The new Mac Pro and Apple's continued adherence to Steve Jobs' golden grid

Professional users of the Mac will have interesting choices around price and performance with the arrival of the forthcoming Mac Pro. It also shows that the market segmentation strategy that Steve Jobs enforced within Apple 15 years ago appears to be holding — and working.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Some 15 years ago, Steve Jobs' introduced a novel strategy for Apple to follow in all its products: all computer users would be divided into two segments: professionals and consumers. For each segment, the company would offer products in two categories: desktop and mobile, which at the time meant portables (laptops). Surprisingly, this simple grid continues — with some slight modifications — with Apple's latest lineup.

The forthcoming new version of the Mac Pro, announced this week to ship in December, will finally give Mac professionals a chance to fit into Apple's classic strategic grid. They've been waiting a good while.

What Apple is presenting is a desktop workstation. The $2999 base configuration will come with an 3.7GHz Intel 3.7 Xeon E5 processor (10MB of L3 cache and supporting Turbo Boost frequencies up to 3.9GHz), 12GB of DDR3 RAM (the 3 slots can currently support a total of 64GB), 256GB of PCIe-based flash storage, and two AMD FirePro D300 GPUs (each with 2GB of VRAM). This system can support as many as three 4K displays. It comes with 6 Thunderbolt 2 connectors. If you want more, there are plenty of options.

Apple Mac Pro is a compact desktop workstation.

For the past couple of years, Mac professionals have been divided on what machine to purchase: an older Mac Pro, an upgraded a previous-generation iMac (requiring a third-party upgrade kit), or a souped-up MacBook Pro. With the Mac Pro, there will be real choices for cores, RAM and performance that can address different requirements for performance.

It's all about the workflow, according to a recent post from Lloyd Chambers at his Mac Performance Guide. He offered some excellent buying advice for early-adopters, pointing out that paying more for extra cores may not be a good value, depending upon an individual's workflow (video vs. still-image processing). The fewer the cores, the greater the processor clock speed, and professional photo-editing software currently doesn't take advantage of more than 4 CPU cores.

Chambers has questions about the 8-core model.

With a 14 percent drop in clock speed, the 8-core model is not likely to outperform the 6-core model for most tasks, but it has more cache memory and this might mitigate the clock speed losses. And it’s a good middle ground for workflows which mix video with other tasks.

In addition, there's the Mac Pro's extra graphics processor. Chambers would have preferred more slots for RAM.

But Apple is clearly targeting video professionals and hoping the photographic professionals go along for the ride and believe the GPU hype (a faster GPU has never shown any advantage in my testing for mainstream photo work—actually a disadvantage along with more than a few OpenCL drawing problems and glitches—in all the mainstream Photoshop work I do). So dual GPUs is just a complete waste of motherboard real-estate for many if not most users.

The questions around performance will have to wait for real-world testing. If you are looking at pre-ordering the Mac Pro be sure to check out Chambers' analysis.

Of course, the design paradigm of the new Mac Pro is external expansion via Thunderbolt 2. No doubt, over the next year (or two) we will see storage, networking, PCIe card cages and other devices migrate to the faster Thunderbolt 2 connections. Perhaps soon, 4K video will become the standard for video content production, and here is the new Mac Pro, a machine designed to handle it.

The introduction of the new Mac Pro will restore the classic grid introduced by Steve Jobs at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco. His spare division of the market and Apple's product strategy appears to mostly be holding.

The grid eliminated a company trend in the early 1990s when Apple's hardware lineup grew to be very complicated. Apple targeted various segments — businesses, primary and higher education sites, content-creators, sci-tech companies, and consumers — with similar machines, each with different configurations and branding. Longtimers may recall the Performa line, aimed at education. I wrote about this in a post about way-early 2007 predictions that Apple would ship an ultra-book or a tablet.

Many of these machines competed against each another in different market segments; sometimes machines aimed at one segment weren't allowed to be sold into another because it might cannibalize sales from this or that division. Sometimes machines were simply rebranded, with identical hardware but with different software bundles and names. It was a mess. (Back in the days, Peachpit Press' Macintosh Bible used to have a guide to the Performa models that spanned many pages.)

On the engineering front, this situation created expensive problems for partners and customers. Often Apple would introduce costly proprietary connectors, ASICs or acceleration engines. The expectation was that these parts and ports would be expanded to other lines. However, many were only used on a single generation of machines or even a single line. With so many changes in hardware, Apple and developers had a tough time testing for compatibility.

Of course, mobility must now be subdivided into three platforms: laptops, iPads and iPhones. So, the four-square grid would nowadays be a long rectangle with 8 slots, still with only the two segments (professional, consumer) but now with four platforms: desktop computing, laptop computing (mobile desktops), tablets and smart phones.

Certainly, Steve Jobs never moved system software into the grid. Unlike its Windows competition, Apple didn't make separate SKUs for mobile, desktop uses, nor for the different segments. Neither were software programs identified in the grid.

Now, Apple is folding its system-ware and basic productivity/creative suites into a single, free package across its platforms. This back-to-the-future move reminds me of the original Macintosh 128K, which came with MacPaint and MacWrite.

Purists will point out that there are machines outside the grid, such as the Mac mini and perhaps the MacBook Air. In addition, most of the grid boxes encompass multiple models: most offer different sizes of screens and price points. Whatever.

Still, it's mostly clear to me that the Pro line includes the Mac Pro, 15-inch MacBook Pro models, iPad Air (and big-screen models), and iPhone 5s. The consumer line encompasses the iMac, 13-inch MacBooks, iPad mini and iPhone 5c. The grid still holds.

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