The Gaping Hole in Apple's Desktop Line

"Every generation needs a new revolution."

- Thomas Jefferson

I am going to argue that there is an emerging hole in Appleis desktop line of computers. That hole is growing larger because of the change in the way we use our desktop systems. In this case, however, itis not just me with that thought.

This column is a first for me because it is based on a recent TMO forum discussion. Several wise and thoughtful people contributed to a discussion, and so I will do my best to transform this essay from one personis experienced opinion into an opinion that has been crafted by experienced and articulate Apple customers.

Here is the crux of the argument. Both ordinary home and technical professional users who use a desktop Mac are transitioning from a productivity workflow into a video and interactive workflow. In concert with this, our broadband pipeline is slowly growing. As a result, there is a growing gap between the iMac, engineered for home users and the Mac Pro, engineered for Pro-level work in Hollywood video production and scientific computing.

The new iMacs introduced on August 7th donit do anything to change the situation.

Appleis Side

Iim not going to argue that Apple isnit aware of its customer patterns. They know a lot about their customer needs and preferences. They also have the analysis of their sales down to a fine art. At some point, Appleis fine tuned understanding springs forth into exciting products. Of course, if Apple doesnit get the guidance it needs, because customers donit understand the technology, then we end up with Reality Distortion Fields instead of what we really wanted.

As we all know, the sales of notebook computers are off the charts. Everyone loves MacBooks and MacBook Pros for their great design and portability. Theyire just plain sexy, and for a mobile society of technical professionals, theyire perfect.

The desktop systems, on the other hand, have grown passe. In the past, Apple has transitioned the G4 PowerMac into the G5 as a high end tower for people who want certain features, such as better video cards, expandability, and more memory space. Recently, however, the Mac Pro has transitioned into a severely high end work station that doesnit make sense for users who want the features of a powerful, expandable desktop but canit justify the cost of a Mac Pro. So far, thatis been okay with Apple because most users simply settle for an iMac, propelled by a little Apple RDF. Equally important, Apple must continue to cater to Final Cut Pro and CS3 power users, and so there is no clear idea of how a third desktop (like the dreaded Cube) would fit into Appleis lineup. Even more doubtful is the sales potential of such a system given that even Mac Pro sales are not stellar while MacBook sales are astronomical.

So I will grant all that. And yet...

The Customeris Side

One of the keys to this discussion is the current state-of-the-art in CPU design. We all know that as processors got faster and faster, around 2003, an effect called transistor leakage cropped up. It was related to the fact that as the clock speeds of the single core CPUs increased, there was increased heat generated due to an inefficiency of the electrical current flowing through each transistor. When you have hundreds of millions of transistors, it all adds up. We ran out of cost effective cooling capacity.

These days, IBM and Intel have made improvements that reduce that effect, but not so much that it doesnit make sense to add processing power with more cores and less clock, so to speak.

As a result, weive moved into a valley of death, a plateau in the 2+ GHz range, where the major chip makers add cores for the sake of competition and exotic benchmarks, but everyday developers are hard pressed to keep up with designing software that can exploit four or eight cores.

As a result, the eight core Mac Pro is essentially designed for very expensive production software or custom research software that can exploit such a monster. If you look at the typical benchmarks that donit take into account extensive threading, youill find that the Mac Prois Xeon processors arenit exactly smoking the Core 2 Duo.

This doesnit mean a lot for the average home user or even the mobile professional who surfs in the evening, trades e-mail with colleagues, updates, and may even catch up with an episode of Lost on

It does mean something for younger people who have grown up on PC games and YouTube. It means something to people who are sizing up the HD industry and deciding what role their home Mac is going to play in a future of a 1080p video library. It means something to technical professionals who do work at home. And it means something to those customers who have their own display, sometimes multiple displays, thank you, and want a very fast computer for the sake of the sex appeal of a very fast computer.

Face it, the Mac Pro is an ugly beast of a computer.

The (Intel) PowerMac Returns

It doesnit make sense to suggest that Apple build a computer that is so exotically fast that its price point would only appeal to a few percent of the population. Weire well familiar with the steep curve associated with the fastest and the best hardware, and climbing that curve means pricing the computer out of the range of target customers. SGI tried that and got into big trouble. Theyire not out of business, but theyire on life support. We donit want to go there.

Even so, I will add my voice to those in the recent forum discussion and suggest that Apple has ignored some of the more muscular CPUs from Intel, compromised the memory bandwidth (to save on cost) in preference to the obvious hoopla of eight cores in the Mac Pro, ignored the fact that many power users find it psychologically difficult to buy a computer with a built-in display (which is seen as a less capable, consumer machine), and has held on to the G5 cheese grater design for far too long.

There is another problem, and it has to do with positioning the product. An Intel PowerMac with a balanced architecture, optimized for video and optimized for the most typical desktop applications that can only exploit two or four cores might end up with benchmarks that could borderline embarrass the MacPro. That would create a perception problem regarding the differentiation Appleis desktop line.

On the other hand, Apple seems to want it both ways. They keep the price of the Mac Pro barely within reach of the power user: Too expensive to justify compared to a nice MacBook Pro but not so expensive that itis dismissed out of hand. And then, thereis that nagging necessity to retain the perception that the best Macs are no more expensive than the best PCs. If Apple added $500 to the price of the Mac Pro to eradicate some engineering compromises, the PC world would jump down Appleis throat and many users might not notice the difference with their typical software. No win there.

All the above may sound like Iive talked myself out of the proposition. But I havenit.

Boldly Going ... Out of the Comfort Zone

Right now, Apple is in a comfortable spot. They like their Mac Prois acceptance in business, government, research, science, and professional video editing. Consumers are buying iMacs and loving them. The new ones are spectacular looking. Whatis not to like?

Intel is in a comfortable position as well. Theyive figured out how to add more cores, and it wonit be long before we see 16 core CPUs, all scrambling for memory access, straining the limits of an SMP system. No matter, just jazz up a few benchmarks and lead the consumer down the path of "twice as many cores means oh so yummy goodness and, ahem, twice as fast." Sure.

By and by, the general population is going to stop buying that story. A general perception could ensue that the iMac remains an exotic toy for John and Mary Doe to file their taxes and read Grandmais e-mails because Apple has steadfastly deprecated games, raw power, and Blu-ray on their consumer desktop.

In that scenario, the coarseness (for Mr. Jobs, read simplicity) of the Apple desktop line could become a weakness in the very near future. And a weakness in Apple is just what some competitors would like to find now that Apple appears distracted by the iPhone and strained by getting Leopard out the door. The path is not without difficulties. I mentioned a lot of them above. And yet, change is inevitable. Apple knows we are all dreamers. Apple loves to be the best at everything. Thereis a big fat hole in Appleis desktop line up thatis been conveniently glossed over in all the buzz surrounding Appleis success.

It would be oh, so easy to give up on the dream. The dream of of an ultra-sleek, beautiful, designed-by-Ive, quad core, Blu-ray, omigod-gotta-have-it personal desktop. Fast FSB. Game-class video card. eSata interface.

Giving up is so easy to do, after all.

Customers would want the Intel PowerMac to have expandability and flexibility. Those of modest means would want to get one for a reasonable sum yet let the more affluent load it up. This would be the next generation desktop that weive all been waiting for, and the Mac Pro would remain in its rightful place as the ugly, behemoth, put-it-under-the-desk workhorse Pro machine it has evolved into. Downward price pressure and engineering compromise in the Mac Pro would be eliminated. Maybe Apple will sell fewer Mac Pros, but theyid sell a lot more digital hub desktops. An Intel Power Mac.

Notebook computers and iMacs have their uses, but managing our terabyte video lives is not one of them.