Semi Pro

A rumor surfaced yesterday in Japan that Apple would by the end of the year introduce a radical new kind of Macintosh computer. That was it — new Mac, radical — yet dozens of sites ran with this non-information simply because Apple is a hot company and, who knows, it might be correct. In that same spirit, then, here’s my guess about what might be correct: I think Apple’s Macintosh Pro line of computers is dead.

Mac Pro’s are Apple’s big box PCs. They haven’t been refreshed since last summer and new models were expected this month with the new Minis, but for some reason the new Mac Pro’s failed to appear. Apple said nothing because, well, because Apple never says anything, instead relying on dopes like me to write non-stories like this one. But while the Mac pundits are generally still waiting for new Mac Pro’s to appear, I don’t think they are coming at all and will be replaced with a whole new approach toward high performance computing from Apple.  Maybe this is what the Japanese writers are picking up on.

Mac Pro’s were Apple’s most powerful computers, though the new Mac Mini I7 servers get pretty darned close, and that’s part of my point in making this prediction. Apple likes a simple product line and eliminating the Mac Pro’s, just as Apple last year dropped its xServe line, would certainly simplify things.

Dropping xServe, an Apple move that was wildly unpopular in some IT quarters, was I suspect some sort of Steve and Larry each bargaining with the Devil thing in which Apple steered even more clearly away from the enterprise in exchange for who knows what from Oracle/Sun. But I think dropping the Mac Pro, if it indeed happens, is a very different move intended to simplify the computer line while boosting the display line.

Mac Pro’s are dinosaurs in many respects. That big beautiful aluminum case with its clever air ducting is eight years old and enormous compared to most PCs. It exists primarily to allow users to pack their Macs with extra drives and third-party graphics cards for high-end gaming. But Apple is changing its whole approach to storage, presumably moving as much of it as possible to that big North Carolina data center.  Apple hates foreign cards (or indeed cards at all) installed in its machines. And then there’s those new 10 gigabit-per-second dual-channel Thunderbolt ports; where do they come in?

I expect Apple to move to a modular architecture where the building blocks for high performance computers are generally Mac Minis. Start with a new Mini or with a Thunderbolt iMac and expand both storage and processing by adding a stack of up to five more Thunderbolt-connected Minis. A maxed-out system would have six I7 processors with 24 cores, 24 gigabytes of DDR RAM (expandable to 96 GB!) and at least six terabytes of storage.  And at $6000, it would be half the price of an equivalently tricked-out Mac Pro.

Yeah, but what about the Graphics Processing Units (GPUs)?  What real gamer wants to be limited to the somewhat lame integrated Intel graphics found in the Mac Mini line?  That’s where the displays come in.

Apple’s Cinema Displays, while still lovely, have fallen way down the price-performance curve. They are too darned expensive for what you get. But Apple can hardly be a PC company without displays. They need to either (shudder) start to compete on price or more likely find us a new flavor of Kool-Aid, which I think we’ll see in upcoming Apple Thunderbolt displays.

There are only two Light Peak displays on the market right now.  I use the term Light Peak, which is what Thunderbolt is called in the non-Apple world, because while one display comes from Apple the other is from Sony and uses a different connector. I think that Sony display gives us a hint to Apple’s plan, because the Sony screen features an integrated GPU.   The new Apple Thunderbolt display may include a GPU, too, but nobody seems to know.

There are good reasons to put the GPU in the display. All those zillions of calculations, after all, are being performed specifically to drive the display. And putting the the GPU inside the screen allows the highest possible bandwidth connection between video memory and display pixels. In some ways putting the GPU in the screen may actually make the screen cheaper to build at such a high performance level.  Whether that is true or not, I am sure it is what Apple will tell us.

When Apple announces a 27-inch or 30-inch Retina Display, you can bet it will have an integrated GPU.

POW! Apple will be back in the business of selling $3000 displays and Hollywood, New York, and San Francisco will be back in the business of buying them. Mac Minis will become the Boeing 737 of performance computers. And Apple can at that point probably drive enough connections on its own to create a vibrant market for third-party Thunderbolt accessories.

Or I’m wrong.

Maybe the Japanese will know.