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Editorial: What will Apple do with the Macintosh?

What does Apple need in a new Mac Pro?

It's unlikely Apple will do the same thing for the existing Mac Pro, if for no other reason than the market is just too small. Users after a more affordable Mac can always opt for an iMac (the new models of which are no slouch in the performance department) or a MacBook Pro, both of which score about as fast as a two year old Mac Pro, according to GeekBench stats. So the new Mac Pro will need to squarely hit its target audience. But what is that?

Source: Primate Labs Geekbench

Originally, the Mac Pro delivered the cutting edge of speed on Apple's platform. After the Xserve was discontinued, it served double duty as Apple's server offering. The bulk of Apple's Mac Pro sales were targeted toward desktop power users, many of whom were using tools like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro that could make use of more RAM, disk storage and processor cores than are even available on other Macs. In addition, Mac Pros can accommodate PCI expansion cards including graphics coprocessors.

After a decade of building up a suite of Pro Apps (Final Cut Studio, Logic, Aperture) demanding a pro Mac, in addition to efforts to build serious server tools (ranging from Xsan storage to Xgrid distributed processing), Apple seems to have lost its interest in the high end market in favor of the gangbusters consumer market for iOS devices. But there's reason to think it might make a comeback.

For one thing, while the market for high end workstations isn't growing tremendously, Apple's opportunity to enter the market has never been better. Just a few years ago, Apple had little chance wooing its way into many enterprise or government environments. Today, thanks to rapid adoption of iOS devices, Apple now has the ability to enter doors that were once locked up tight for anything other than Windows machines.

And of course, Macs have never been better at running Windows, either natively or right on the Mac desktop. At the same time, rival PC makers have never been weaker. HP, Dell and other market leaders who would previously have scoffed at Apple are now desperately trying to remake themselves into a form capable of surviving the mobilization of PCs. They're entirely dependent upon Microsoft to lead their software, and so far, that company has churned out a series of duds on both the desktop and mobile sides.

Apple can walk in with a solution for both easy mobile deployments via iOS and a high end workhorse in the Mac Pro. Apple needs to incrementally improve upon its deployment tools, but it does, finally, have a solution that works for both Macs and iOS devices.

Apple can't afford not to

There's no question that the market for a new Mac Pro is very limited. But Apple can't afford not to maintain a presence at the top of the PC performance hill, if for no other reason that there's a lot of technology that trickles downhill. The support for multiple cores and multiple processors that Apple built for Mac OS X is now becoming relevant in mobile devices. Apple's experience in dealing with both desktop and mobile architectures isn't common across the industry.

Last summer, Mike Bell, Intel's general manager of the Mobile and Communications Group, said that "the way it's implemented right now, Android does not make as effective use of multiple cores as it could, and I think - frankly - some of this work could be done by the vendors who create the SoCs, but they just haven't bothered to do it."

Apple's intimate knowledge of ARM design makes it likely that it could become the first PC maker to deliver usable ARM-based notebooks and desktop machines. Even if that's not around the corner for the Mac Pro, there are other technologies for it that have originated on lower end machines.

On the subject of multiple cores, Apple has worked on a variety of technologies to take advantage of both multiple processors within a system and multiple systems on a network. Grand Central Dispatch lets OS X effectively schedule tasks to fill the pipelines on multiple cores across multiple processors, including different types such as the GPU. In addition, Apple also deployed Xgrid to farm out tasks across a network of idle machines, although it abandoned the technology around 2007.

A more modern technology, Thunderbolt, has never made it to the Mac Pro. Because Thunderbolt is essentially PCIe via a cable, Apple could conceptually use Thunderbolt rather than large open slots in a big enclosure to retain the Mac Pro's expansion potential. Imagine a smaller unit with the ability to interface with an external box housing expansion cards, including video adapters. The majority of PC users never make any use of the PCI slots in their systems. Apple recognized this with the Mac mini and iMac, which connect to peripherals via USB. Thunderbolt makes the same thing possible for the Mac Pro.


Soure: Intel

Thunderbolt could also potentially serve as an extremely fast interconnect for linking multiple systems together to allow for ad hoc super computing. Intel recently announced support for an even faster Thunderbolt specification, providing up to 20Gb/s connectivity.

Another shift that appears likely is the removal of optical media. AppleInsider noted last August that internal references to USB Booting indicated that next iMac and Mac Pro would likely drop their optical drives. The new iMac has, and the Mac Pro appears next, given that it is now the last model to retain one.

If Apple could radically rethink the desktop computer into a more modular, flexible form, it could deliver a compact box that scales from a serious game machine to stackable cluster nodes to a high end workstation, potentially expanding its allure to eat up multiple segments of the valuable remains of the vast PC market.