Why Apple’s Mac Pro Won’t Last

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” — Bertolt Brecht


Apple has a long tradition building a powerful “desktop” tower Macintosh. It has been a given that some customers needed a Mac with PCI slots, fans, and a powerful CPU, bus and graphics card. Nowadays, technology has changed and so has Apple’s market.

On Monday, TMO reported that Apple may be questioning the Mac Pro line because of poor sales. We don’t know exactly when this will happen. Apple’s decision could be soon or next year. But the underlying thread is emerging more and more often, and I sense there may be more going on here than meets the eye.

Mac Pro:  R.I.P.

To first order, as mentioned in the TMO article above, Apple is all about watching sales and customer trends. When a product doesn’t sell well, customers are sending Apple a very distinct message, and so it’s pointless for Apple to carry a product forward for the sake of a few, even if those few complain rather loudly.

Technology Change

But that’s not the whole story. The reason for the customer shift has to be understood. A decade ago, the CPUs in our PowerBooks and iMacs were rather anemic. Apple differentiated between the consumer iMac and the PowerMac G5 for the power user because that’s the way the technology broke out. In these times, however, Intel has been able to develop some fairly powerful CPUs, the Sandy Bridge chips, that are very strong and not so battery hungry — with the help of Lion. The current iMac’s i7 compares well with the Xeon processor in the Mac Pro, and MacBooks aren’t too far behind.

Another technology that comes into play is Apple’s vision: Thunderbolt. This high speed bus makes is practical to miniaturize our desktops with more screen and less pure mass. If anything needs to be added, likely, it can be with Thunderbolt expansion boxes. This keeps the Mac thin, dense, more rugged, easier to ship and with fewer fans. Eventually, our desktops could look something like the concept below: all display and very little visible computational hardware.

terr anova computer

Terra Nova on Fox Broadcasting

Yet another technology that’s very relevant is OpenCL. Recently, one of Apple’s research scientists posted a note on Apple’s Scitech mailing list about how it’s possible to achieve a teraflop of computing power with a 12-core Mac Pro that includes a high end GPU that’s OpenCL capable. In this hypothetical scenario, the Mac’s CPUs are calculated to be able to contribute 200 gigaflops, but with OpenCL, the GPU contributes 800+ gigaflops. Apple hasn’t responded to my queries about real world software testing with, say, Linpack, but the technology is there.

What this means is that future Macs can exploit modern GPUs to achieve the kind of performance that formerly required a desktop Mac.

There’s also a bit of irony here. Modern developers are all about the consumer, as is Apple, and the consumer electronics marketplace doesn’t often require supercomputer-class Macs. However, when that kind of power is needed, the development of the sophisticated, high-end, calculation tools to exploit OpenCL requires the expertise of very experienced computer scientists at major research organizations and national laboratories: the very people Apple is leaving behind in its headlong rush in to the consumer world. Even so, eventually, with enough time and evangelism, the software techniques will trickle down to the ordinary developer. That’s what WWDC sessions are for.

Finally, new OS technologies are driving Apple in new directions. Gestures and voice input suggest a different physical relationship to our Macs. That’s harder to achieve with some kinds of hardware designs, sans display. I wrote about that back in June and noted that the Mac Pro seems to be the odd man out these days.

What’s Left?

So what’s left in the Power Mac we can’t live without? Modern GPUs can, as I’ve noted, out-perform 12-core CPUs. Expansion boxes allow specialization by the customer instead of generalization by Apple. The Mac Pro is all metal and mass and heat sinks and fans and has no built-in display, making it dicier for Apple integrate newer UI technologies. It’s a relic from the past whose technologies are being replicated in other, better ways.

The times and technology have changed, and Apple customers seem to agree. It may be just a matter of time before the Mac Pro gets the axe. And if you really need a supercomputer in your lab, the scientific community has also spoken: Linux on 1U rack mountable servers.