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Apple's Mac Pro May Be Fading Away

The Mac Pro has long remained a professional tool in an otherwise consumer-focused line of Apple (AAPL) computers. With a significantly higher starting price tag than its iMac cousin and a wide range of upgrade options that most Apple products lack, it makes sense that a report Monday (via AppleInsider) claimed the Mac Pro might soon be put out to pasture. Would Apple really close the door on its most muscular and expandable Mac model?

First, there are the reasons Apple executives themselves gave for considering shelving the Pro. Reportedly, the sales of these expensive computers have dwindled to the point where making them isn’t nearly as profitable for Apple as it once was. Apple has never been particularly sentimental about keeping a computer around when it isn’t profitable; consider the fate of the G4 Cube, for example, which was introduced to the world in July 2000 and discontinued a year later after it failed to impress the buying public. Desktop sales in general have been flagging, with notebooks and tablets picking up the slack.

Apple has been cited as bucking the downward trend in desktop sales, but the Mac Pro isn’t the computer whose sales we hear broken out during conference calls or at Apple special events. That honor is reserved for the iMac, Apple’s all-in-one that proves there’s still a market for affordable, sleek, desktop computers.

The reason the Mac Pro doesn’t get a shout-out during Apple’s events is probably because Apple has nothing to crow about. If there’s good reason to talk about how well a product is selling, Apple usually isn’t shy about doing so.

Apple may also be able to serve demand for added expandability by using Thunderbolt technology—a further point reportedly raised in discussion among Apple execs.

Thunderbolt Reduces Need for Mac Pro

Thunderbolt expansion devices will soon allow video-capture cards and other devices that use PCI Express expansion connectors to be plugged, outside the case, into an iMac, MacBook, or Mac mini. Thunderbolt also allows direct connection of much faster RAID storage devices and multiple displays, something the internal PCI Express slots in the Pro once provided exclusive access to.

The Mac Pro could still serve a demanding set of niche customers, but those buyers have become less integral to Apple’s target market. Apple showed that it wants to keep focusing on the consumer end of its business when it discontinued the Xserve back in November 2010 and redesigned Final Cut Pro with non-professional end users in mind. In both cases, it eventually made concessions to try to ease the blow to professional users (Mac mini server model and promised updates to Final Cut Pro X).

Apple succeeds mainly because it keeps its product lines tight, letting it focus on doing a few things very well, instead of many things adequately. It recently skipped a substantial update to the iPod touch, which is the biggest seller of its media player line, indicating that the company may already anticipate a future in which the iPhone completely scratches that itch. The Mac Pro, located much further from Apple’s core business, could hardly merit more attention than the iPod touch.

Shuttering the Mac Pro could understandably disappoint some users. This would effectively represent the end of significant, Apple-sanctioned internal tinkering by end-users. Still, as I’ve written, Thunderbolt could introduce many external-expansion options, where once there were few.

In the long run, it’s better for Apple’s core business to focus on making products with wide appeal. A few users’ professional needs can be met with somewhat pricey add-ons, rather than by selling prohibitively expensive machines that only a select few can justify buying.

Also from GigaOM:

Why iPad 2 Will Lead Consumers Into the Post-PC Era (subscription required)

Our Relationship With E-books: It’s Too Complicated

When the DOE Loans Don’t Help But Hurt

Wave Hello to a New Interface: Gesture-Based Phones

Huawei Eyes Cloud Buys, but Politics Keep It Away From U.S. Startups

Etherington is a professional blogger, writer, and editor.

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