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Apple Goes for the Pros

Say what you will about Apple, it’s not static.

Say what you will about Apple, it’s not static. When the company released Logic Pro X, after the initial excitement that the new version didn’t duplicate the mistakes of Final Cut Pro X, it became clear that Apple had chosen a new model for software sales. Forget upgrades from older versions; you bought the new version for $199 or you didn’t, even if you had purchased Logic 9 a week before Logic Pro X appeared.

Realistically, though, $199 would be the upgrade price for many pieces of software. Apple has basically chosen the polar opposite of a subscription model: Instead of offering a steady stream of inexpensive upgrades, the company provides a full version of the program every few years.

What’s more, Logic Pro X didn’t lose its depth, but also accommodated users who were upgrading from GarageBand by making the program more accessible. In a way, it follows more of the videogame paradigm where some features have levels—like being able to adjust macros that control multiple plug-in parameters, or diving into the plug-ins themselves for finer control.

Apple’s approach seems to be paying off. Although getting hard sales figures on software is impossible, anecdotally Logic seems to be getting more and more mind-share. And far from dumbing down Logic, or (even worse) ignoring it in favor of concentrating on phones and tablets, Logic remains a truly pro program that need make no apologies to its competitors.

That’s the software, but there’s also a hardware angle targeted directly at pros. After making relatively minor iterations to the tower design that has served us well since 2006, Apple has unveiled the radically different Mac Pro for 2013— packaged in a compact (9.9” high, 6.6” wide) cylinder that looks like R2D2’s baby brother. Why a cylinder? To facilitate a really clever thermal design, which allows for a single, quiet fan. But dig into the details Apple has released, and it seems what we’re seeing is the Mac Pro template for several years to come.

Note that this is not a computer “for the rest of us.” It’s a computer for those who need significant power and are willing to pay a premium price (Apple hasn’t released pricing, but I’d be surprised if the line starts any lower than $3,500). Interestingly, the new Mac Pro also confirms a prediction I made over two years ago in this column: “The physical computer will fade into the background, as the data it carries moves to the forefront” (as well as my contention that because lower-cost computers handled most peoples’ needs, truly prolevel computers would increase in power but also in price, not unlike the mainframes of old).

The cylinder is all about adding external devices, thanks to six Thunderbolt 2 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, and dual Gigabit Ethernet; it supports 4K for up to three video displays. Apple is betting Thunderbolt 2 will become a standard, manufacturers will jump on that bandwagon for peripherals, and that having a maze of external devices to run PCIe cards (and other slot-stuffers) externally won’t be a deal-breaker for some. The days of popping cards in and out of your computer will be gone, as apparently will most internal upgrades other than RAM. However, everything is subject to change without notice— and who knows where all this will lead? Maybe there will be Thunderbolt 2-powered “drive farms” with a bunch of slots that let you pop SSDs in and out just like removable hard drives.

The computer bypasses the Haswell generation of processors (mentioned in this space in April 2013), electing instead to stay with Intel Xeon E5 processors, and handles graphics with dual AMD FirePro GPUs. Eschewing nVidia boards won’t make much difference to pro audio users, but the choice is already controversial among hardcore video fanatics—as is the presumed difficulty in rack-mounting the new cylindrical shape.

The cylinder is a bold move; fears that Apple would abandon pro users as it pursued more consumer-oriented devices were unfounded. However, Apple has also made it clear that pro users will be expected to conform to a new paradigm of computing. Will Apple’s gamble pay off? Well, remember what happened to the G4 Cube… and if you don’t remember it, well, that’s the cautionary tale. But I think that those who’ve stayed with the Mac Pro line will welcome the latest generation with open arms, open wallets, and will also welcome the open architecture that indeed moves the computer into the background while data comes to the forefront.

Check out Craig Anderton’s workshops at this year’s Project Studio Expo at AES, and listen to some of his music at