Article: That Third Category

by on November 2, 2011

After news that the Mac Pro may be discontinued, just about everyone who cares about the Mac started worrying and debating the value of a such a high-end machine. Although it makes sense from a business standpoint, there’s a lot to think about in regards to our favorite aluminum-and-plastic boat anchor.

Mac Pro: 2006-?Even though sales of the Mac Pro have been on the decline, thanks to more powerful and cheaper iterations of the iMac, MacBook Pro, and maybe even the Mac mini. For many, going mobile is a big component, but you can buy a heck of a lot of hardware for the cost of even the base Mac Pro. That’s not to say that nobody should buy a Mac Pro—just that for what you spend, you can either afford to upgrade twice as often, get more, or leave some money on your bank account.

The interesting thing, in our conversation, is the aspect of Thunderbolt. It’s pretty good—in theory—but there are few peripherals that are really taking advantage of everything, save for Apple’s display. Still, the promise of PCI expansion buses, graphics “cards”, and more externally means that a MacBook Air could even have as much expansion as Apple’s towers. You just need to plug in the right components. As for people who need raw power, the iMac and MacBook Pros offer quite a bit of bang for the buck, so Apple could get people to replace their aging towers with one of those models down the road. It seems that these so-called Mac “power” users tend to fall into a few categories:

The First Category

These are the people who probably buy way too much machine, but keep it forever. I’d argue that a number of tech writers and people who obsess over the Mac and need a reliable, proven workhorse fall into that category. Sometimes this may be augmented by a laptop of some sort, if the machine in question is a desktop. For a lot of folks, these computers are kept for a long time, and have things like RAM, additional drives, and other components replaced over time.

Although I have a MacBook Pro, I bought more machine than I needed and haven’t had to upgrade much at all in the three years I’ve owned it. I acquired a 2005-era Power Mac G5 and added some RAM, and can still add some more hardware easily and inexpensively. Although the architecture has long been abandoned, the computer can still be repurposed as a good backup, and many of these types of machines are retired for other uses (when the Mac Pro was introduced, a number of G5s became “basic task” machines or servers, and likewise when looking at the G5 supplanting the G4).

The Second Category

Another group of potential Mac Pro users soon to be left out in the cold are those who have already left the Mac Pro behind. Many of these are people are creative types who have been able to supplant the Mac Pros with iMacs or MacBooks and external displays or Mac minis. The processing power of most modern computers is surprisingly adequate for a lot of folks. I’ve seen this firsthand, especially in the academic world where journalism, publishing, mass media, or other similar departments have replaced aging Power Mac G5s or early Mac Pros not with more Mac Pros, but iMacs. Although this doesn’t work for everyone, it covers a large portion of the audience.

For those who need raw power, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple offered a souped up Mac mini. Although the internal 2.5″ drive is still on the pokey side, and expandability is a bit limited internally, I suspect one could have a pretty powerful machine when you start adding things externally. In this example, the Mac becomes more like stereo equipment, where you add or remove components over time and keep the same “receiver”, which is mostly handling the processing and that’s it.

The Third Category

What is left are the people who have already been idly threading to leave Apple for the world of Windows or Linux if the Mac Pro meets its demise, but probably will never use or need that kind of power, but own a Mac Pro to brag about specs. Although this “spec-boy”-ism seems to happen more in the PC world, either in comparison to the Mac or other PCs, these are the same people crying foul about the lack of a sub-$1000 Mac tower. I think Apple’s sales have proven that that market doesn’t need to necessarily exist, and it seems that the case is growing for the Mac Pro to be phased out, too.

One hurdle early on that really defined “pro” versus “consumer” was the idea of editing HD video in real-time or rendering things in HD. Since most Macs can handle that with little trouble, the big advantages of a Mac Pro were multiple core processors and internal expandability. With the second being supplanted by Thunderbolt, USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and maybe something else down the road, that leaves us with the multiple core issue. While I doubt that we’ll see 12-core Mac minis, we may see more powerful quad or eight-core minis. That’s pretty close.

iPod Classic, Final Cut Pro X, or Xserve?

Either way, I suspect Apple wouldn’t initially care about this third category, as evident by other past “third categories”—the overly vocal Final Cut Pro X haters, PowerPC software users, or anyone with an original iPhone. The only difference is that the Mac Pro cannot be sold like the iPod classic—little R&D and sold in small numbers, since Apple must keep updating technologies like processors and interfaces to keep it looking appealing when compared to cheaper models. The iPod classic fills a niche and is fine with 2005-era technology. The Mac Pro couldn’t get by like that.

As for Final Cut Pro X, that was a case where Apple went back on their original plan, based on complaints, but it just is giving people more time with Final Cut Pro 7 to eventually transition over. Final Cut Pro X is new, probably having some growing pains, and will eventually become a very powerful video editing tool. If Apple killed the Mac Pro, bringing it back is much different than simply selling additional copies of software.

If anything, I suspect the Mac Pro’s demise will be much like the Xserve—Apple offered better and cheaper options (the Mac mini server), and made it known that this was going to be the future, so get an Xserve while you can. I haven’t seen people pining for the Xserve in the last ten months since it was discontinued.

At the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to Apple—the Mac Pro may not be a big seller, but if they see it financially viable to keep it around, great. If not, users in the third category will just have to get the complaints out of their system soon.

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