Apple’s top-of-the-line workstation, the Mac Pro, hasn’t been updated in well over a year, waiting on Intel’s delayed (and delayed again) Sandy Bridge-E based Xeon processors. The previous upgrade cycle was equally as long, nearly 18 months. Now, rumors are circulating that Apple management has been contemplating just pulling the plug on the Mac Pro altogether.
According to sources speaking to AppleInsider, a planned Mac Pro revision has been in the works for quite some time, but Apple management has been debating its fate as far back as May 2011. Sales of the high-end workstation have dropped considerably to both consumers and enterprise customers, and so profits have taken a nosedive.
Our own Peter Bright contends that the enterprise just isn’t interested in expensive workstations on the whole, and those on the bleeding edge of hardcore performance generally aren’t looking at a Mac. That theory seems to jibe with the rumored low sales figures for Mac Pros; portables are an increasingly large part of Apple’s Mac sales—now nearly three-quarters—and desktop sales are primarily iMacs, according to Apple.
With sales so low and profits dwindling, is the Mac Pro just an expensive anachronism? It may be so for some users, especially those who value portability over raw power, don’t require upgrades, and whose expansion needs are served by the PCI Express-based Thunderbolt port Apple introduced across its line over the past year. A few users who previously relied on Mac Pros told Ars they have already traded in for the latest svelte MacBook Air models, for instance.
Not ready to give up
Hardcore Mac Pro users aren’t ready for Apple to give up on them just yet, though. We spoke to a number of professionals, largely in the content creation business, who told Ars that iMacs and Mac minis just aren’t the right solution for their needs.
Jon Alper, a Boston-based independent consultant for various media production interests, suggested he would prefer that his Mac Pros were pried from his cold, dead hands. “I just can’t fathom functioning without them,” he told Ars. “I have two sitting on my desk right now, both mostly crunching video.”
Alper cut his teeth crunching numbers on Mac hardware at Harvard Medical School and later managed the IT needs of WGBH Boston’s roughly 70-seat Interactive production division. “We rotated new Mac Pros in about every 12 months, and the older machines would get passed around to users that had older machines yet,” Alper said. “Any given machine would typically have a usable life of three to five years, and redeploying to new users was so simple—just pull the drive sled, swap, and redeploy.”
“Managing four terabytes of video data, running twelve to twenty-four hour long effects rendering batches—you just can’t really do that without a Mac Pro,” Alper said.
iMacs or Mac minis just aren’t a suitable replacement in production environments like WGBH Interactive, Apler insists. “Unless you have to pull the motherboard, Mac Pros are absurdly easy to work on,” Alper said. Swapping drives, adding RAM, or adding PCI Express cards or GPUs are relatively simple tasks on a Mac Pro; the same can’t be said for even for most PC towers. “I just don’t want to have to find a tech dexterous enough to pull the glass off an iMac with suction cups when just about anyone can pull and replace a drive in a Mac Pro,” he said.
For those at the bleeding edge of design, content creation, and scientific computing, the Mac Pro offers a number of advantages over Apple’s other hardware. Dual multicore processors, enough slots for obscene amounts of RAM, the ability to run internal RAIDs, customizable GPUs, and the ability to expand functionality with PCI Express cards were all cited by users as reasons to keep the Mac Pro around.
Dr. David Chen of the Office of High Performance Computing and Communications at the National Library of Medicine told Ars that his small five-person team has relied exclusively on Mac Pros using a large Xsan file store. If Apple discontinues the Mac Pro “I’d miss not having an NVIDIA Quadro,” Chen said. “It’s got lots of memory and seems very bulletproof. And my coworker’s Pro has 64 gig of RAM; he is always going to want more memory.”
IT systems administrator and longtime Mac gamer Tom Johnson told Ars that video card options are critical for him on a personal level. “I have generally bought tower cases so I could replace the video card,” he said. “I expect to get five years out of the Mac, but only two out of a video card.”
“The other thing that is nice about Mac Pros is the dual processor. On the high end you get eight cores—I just don’t see Apple putting that in any iMac,” Johnson said.
Other users appreciate Apple’s use of higher-end Xeon processors. Web developer Enrique Ortiz, a former Microsoft Systems Engineer, noted that Xeons are typically reserved for server hardware. “There are very few systems equivalent to this machine in the Windows environment for the desktop,” he said. “In my experience, only the hardcore geeks could set up a great system like this running Windows or Linux.”
“If Apple kills the Mac Pro I would be devastated—Mac OS X is a cleaner environment for me and I’d really hate to go back,” Ortiz said.
Developers also often rely on Mac Pros to shave significant time off the complex app building process. “I use a Mac Pro at the office to build Mac and iPhone apps,” developer Raphael Sebbe said. “Working with Xcode, which is highly parallel, makes full use of the cores. My Mac Pro has eight cores—16 virtual ones—and does a fresh build about five times faster than on my MacBook Pro.”
Creating Windows switchers
Apple killing the Mac Pro could reverse some of the the switching trend that the company has relied on to expand its user base. Apple claims on nearly every earnings call that about half of new Mac buyers at its retail stores were previously PC users, and those switchers contribute to its quarterly Mac sales records.
Some diehard Mac users just won’t switch back. “Could I switch to Windows? Yes, since Adobe makes its Creative Suite for Windows,” graphic designer Christopher Cobble told Ars. “Would I switch? Not even if I had to use a Mac mini.”
But other users wouldn’t be able to get by with less expandable, less flexible iMacs or Mac minis. If Apple drops the Mac Pro, Alper said, “I’m gonna buy the biggest, fastest one I can find and just wait. And then hope Windows 8 is as awesome as it’s promised to be. Other Mac hardware just doesn’t have the flexibility and control that I need.”
And researchers in Chen’s group are already contemplating a switch to Linux. “Our new post-doc is a Linux person, so he’s ordering a pimped out machine from Colfax Systems,” he said. “Another coworker said if the Pros go, he’s going Linux.”
“Dire” long-term consequences?
If Apple does decide to kill the Mac Pro, Alper believes the ill effects will extend beyond users’ immediate needs. “The risk is dire, in my op
inion,” he told Ars. “When Apple does things that make it easier for IT guys to say ‘no’ to Apple hardware, they do themselves a disservice. Things like the consumerization of Lion Server, they make it easier for the corporate Windows IT guy to just say ‘no,’ but when they have one of the best personal computers on the market, the Mac Pro, it makes it easier to say ‘yes.’”
“Employees have been gaining grassroots support for Macs by bringing in their own machines. Those guys in IT, they will use the Mac Pro’s death as a reason to cut support,” Alper said.
Unfortunately, as iPhones and the iOS ecosystem has come to represent 70 percent of Apple’s revenue, what little enterprise support it has offered in the past has waned. “Apple has been abandoning the enterprise market for years,” Dan Reshef, Director of Information Technology at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, told Ars. “It began with the end of life of the XRAID, followed by the server class machines, and the Mac Pro could be next.”“Apple has historically been a computer company driven by an interest to provide a platform for content creation,” Reshef continued. “However, Apple has a [recent] history of simplifying and eliminating products that were a drain on its resources. The enterprise products are likely a resource drain they’d prefer to allocate towards more profitable pursuits, even if it means damaging their own ecosystem and abandoning some of the content creators in the process.”
According to arstechnica