All month long I have received panicky sounding phone calls, emails, and monitored discussions on forums about the widely circulated rumor that Apple is thinking of discontinuing its venerable Mac Pro line of computers.
My response: Folks, get a grip!
First of all, if you are a composer who has always lived in Europe, there is a high likelihood that you have always been PC based rather than Mac and have somehow managed to get some work done. However, for guys like me who have always used Macs, the anxiety is understandable. But….(you knew there was a but coming, right?)
There are two aspects I wish to discuss:
1. Is it likely to happen?
2. What will we do?
While no one I know at Apple will say it to me, my guess is, yes the Mac Pro line will be discontinued eventually. For years, a key part of Apple’s marketing seemed to go “famous guy A thinks outside the box and does amazingly creative and successful stuff on a powerful Mac, so you want one too so that you also can work like a real Pro.”
Although I do not have the numbers, I think it is safe to assume that the total sales of Mac Pros and Apple’s Pro apps for a year equal a bad week for either the iPhone or iPad. I have seen an estimate from a knowledgeable source that says they amount to app. 3% of Apple’s overall revenues. Also, clearly, Apple seems to be moving towards a unified OS that integrates Macs, iPhones, iPads, and iPods together in a way that the user never really needs to get under the hood, which is literally the opposite of the way most composers think. We want to tinker. Also, MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Minis are getting faster chips, more cores, and allow more RAM to be installed. It is not hard to imagine in the not too distant future for instance an i7 Mac Mini Quad Core with the ability to house 4 16 GB memory sticks. Put two of them together and you have a computer array that is more powerful than any Mac Pro on the market at half the cost and that is not much bigger than a ham sandwich.
So what about those of us who use PCI-e cards and multiple internal hard drives who still believe that neither Firewire or USB 2/3 will be as reliable, low latency, and with a higher track count? Well, we have been down this road before. ProTools users say their NuBus systems give way to HD rigs at considerable expense. SCSI gave way to SATA and IDE. Personally, I migrated from PCI to PCI-x to PCI-e at some expense and inconvenience. We do what we have to do and the police do not come in the middle of the night and confiscate our rigs if we choose not to upgrade.
But ultimately Thunderbolt (or Lightpeak) is the answer. It is the first protocol that promises to deliver all that we have come to expect from PCI-e and maybe more. Companies are hard at work building Thunderbolt compatible audio interfaces and hard drives. At the moment they are few, pricey, and not really tested in the heat of battle but this will change, and change rapidly in my opinion. Magma has already built a chassis that will allow us to use our current audio interfaces and devices to connect via Thunderbolt and hopefully this time around, there will be viable competitors so that it is not so pricey as Magma chassis have historically been.
So as you look around your studio as it presently is configured with one, two or more towers, maybe they are in a machine room to eliminate having to listen to fans. Maybe you are controlling them all from several keyboards and mice or just one of each, as I do. Maybe they are all Macs, all PCs or a mix of Macs and PCs. Theoretically, let us say you are using one or more audio interfaces, PCI-e or Firewire/USB, and you have lots of internal and external drives, as I do. Now add up all the money it would cost if you were buying it all at the same time today with the latest and greatest Mac Pro as the centerpiece. Even if you are a shrewd and persistent shopper, you are talking about a lot of money and taking up a lot of space, not to mention your ecological footprint.
Now imagine 3-5 years from now spending half as much as that fully tricked out top of the line Mac Pro. You have a laptop or iMac as your main machine and two or three smaller machines, like Mac Mini servers and/or small PCs, rack mounted with little or no fan noise, loaded with RAM with fast processors with Thunderbolt audio interface(s) speaking to each other through Ethernet, maybe with networked drives that all the machines can access, all using a smaller ecological footprint leading to lower electricity bills. Also, it is all integrated and controlled by a tablet like an iPad 4 if you wish with integration with your iPhone or Android phone instead of hardware controllers.
Is this really something to fear? I think not. As technology evolves, we evolve. If it comes to pass down the line that the Mac Pro becomes extinct in terms of new machines, fear not! Go boldly into that new paradigm.