are always at risk.

Substitute technologies The Mac Pro has several key features:

  • Storage expandability. More DIMM slots than any other Mac - and they're ECC - 4 SATA disk bays and 2 optical drive bays.
  • 3 PCIe slots. Add media capture cards, eSATA and USB 3.0, upgrade graphics cards and more.
  • Dual-Ethernet. Handy for link aggregation.
  • Choice of CPUs. Up to 12 cores.
  • Multiple displays.3 or more, depending on number and type of video cards.

Can these features be replicated on an iMac?

No ECC on other Macs, a downer for critical work. But you can get 32GB of RAM on a iMac with expensive 8GB SO-DIMMs.

3 PCI-e slots can be added via Thunderbolt for $1k, but you're limited to Thunderbolt-aware drivers. Assume you'll be able to get the most popular cards in a few months.

With those cards you could add eSATA and USB 3.0, another GigE NIC with 1-4 ports, another graphics card and more monitors. But what would it cost?

If you strip out the 27" iMac monitor at a hypothetical $800, a top-of-the-line quad-core i7 iMac costs $1500. Add the 3 slot cage and the cost equals the cost of a bottom-of-the-line Mac Pro - with a slower 2.8GHz Xeon. My iMac is looking better all the time.

The Storage Bits take If I were the Mac Pro product manager I'd focus less on processors and more on I/O. Replace the 4 3.5" SATA drive slots with 16 2.5" drive slots. Add 4 Thunderbolt ports. Dual 10Gb Ethernet ports. USB 3.0. And an optional 500GB SSD.

And then I'd get with my Intel buddies and figure out how to offer a credible processor upgrade. Not that many would buy it, but the investment protection message would be very comforting.

Obviously the future of Apple doesn't ride on big honking towers. But there is a core Mac Pro market whose demand for high-performance, high-value apps provides an entry point for new software technologies that will eventually come to lower-end Macs.

With probably no more than 25 people on the Mac Pro team, the payback to Apple is huge. I hope the desire for operational efficiency doesn't simplify the Pro out of existence.

Comments welcome, of course. My 4 year old Mac Pro sold for $2k a few months ago - double what many new Wintel towers go for. I like my iMac but I'd love a modernized Pro.

Topics: Apple, Hardware

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46 comments
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  • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

    The desktop environment, outside of the iMac, is really not Apple's advertising focus so I suspect many people barely even know that Apple makes a desktop anymore outside of the iMac. Frankly, I haven't seen one in a Best Buy or any other such store in ... well ... a very long time. They simply don't fit the advertising image that Apple is pushing right now so very well could get phased out. They've long since abandoned any sort of message involving pure processing power and pushed hard in favour of the mysterious Apple product "image". The iMac barely holds on because of the big screen and clean lines.
    Ididar
    • If you run a video production company you certainly know the Mac Pros

      And if they were to disappear the alternatives are disruptive (different software, hardware, file formats, legacy video, editing talent, etc.), not exactly cheap, and quite frankly not as good.

      @Ididar
      GoPower
      • Video production companies are a small niche

        @GoPower
        Apple is all about the consumer. Picking a niche market and saying that they choose Apple is no defense. There are niche markets that like tablets with styluses but that doesn't mean that tablets with styluses are any good.
        toddybottom
      • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

        @toddybottom
        And nobody's forcing you to use one let alone buy one.

        Unlike Windows which nobody can seem to escape from.
        ScorpioBlue
    • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

      @Ididar And how many high end comparable systems do you see in Best Buy from Apple's competitors? When I think of a system on the level of a Mac Pro Best Buy most certainly doesn't come into the though process.
      non-biased
  • There is a market for it

    Until macbooks can get 10GbE, FC connectivity, comparable CPU power, comparable RAM, etc.. Mac Pro's will have their place in their respective professional roles/market verticals.
    Yes they are behind the times in HW specs, but that doesn't mean dead, just poor execution. No one ever complained about how antiquated the iPhone HW is compared to the rest of the market... The Jesus phone can do no wrong.
    unredeemed
    • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

      @unredeemed Care to explain how the iPhone HW is antiquated in comparison to the rest of the market?
      non-biased
  • It is a pro machine after all

    I don't think we should expect numbers for these kinds of specialized machines to be huge in the first place when compared to consumer focused machines like the iMac. To extrapolate that the Pro Mac is dead by looking at, for the most part, consistent sales numbers seems kind of silly, although I have seen other articles jumping to the same conclusion. The processor capacity of the iMac is not going to cut it for me editing and processing HD video.
    CowLauncher
    • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

      @CowLauncher As a video editor in a past life I have been thinking a lot about getting back into it. I have been going back and forth between getting a iMac or spending the money on a Pro. For the moment the Pro would be complete overkill but if I get serious about it I might end up having to replace an iMac if I go that route.
      non-biased
  • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

    I'm still hoping to replace my 2009 Mac Pro with an Ivy bridge model next year. No matter what arguments people have about external Express or Thunderbold boxes, it's still a kludge, with too many cables and boxes in a mess. It will never equal one big expandable box.
    melgross
    • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

      @melgross The Sandy Bridge Xeon processors aren't out yet so you'll be awaiting for awhile. If Apple does release an updated or re-designed Mac Pro early next year, like many are hoping, it'll be based on Sandy Bridge.<br><br>If Apple just does an update, then they'll probably go with a 6-core (for single socket) & 12-core (for dual socket).<br><br>If it's a complete re-design, then my gut says they'll make it only a single-CPU version & go with the 8-core Xeon Sandy Bridge CPU.

      I don't know when Ivy Bridge Xeon CPU's are coming out but from what I've read, there'll be a 12-core version, & Intel's Haswell-based CPU's will be able to sport 16 cores on a single die. So there might not be a need for a dual-socket Mac Pro
      smulji
      • Another alternative: Apple kills the Mac Pro

        @smulji
        They killed the xserve.
        toddybottom
  • Thunderbolt-based external &quot;CPU pack&quot;

    Imagine an external "CPU pack" that contains a number of high-end CPUs (and ECC RAM, and ...), and featured Thunderbolt connectivity back to, say, an iMac or MBP, e.g., in a Mac Mini form factor.

    Most of the time, my MBP's internal CPU might be good enough, but when I'm rendering lots of video, I could offload that work to the "CPU Pack".

    I could also upgrade those CPU packs separately from my iMac -- this might actually be the biggest argument against this product from Apple's point of view, because it could delay iMac/MBP upgrade cycles.
    LWR94306
    • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

      @LWR94306
      Good idea. I've been thinking along the same lines: I might keep my iMac to use for video compression along with what I'm guessing will be my next notebook: the 15" quad-core MacBook Air. Tie the MBA with the iMac and put 16 virtual cores to work.

      I'll wait to see what the next Mac Pro looks like though, because I like the flexibility of the big box.
      R Harris
  • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

    Apple has a problem with Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is a "Pro" interface supplying lots of access speed and only pros will buy it. What consumers want is USB 3.0. If Apple wants Thunderbolt to take off it needs the pro market. No consumer, other than an occasional geek, is going to pay $50 per cable for Thunderbolt when they can buy a 500 gig drive with a USB 3.0 cable for the same price.
    justamacguy
    • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

      @justamacguy

      Only Pros will buy it?!? This makes no sense. Being that it will be standard on all macs, everyone who buys a mac will be buying it.
      There is no evidence that consumers know, let alone care, about USB 3.0, which has essentially been dead in the water. Very few products are available with USB3, and those that are are hardly selling like gangbusters.
      Being that LightPeak is connector protocol agnostic, plugging a USB 3.0 drive into a mac via a thunderbolt adaptor is trivial.
      .DeusExMachina.
  • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

    Good article. <br><br>Both sides have strong arguments. Consumer tastes change and high-end customers will pay for leading-edge tech which, in a few years, will be what we all use. <br><br>As long as it's making money, I'd keep the pro line in sync with the top processors.
    DannyO_0x98
  • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

    Apple should continue to make the Mac Pro, designed to be the fastest most expandable Mac available because of the value of having a "pro" machine brings to the product line. There will always be people who will buy the biggest and the fastest, even if they never will use the size or the power, just to have the pride of ownership of the "biggest, honking Mac" they make. I can't imagine that the Mac Pro team takes up that much engineering resources that engineering expense is enough of a reason to kill the line. As long as Apple is making money on each unit, the Pro line should continue.

    I know I want another.
    Songdog
  • RE: Is the Mac Pro dead?

    I cannot imagine my computing life without a Mac pro. I have a brand new quad core iMac 3.4 ghz that cannot hold a candle to my 12 core early 2010 Mac pro with its 4 -2tb drives, 64gb of ram and dual video cards. Not only do I use my machine for fairly intensive photoshop editing, but also for heavy duty statistical processing using the 64 bit iteration of R. I've tried doing some of my work on my new iMac and it folds under the load. Some of the data mining operations take 2+ hours on the pro exhaust resources on the iMac at 6 hours. There will always be a market for workstation capacity machines and I upgrade my main machine at least ever three years. The Mac pro has been the most stable, durable, and internally expandable machine I've ev used. Nothing else that apple makes even comes close to what we users need. The thought of a series of daisy-chained thunderbolt devices spread all over my desk horrifies me. I'd be happy with a thunderbolt raid array but I don't want to use thunderbolt as the basis for expanding every little thing on a iMac in a feeble attempt to make a silk purse workstation out of a sows ear consumer-grade desktop.
    Mrfearless47
  • Jobs is getting part of his wish

    He said that the "PC" will be dead soon. He may be right, but it is his own "PC"s that are dying first.
    Gisabun