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Hidden Dimensions -- Pondering Apple's Next Desktop Mac

by John Martellaro
May 19th, 2006

"When you always do what you've always done, you always get what you've always got."

- Anon

It is fitting that Apple has held back the introduction of the next Intel-based desktop Mac -- which some have dubbed the "Mac Pro." For it is the desktop platform that poses so many challenges for Apple and the industry as a whole.

We all know that mobile computing is taking off and that fewer and fewer professional customers see a compelling reason for having a large, clunky tower on their desk (or even below it) unless they have a very special need.

Tower computers take up a lot of room, and they can be noisy. Originally, desktop systems, going back for years, were designed for expansion -- meaning slots. These days, USB 2 and FireWire have all but eliminated the need for HBA cards except in rare professional uses of Myrinet, InfiniBand and Fibre Channel cards. And these are more typical in the Xserve than a desktop.

The most typical use of these "Pro" desktops is when the user needs all the computational power and memory she can get on her desktop plus Mac OS X; forget the heat load. Now, Apple's primary professional markets include design and publishing, film and video, photography and graphics, music and audio, as well as bioscience and research. That sounds big, but when summed up, these professional markets constitute a very small percentage of Apple's sales. So the burning question is, given the popularity of the iMac for consumer sales (and some penetration now into Pro markets!) the trend towards mobile computing, the diminished need for internal expansion, what role should a new Apple Pro desktop play?

Certainly Apple outright owns most of these markets and doesn't want to give them up. So putting a desktop-class Intel CPU in the same old classic PowerMac G5 tower enclosure is certainly a possibility. Indeed likely. It'll still be a nice box and have all the cool Mac technologies. Will customers drool at the appearance and get the sudden urge to buy one? Probably not. There will be routine upgrades from PowerMac G5s to "Mac Pros." Yawn. It doesn't sound very exciting or imaginative to me. In fact, something doesn't seem to ring true here.

Consider the following:

  1. We have some evidence that Apple is working on a media center.
  2. Apple likes to design products whose mere appearance creates the urge to buy.
  3. Apple desktop sales, even before the Intel announcement, were never very stellar.
  4. Dell just bought Alienware. That tells me they're proactively bracing for Apple's Intel desktop.
  5. Apple wouldn't mind converting some of its low volume Pro products over to a more lucrative high volume consumer model.

Let's look at how this evidence could affect the Mac Pro design.

Back in the days of the Blue & White G3 tower, Apple had an industrial design that was far superior to the so-called beige box PCs. The curvy, warm, blue plastic case and the easy side-door access put it way beyond PCs of the day. The movement to the G4 with more subdued grayish tones and some missteps in design diluted the appeal of the G4 tower. When the G5 was introduced in 2003, Apple changed from a soft, rounded look to an aluminum, edgy, and masculine look that spoke to raw power. But anyone who has handled the G5 tower knows that it's heavy and awkward to handle. And three years later, it's beginning to look dated.

One could imagine the marching orders to Jonathan Ive for the next Mac desktop.

  • A beautiful, appealing box that looks professional.
  • Smaller, lighter, quieter. Did I mention smaller?
  • A recognition that this new desktop Mac, like all the other Intel Macs, is going to be running Windows in many Pro markets, so it had better look a lot better than the typical tower PC.

Some have suggested that this next Mac will have the Intel "Conroe" chip. This is a 64-bit, dual core chip with SSE4 and destined to be called the Core 2 Duo. No matter. It'll have the best 64-bit CPU that Apple can integrate before 2006 is over.

I would also expect this desktop Mac to take advantage of Intel's "vPro" technology that allows virtualization to create operational partitions in the hardware that afford monitoring and security screening for the OS.

Let's get back to the industrial design. When I think about really cool desktop computers with extraordinary computational power, I think of the heyday of SGI and their "O2" and "Octane" workstations and the current day AlienWare systems. The designers of these systems have used clever construction techniques to suggest raw speed and to create a futuristic, technical look. If Apple decided to change the "Mac Pro" case, I would expect them to do no less. So would Dell Computer. I suspect Dell wants a high-end system in their lineup to have more than just the commodity desktop blasé box sold by the millions to the enterprise and placed in cubicles. Otherwise, they would certainly end up ceding a chunk of the high end Pro market to Intel-based Macs that run Windows.

Drawing on all the above, what would be some of the design considerations?

Apple knows that they won't sell a whole lot of these desktop systems compared to their consumer systems. They'll be very popular in some enterprise and government circles, but numbers aren't likely to shoot up radically compared to the PowerMac G5. Apple also knows that the modest market for them gets even smaller as the base price goes much above $3,000. That's a lot of bucks even in the Pro markets. And so that constraint places limits on the technologies Apple can utilize.

How could Apple raise the manufacturing volume so that they could reduce component costs and obtain technical leverage against HP and Dell? If there were some added factor that made the Pro desktop irresitible to, say, Apple's consumer population, that would do it.

How about making the new Apple Pro desktop the Apple Media Center as well?

Some have predicted that the Mac mini would grow to fill this role. However, price constraints and both the exterior and interior design may rule that out -- despite the mini's excellent graphics system. The iMac, while great for watching video in an isolated setting, just doesn't fit in with a home High Definition system that already has a large HD display. And so, that leaves, tah-dah!, the Apple Pro desktop system.

Accordingly, a media center and workstation-class computer suggests a return to the horizontal format. Why? The first reason is related to design and desired contrast to PCs. We've seen Apple do this this from time to time. When all the notebooks were black plastic, Apple came out with Titanium. Now that many notebooks are silver in color, Apple comes out with a black MacBook. [1]

The second reason is the need for a lower profile unit in a home stereo/TV system A horizontal format affords the look of an exotic stereo system component and fits better on most stereo cabinets. And since a lot of stereo gear comes in silver or black, and Apple thinks that black is now really cool, I wouldn't bet against black.

If it were thin enough, and metal, placing an Apple Cinema display on top would not be a problem. The horizontal format works very well with hard disks and various optical storage systems. Because the PowerMac G5 and the Xserve pull air though in horizontal layers, I will guess that vertical convection is not a requirement. Moreover, the extreme size of our current displays, and sometimes dual displays, makes it awkward to place a vertical tower on the desktop beside or behind the displays. (Catalogs show it with no problem, but the uncluttered desk in catalog pages isn't very realistic.)

On the other hand, putting a smaller unit on the floor, where your feet can bump it or dust bunnies can threaten, is not only unsavory, but doesn't showcase Apple's legendary industrial design. However, in a "pizza-box" [2] configuration, raising the display a few inches is probably better for one's neck anyway. No matter what display is used, that Apple desktop will always be in front of the user's face.

What's the bottom line? When we look at this hypothetical desktop Mac, we see a sleek, possibly black, horizontal box that conjures up images (!) of a video processor component and a science-fiction-esque desktop workstation. It's clearly differentiated from ugly PC towers that are best shoved under a desk or placed behind the display.

For the Pro user in the office or the power user at home, it'll fit nicely under the display. In the consumer space, it'll fit in with the living room's stereo/TV components and cabinets. [3]

Apple will have achieved convergence of the professional high performance workstation and a state-of-the-art media center. Higher sales volume will reduce costs and allow Apple to use more advanced hardware technologies that would have been impractical at lower sales volumes. This will give Apple sales leverage against the PCs.

Did I mention the drool factor?

Apple could and likely will do something completely different with the next desktop Mac, but I do know that the design and execution of a desktop system is more challenging than ever given the current market conditions. Apple has to give all its customers a really good reason to fork over the better part of three large for a new desktop Mac.

All this is just a guess based on looking at the five pieces of evidence above and analyzing the marketing and ergonomics. In any case, few on the planet know what Apple will do with the next Mac Pro desktop. I just hope they're saving the best for last.

[1] Apple has created the myth that when they do something
better, it's different. So different must be better. Bad
logic. Great salesmanship.

[2] A term applied to workstations in years past. It's not a bad
association to have.

[3] Operated with Apple's remote and Front Row.

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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