Apple's Mac Pro beautiful swan song is no match for Extreme SaaS

While the new Mac Pro may be the butt of jokes for its odd visual appearance, it's packed with state of the art desktop technology. But is it too late to make much of a difference in today's mobile world and the future of cloud computing and SaaS?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer on

Yesterday, prior to the keynote event of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), there was great anticipation of new products that would be announced.

Mac OS X "Mavericks" dominated much of the presentation, along with iOS 7, which features a new Jony Ive-style aesthetic overhaul that was completely expected (and for many of us iPhone and iPad users, long overdue).

New Haswell-based MacBook Airs, which were more of component rev types of improvements, also made an appearance, and were also entirely expected.

What we didn't expect, however, was a new Mac Pro, a product line that was thought to have reached its evolutionary dead end.

Image: CBS Interactive

The new Mac Pro, which will be manufactured in the United States, has not even gone on sale yet, and no price has been announced. However, I think it is safe to assume that based on the components and capabilities that have been detailed by Apple in its presentation, this is an extremely high-end machine, and will have a high-end price to go along with it.

There have been many jokes made about the machine's physical appearance. That it resembles a trash can, or the progeny of a tryst between R2-D2 and jet turbine. I could go on with the zingers. But beauty is only skin deep.

That the machine is going to be made in the United States makes it more and more evident that this is going to be a very limited production computer. More than anything else, it's a statement by Apple that you really can produce top-notch technology in the United States, but at a price.

I genuinely applaud Apple for doing this, even if this is more of a PR stunt to recover from years of being dinged for its FoxConn escapades in China than overall profit motive. Anywhere that we can employ Americans doing high-end manufacturing work, even in limited capabilities, is still something to be proud of.

So, in a sense, what Apple is creating is the Ferrari or the Tesla Motors of the computer industry. It will be inaccessible to all but the most spendy creative content people (or would-be creative content people that have more money than actual creative talent) who want nothing but the most state-of-the-art, no-compromise performance workstation for the money.

But the new Mac Pro will be envied by practically everyone, so it will have served its purpose.

Just one year ago, I would have been a likely customer for a new Mac Pro. Indeed, I was longing for a new high-performance workstation to do photo editing with Aperture and Photoshop for my food blog, and to do more ambitious videos. Frankly, the Mac Pro would have been overkill for what I was doing.

But things change. First, I've been doing far more social-type photography using my smartphones due to the sheer speed in which I can get out pictures of food, compared to the editing tasks required if I use my DSLR.

In fact, I haven't picked up my DSLR in about a year, because using my iPhone 5 and now my Nokia 920 has been so convenient for taking opportunity shots, and the quality of photos I have been taking with them has been more than good enough.

I could certainly edit on my Mac Mini using aperture and do some post-processing, but to go directly from smartphone to social sharing service and cloud storage (Twitter/Instagram/Flickr) is a pretty powerful thing, indeed.

Post-processing in Aperture or in Photoshop kills a whole afternoon if I've shot 100+ restaurant photos and need to narrow them down to 20, whereas I can do some simple tweaks and make a smartphone photo look really presentable in a matter of seconds.

The Mac Pro without a doubt will have very specific uses, and the people who can really take advantage of it will be a very small userbase compared to the kinds of creative content folks that buy Macbooks, iMacs, Mac Minis, or even PCs.

The people who truly need this machine are on the "Extreme Desktop Computing" end of the scale — people who need to produce 4K video content or work on the most sophisticated CGI and visualization projects, and do advanced engineering and CAD work.

So if 10,000 to 50,000 of these new Mac Pros are produced, they will have served their purpose. But, going forward, do we really need these monster desktops?

I've already stated that the desktop PC, let alone the desktop Mac, is in danger of becoming extinct. This immediately affects the "Homebrew" PCs, as well as those in the "Extreme" category, because, as I said, few people actually need these kinds of systems, and at the end of the day, mobility trumps raw CPU power. Most people cannot take advantage of the CPU in an average PC system, let alone an extreme one.

So this gets us back to the users or the companies that need systems like Mac Pros or powerful Windows-based workstations to use high-end applications, many of which exist in the vertical space and actually tend to cost more money than the equipment than they run on.

Now, many people who need to use these sorts of high-end apps don't need to use them all the time. This is a problem for both small production shops that work on a contractual basis, as well as large design firms, which have to make capital investments in both software and hardware regardless of how often those assets are used.

Not to mention there are also serious workflow issues when you are dealing with transferring large video and file assets between remote offices if you have a decentralized operation, which is becoming more of the norm these days.

But what if you didn't actually need $5,000+ workstations and $10,000 per user license copies of high-end vertical market engineering and content creation software to produce results?

At the most recent Citrix Synergy event at the end of last month, there was a fascinating demo on "Extreme Saasification", which featured the use of Nvidia virtualized graphics processors in the cloud in a grid computing type of scenario, running remote high-end graphical applications with no sacrifice on display and response time. The entire video is fascinating, but the most interesting stuff starts at around 13 minutes in.

All of these high-end applications could theoretically run on a Citrix ICA smart terminal that could drive multiple 4K screens. Or a $999 MacBook Air. Or a $500 iPad. Or an even cheaper device, theoretically. All of that processing and the running of the app is occurring remotely, and only a fraction of discrete video processing is required on the local device to use the app to locally display and render the video.

There's a bunch of implications for technology like this. First, is that high-end vertical market apps could be sold on a subscription and a pay-as-you go basis, which not only reduces cost, but also simplifies deployment and maintenance of such complex apps.

For small production shops, this changes the game entirely. The second outcome of this type of SaaS scenario is that monster workstations like the Mac Pro are likely to be relegated to the e-waste pile of history because the cloud offers far more computational, network, and storage resiliency with the added advantage of mobility, in addition to being able to centralize workflow even between remote contributors.

The "Extreme SaaSification" that Nvidia and Citrix demonstrates using OpenGL and OpenCL on cloud grids in this video is clearly very bleeding-edge stuff. But it is a technology that is rapidly evolving, and it would not surprise me to see delivery of these types of apps in this fashion within the next few years to be the norm rather than the exception.

So indeed, the Mac Pro is a beautiful and powerful machine. But it may be the last of its kind.

Will "Extreme SaaSification" make ultra-workstations like the new Mac Pro obsolete? Talk back and let me know.

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