Has Apple abandoned pro users?

12th Dec 2012 | 15:50

Has Apple abandoned pro users?

Can it really be true that Apple is putting the Mac Pro out to grass?

When Phil Schiller introduced the Mac Pro to audiences at WWDC 2006, he was clearly in awe. "I am so excited," he said, during the presentation.

"This is the Mac so many of our highest end customers have dreamed of."

At WWDC 2012, Schiller was excited about the Retina MacBook Pro. After two years of neglect, the Mac Pro received a derisory refresh: a speed bump to the processors, but no new graphics hardware, no Thunderbolt and no USB 3.0.

"The only high-end thing about it is the price," wrote Andy Hertzfeld, who helped design the original Mac. In 2009, Tim Cook said that Apple would "participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution." Is the pro market still one of them?

Say it with towers

Apple APerture

If by 'pro market' you mean 'Mac Pro market', then in financial terms the answer is probably no.

Apple canned the Xserve server in late 2010 on the grounds that hardly anybody was buying it, and the Mac Pro's position is looking similarly shaky: it's a tiny bit of Apple's PC business, which in turn is dwarfed by iOS.

In its most recent financial quarter, Q3 2012, Apple brought in $16 billion from the iPhone, $9 billion from the iPad and just under $5 billion from Macs, and of the four million Macs it sold, three million were laptops.

That leaves one million iMacs, Mac minis and Mac Pros, and while Apple doesn't break down the sales of its individual models it does say that its 1,010,000 desktop sales brought in revenues of $1,287,000,000. That works out as an average selling price (ASP) of $1,274.

That's just $75 more than the cheapest iMac and just over half the price of a basic Mac Pro, so it suggests that Mac Pros aren't flying out of Cupertino in enormous quantities.

It seems that copies of Apple's pro programs weren't flying off the shelves either, because Apple appears to be repositioning its pro apps towards the bigger prosumer market: the latest versions of Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro are significantly cheaper than their predecessors, and in the case of Final Cut Pro X, many pro customers were appalled by a release that, they felt, skipped crucial features and backwards compatibility.

What's interesting about those programs is that you don't need a Mac Pro to run them. Could Apple's workstation go the way of the Xserve?

Mac Pro: oh no

Nvidia graphics

The argument for the Mac Pro is simple enough: while consumer Macs have become significantly more powerful in recent years - for example, Thunderbolt replaces the need for a big tower's various expansion slots and Grand Central Dispatch has been making the most of multi-core consumer Macs since OS X 10.6 - there's still a large gap between the maximum storage, RAM and processing power in a consumer Mac and in a Mac Pro.

Where ordinary Macs come with single quad-core processors, Mac Pros can be configured with twelve cores; where desktop Macs run out of RAM at 16 or 32GB, Mac Pros can handle 64GB, and so on. It's a machine for Apple's big-spending customers who expect cutting-edge tech.

This year, they didn't get it. As Andy Hertzfeld put it: "Still no Thunderbolt, still no USB 3.0, no SATA III or RAM speed improvements - it seems like it's stuck in time in 2010." And he's got a valid point: while maxing out the options list can take the 2012 Mac Pro well past the £10,000 mark, the top-end graphics option is a pair of £100 ATI Radeons that have been around since 2009.

Hertzfeld wasn't the only person with concerns. Instapaper creator Marco Arment wrote: "If you wanted to kill a product line, an 'update' like today's would be a good way to clear out parts and keep selling to a few desperate buyers for a bit longer without any real investment."

Lou Borella was worried too. After two Mac Pros, a G5, G4, Mac mini, iMac, four iPods, four iPhones and four Apple laptops, it's safe to say he's a pretty loyal Apple customer. But as a video professional he had been so concerned at the lack of Mac Pro updates that he set up a Facebook page to try and raise awareness of pro users' concerns.

"We have no desire to go to the dark side and buy a Windows machine," Borella wrote, "we've held out as long as we can… it's really not fair to string us along like this." To date, the page has attracted an impressive 18,492 Likes.

When the Mac Pro was refreshed, Borella's joy quickly turned sour. It "was definitely disappointing," Borella told us, adding: "I don't know how they thought they could call that an update. It screamed of desperation."

So what would he have liked to see? "The paltry selection of graphics card options is turning out to be the biggest problem for us," he says. "Adobe is in bed with Nvidia, and CS6 basically requires a CUDA-capable card to run all of the fun stuff in After Effects CS6, and there are very few options for Mac Pro users.

"But Nvidia has plenty of great choices for the PC crowd. We really should start another movement for better graphic card options on the Mac platform."

Dough for pros

Apple Final Cut Pro

Is the Mac Pro the canary in the coal mine, a sign that Apple is losing interest in its loyal pro users? Brad Peebler says no.

The president of award-winning 3D software firm Luxology, creators of modo 3D, certainly doesn't feel neglected. "Let's clarify things a bit," he says.

"When we talk about professional users we are really discussing content creators. So the question is, does Apple care about content creators? My personal opinion is that they care a whole hell of a lot about content creators."

As Peebler points out, Apple is hardly neglecting the content-creation market. "The core of their business is driven by content, but that content is different today than it was three to five years ago," he says.

"For those who feel Apple has left them behind, consider this: they have given the content-creation market new technologies, such as Thunderbolt and market-leading mobile workstations (don't call those Retina-wielding MacBook Pros 'laptops').

"But perhaps more importantly, they have provided a revolutionary new distribution model to get video, music, games and apps to a giant market of iPad and iPhone users, aka 'content consumers'."

This year's WWDC might not have mentioned the Mac Pro, but it spent an awful lot of time on iOS and the iTunes ecosystem. That ecosystem has already netted $5 billion for developers, as well as generating billions across the music, publishing and video industries, and the widely anticipated apps for Apple TV are likely to generate significant revenues too.

What's Tim Cooking?

Apple Logic Studio

Apple, of course, doesn't comment on its future plans, let alone confirm or deny the existence of future products - but one of Lou Borella's Mac Pro users, known as Franz, managed to get Apple to do just that.

In an email, Tim Cook replied to Franz and said: "Our Pro customers like you are really important to us. Although we didn't have a chance to talk about a new Mac Pro [at WWDC], don't worry as we're working on something really great for later next year." Cook also took the opportunity to plug the Retina MacBook Pro, which he called "a great solution for many pros."

We asked Borella whether that was enough to keep him from the dark side. "Some people on the Facebook page have jumped ship, either to Windows or Hackintosh," Borella says, but Cook's promise is keeping him with Apple for the next year or two.

By sticking an Nvidia GTX570 into his 2008 Mac Pro, "I'm set for the next 12-18 months, and if the new Apple machine is released at that time and suits my needs then I'll be set for another two years after that."

Shhhh! It's a secret!

The pro market is one area where Apple's legendary secrecy can be a problem. "We are not typical consumers," Borella says. "If the high-end product update cycles are going to continue to be this staggered then we need to have an idea of what the timeframes are."

As he points out, production studios need to plan ahead. If he could say one thing to Tim Cook on behalf of his fellow pros, what would it be?

"Now it's obvious that Apple's focus has shifted to the mobile market, the pro market needs to be reassured that there will be hardware and software that will allow us to continue our business practices," he says. "The little peek behind the curtain that Tim Cook granted us after WWDC was definitely a step in the right direction. I just hope they keep it up."

For Brad Peebler, it's the big picture that matters. "Sure, I'd love to see Apple moving faster on the Mac Pro development line," he says, "but I'll take Tim Cook at his word that they have something coming. In the meantime, perhaps rather than whining about the lack of a new computer, people should get to work making content that takes advantage of the huge new market Apple has created for us."

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