Thursday, March 21, 2013

Apple, Mac Pros, and the "Halo Effect"

John Sircacusa makes a case for Apple to re-invest in the Mac Pro line.

In the automobile industry, there’s what’s known as a “halo car.” Though you may not know the term, you surely know a few examples. The Corvette is GM’s halo car. Chrysler has the Viper. ...Let’s talk about the Lexus LFA, a halo car developed by Toyota over the course of ten years. (Lexus is Toyota’s luxury nameplate.) When the LFA was finally released in 2010, it sold for around $400,000. A year later, only 90 LFAs had been sold. At the end of 2012, production stopped, as planned, after 500 cars. Those numbers should make any bean counter weak in the knees. The LFA is a failure in nearly every objective measure—including, I might add, absolute performance, where it’s only about mid-pack among modern supercars. The explanation for the apparent insanity of this product is actually very simple. Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, loves fast cars. He fucking loves them! That’s it.

I'm a big believer in the halo effect, but I question whether it can be achieved in today's computer market. Apple, of course, is limited to using the same Intel chips that the rest of the industry uses, and just about anybody computer-savvy enough to crave a faster computer knows this.

Imagine a slightly parallel universe where the entire car industry had standardized on engines and power trains from General Motors. You'd never get excited about the new Ferrari or the new Mercedes because, at best, it'd be powered by the same Corvette engine that every other high-end car is using. It might have nicer seats and a better stereo, but those are nice-to-haves, not things you lust over.

Additionally, computers have been "fast enough" for most users for years now. I'm a software developer and I push my CPU pretty hard, and the fact is that the CPU in my 2011 MacBook Pro is almost never a limiting factor.

Are there any other ways Apple could build a "halo product" in today's computer industry? (Their crown jewel, of course, is OSX but you already get that with every Mac.)

Possibility #1: The "GPU Beast Mac Pro." Suppose Apple sells a Mac Pro that's stuffed to the gills with the biggest, best professional-grade GPUs that nVidia offers. That wouldn't be a bad idea but unlike a faster CPU, very few users would benefit from extra GPU compute power. The vast majority of applications simply can't benefit from the speedup offered by GPU acceleration. Perhaps Apple could somehow make automatic utilization of GPU compute power more pervasive in OSX 10.9, but that's doubtful - Mail.app isn't going to fetch your emails any faster with the GPUs helping it out.

Possibility #2: The "4K Retina Display iMac Pro." Apple's shown an inclination to differentiate its high-end notebook lineup by introducing displays with densities approaching 300dpi. One has to believe they're itching to be the first to accomplish this on the desktop, though of course they're limited by what the display manufacturers can currently produce. What if the next "professional Mac" is a slightly more expandable iMac with an integrated 4K resolution display? It's only a matter of time before Apple brings the high-DPI concept to the desktop, of course - it's just a question of how exactly they'll target it, and whether or not it will be part of an expandable "pro" machine that many of us are hoping for.

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