The Mac Pro has seen a lot of attention over the last couple of years, as users have bemoaned the lack of updates to the line. And with 34 months since its last update and counting (not counting the minor bump last year), its not hard to see why.

Because its not seen either the popularity or design flair of the rest of the Mac line-up, it probably isn't as well known as the iMac, MacBook Air, or even the Mac Mini. In the face of them, it feels a little dated — overall, it's the same line of thinking as the old Power Macintosh line (or a typical desktop PC.) But hints have been coming for a while that Apple has plans to do something new with the line up — or at least, something that will appeal to fans of the product as it currently exists.

Peter Cohen at iMore has some interesting thoughts on what the next-generation Mac Pro is likely to have inside. Its a good piece, but I get the feeling that the starting point is slightly off;

So to understand what Apple might do to the Mac Pro, let's distill what the Pro itself does well and what sort of customer it appeals to. Then let's think about what sort of creation might best serve that market.

Its not an unreasonable way of looking at things – assuming that the Mac Pro is going away (which, given the lack of attention its had from Apple certainly seems to be a fair assumption), what is going to fill the gap that it leaves behind for Mac Pro users?

Perhaps a more interesting set of questions for me would be;

  • What do the Macbook/iMac/Mac Mini series not do well that a Mac user might want their machine to do? (ie. Why would a potential "new Mac Pro" customer not be happy with what is already on the market? These machines are now faster, more powerful and cheaper than what was possible in these form factors a few years ago.)
  • What might a user of a desktop machine (as opposed to a laptop) want out of their box?

The first one seems fairly simple to address;

  • Upgradeability – these machines can't have more than one or two storage drives , don't have the space to allow for more RAM and other peripherals (there are still people who want to work with optical drives after all…) all user-replaceable. Personally, I would like to have a big hard drive and a fast SSD in my Macbook Pro – which I can do by swapping out the optical drive and putting a hard drive in the space it frees up. But if I were to get a Next-Gen (Retina display) Macbook Pro, then this option is closed to me. (Obviously, the same goes for the Macbook Air.) It looks like a similar line of thinking is going on with the iMac — make it small and beautiful, but at the expense of what an owner can do with some 3rd party components and a small screwdriver.
  • High-power (ie. server grade) CPU - for heavy duty processing, like compiling code, quickly processing media (video/audio) etc. The Mac Mini is (as far as I can see) basically a laptop without a screen/keyboard, squashed into as small a box as possible. I don't really understand the difference between a laptop and desktop CPU – I know a laptop CPU will have a greater focus on power efficiency to get the best out of a battery, but I don't know if the iMac's focus on quiet running (and therefore low temperature) means that its using a laptop-style processor.

The temptation for the second question is to just look at the same answers as the first – let the available technology dictate the concept. But that doesn't feel like an Apple-like way of working (or any successful technology company's way of working, come to that). As the saying goes, 'people don't want a quarter inch drill bit – they want a quarter inch hole.'

And of course, this isn't just a way of looking at what Mac users want from Macs — it covers what PC users want from PCs. At a time when the future of the PC is looking less clear than ever (where "PC" means "something that runs Windows"), this is could be an interesting point in time for the "PC" to be redefined. (And who is in a better position to redefine the top end than the company who, with iPhones and iPads, have recently redefined the bottom end?)

For example, I might want;

  • A machine that I use in a fixed location (ie. plugged in - not battery powered) that is still portable enough for me to pick up and move from room to room (I know someone with an iMac who does this), or from home to office, or take away with me for short breaks.
  • A machine I can use with two identical screens, side-by-side. Now, I can do this with a laptop, but it isn't ideal – the screens are different shapes and sizes (and I'm usually forced by space availability to use the laptop keyboard. There fixes, but they feel more like hacks than elegant solutions.)
  • Be able to hide the actual device away somewhere and keep my desk clean and uncluttered. (A massive tower unit under my desk doesn't count.) This is something the iMac does very well…
  • A server-style box that I can SSH into and operate remotely – for example, with an iPad/iPhone.
  • A server-style box that will connect to a MacBook Air on a local network and help it with "heavy load" processing. (I don't know if that's feasible over a typical home wifi network- but it feels like it should be possible over Thunderbolt.)

It feels to me like the thing which has changed most about PC technology is the availability of high speed external ports – USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, both of which have been introduced since the last (significant) Mac Pro update. Back when I had a desktop machine (and played lots of games), the graphics card market was what was interesting to me – a new bit of computer that would slot into an internal AGP port meant a massive leap in my computers' graphical performance without having to replace the whole box.

AGP was replaced by PCIe, and PCIe is now a part of the Thunderbolt specification. So – if I understand correctly – it would seem possible to have a typical Thunderbolt-equipped Macbook which connects over a single Thunderbolt port to a box which could give it additional storage, additional processing power (ie. an external graphics card), and an external display (maybe more than one.)

Now, I can see why someone would want a fixed, desktop computer (see above for a set of good reasons). What I can't see is why someone wouldn't want a laptop that carried all of the benefits of a fixed, desktop computer when docked, as opposed to having two separate machines. (That is, other than the kind of people who don't want a laptop, because an iPad does everything they want a computer to do. But I suspect that those people won't be in the market for anything remotely resembling a Mac Pro…)

If there is a key theme to how computers have changed over the last decade or two, its that they have proliferated. It isn't just that everyone now has a computer on their desk - they have one at home, one in their office, one in their pocket — and increasingly likely to have one on their coffee table in the form of a tablet, one connected to their TV set. But in the classic 'disruption' style, these are all coming from the bottom end — the kind of "computers" that we would have laughed at a few years ago. Meanwhile, the idea of what a 'heavy duty' computer is seems to be more or less unchanged from the days when it was the only computer that their user would have used. It seems to me that there is a basic assumption there that is worth revisiting.

I should probably note that I'm not "predicting" what I think Apple would/should do with the line up – I'm not going to pretend to understand the intricacies of what can and can't be done with Firewire, the latest Intel CPU architecture etc. I guess this is more along the lines of asking, if I had Apple's R&D resources, what would I try to have them build as my dream machine, and then have the likes of Jony Ive and his teams turn into something attractive and useable.