Apple—the company, not the fruit—confounds a lot of people. John Dvorak still holds a grudge against the company due to what one can only assume was a wicked night of trying to figure out Font/DA Mover that ended in three cats being shaved and John getting hauled off on a 5150. Others simply can't grasp Apple's march-to-the-beat-of-McConaughey's-bongos style of management. What with the early power struggles, the booting of co-founder Steve Jobs, the subsequent sucktacularness of the Sculley/Amelio era and the Return of the iKing, who can blame them? But the thing that keep bugging both pundits and fanboys alike these days is Apple's stubborn refusal to offer a mid-level desktop machine.
And by "stubborn," I mean Apple hasn't sold such a machine since discontinuing the Power Mac 4400 in 1998. Some would say eleven years is too long to go without what many consider the de rigueur centerpiece of a company's computer line.
But are they right?
The first Macintosh I ever bought was a Power Mac 7500 in late 1995. Sporting a sweet PowerPC 601 processor clocking in at 100 hardcore megahertz, I pimped this beige bad boy with an additional 32MB of RAM for the low-low price of $1,100, bringing the total memory to 48MB. Boo. Yah. I eventually upgraded the VRAM from 2MB to 4MB, as well, which allowed me to play Qu. (That's 2/5 of Quake for the folks in Lee's Summit.)
The 7500 did, in fact, sit on my desktop, often acting as support for my super-rad CTX 17-inch CRT. I believe the CTX cost Capital One (and eventually me) about $600. See, kids, the good old days weren't always good. Just ask a diabetic from the 1800s.
Anyway, Apple no longer sells a machine in the vein of the 7500. You can take your pick from a variety of machines with limited expandability—Mac mini, iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro—or the wide-open spaces of Towering Inferno known as the Mac Pro. Which still sports the same case (externally) as it did in the pre-Intel days of the Power Mac G5 in 2003. The fact that the Mac Pro's case still looks snazzier than just about anything out there is either a testament to the remarkable design skills of Jonathan Ive's team, or an indictment of every other manufacturer out there. Probably both.
So there are your choices. A machine with a maximum of two cores and no PCI slots or hard drive bays, or a 40-pound Monument to Steve sporting a minimum of four cores (max. eight), four PCIe slots and 42 hard drive bays (assuming you're creative).
For most people, the apparent gaping hole in Apple's product mix probably doesn't even register on their radar. Why such people wander around with a portable radar station is anyone's guess, but there you go. The fact of the matter is that most people will be hard pressed to tax a higher-end iMac or MacBook Pro with their daily tasks. It's no wonder that laptop sales have taken off in recent years—they can do anything desktops did just a few years ago without the nasty insistence on not fitting in a Timbuktu bag. Aside from price, why not get a laptop? (I'll come back to this later—sorry for ruining the subtle foreshadowing.)
I personally made the switch nearly three years ago to the first gen Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. At the time, I was a freelance writer, so portability was pretty much a must. However, since I also shoot and edit video in Final Cut Pro, I would've just gone with a used MBP and a Mac Pro if the C2D couldn't cut it as a video/audio machine. Which it does. Sure, it's not nearly as quick as a Mac Pro, and I do find myself wishing for that extra kick that only cores, clock speed, beaucoup RAM, and a good graphics card can give. And with the current crop of MBPs sporting faster CPUs, more cache, faster buses and the ability to support 6GB RAM versus my machine's 3GB, well, I doubt I'll be switching back to a tower any time soon. After all, I'm not really the "pro" that Apple is targeting with the Mac Pro. Shoot, I know a lot of designers who traded in their towers long ago for the 17-inch MBP and an external monitor. I know none who switched back.
The Mac Pro, then, is squarely aimed at the high-end video/audio/effects folks who need raw horsepower to get things done and usually get those things done sitting behind a console all day. (If this surprises you, please return to playing your circa-1989 Game Boy.) They actually fill up the drive bays and PCIe slots with ProTools farm cards and extra video cards or fibre-channel cards and the like. They're nuts. And, more importantly, they usually aren't spending their own money. Or it's at least tax deductible (for now) if they are.
So why doesn't Apple offer a mid-level desktop for those of use out here who wouldn't mind a little expandability and power without the price tag of a Mac Pro?
Because we want a little expandability and power without the price tag of a Mac Pro or MacBook Pro.
The old marketing adage goes "give the people what they want." Apple, at least under Jobs, seems to follow the mantra "give the people what we want and make it cool enough that they think they want it, too." And what Apple really wants is to make money. On each computer, device or piece of software they sell. They'd rather make a billion dollars selling 500,000 machines than a billion dollars selling a billion machines. To Apple, margin is king. Or prince. Steve will always be king, even after his Pixar-created hologram is floating ominously about One Infinite Loop and scaring the bejeepers out of John Hodgman's cloned offspring.
Traditionally, notebooks have enjoyed a much nicer margin than desktops. People put a premium on portability and are willing a pay for it with a few pesos or pecks of pickled peppers. Sorry. So if Apple comes out with a mid-level desktop, guess where that price point is going to be? Right at—or, shudder, even a bit lower—than a 15-inch MBP. And that desktop would have to be more powerful than an MBP or else it'd just be seen as an overpriced Mini with slots. Or an expensive, headless iMac.
Would such a machine cannibalize MacBook Pro sales? I have no idea. But I doubt Apple wants to find out. And I have a feeling Apple doesn't regret losing whatever sales it may lose for not having such a machine. After all, the real market for it can't be that big. How many of those pundits, critics and fanboys clamoring for this fabled machine would actually buy one? Cheap, hardcore tinkerers like me? Sure. But our numbers aren't as great as they once were, especially on the Mac side.
Apple's rolling in cash. They bring new products to market that either create a new niche, or completely alter the idea of what a certain product can be (hello, iPhone). Is a mid-level desktop going to do that for them? Sources say no.
But that's just my theory. Let's hear some of yours.
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