With Nehalem, the Mac Pro is no longer an amateur

When Intel started prepping the market for the launch of its Nehalem processor platform, I would never have imagine Apple would be the OEM to officially get the party started.

And yet, as the desktop market experiences one of the worst periods in its history – not even Dell could lean-and-mean its way out of this one – the updated Mac Pro line will feature quad-core Xeon 3500s. Who ever thought that a chip like this would end up in something other than a server, and make its debut in a Mac?

This could be the time, however, where the partnership between Apple and Intel could reach an inflexion point. Nehalem, for Intel, represents an opportunity to showcase its engineering prowess and make a business case to customers that there is still innovation to be had in this space. For the uninitiated, Nehalem replaces the front-side bus and uses three RAM modules via Quick Path Interconnect (QPI). That’s not the only new feature, but it’s example of how the chipmaker is trying to enrich the personal computing experience.

Apple, on the other hand, has always appealed to the power user, even if the company hasn’t gone out of its way to court business users. If anything, from the PowerBook onwards Apple seems to have looked at the corporate market as though it were composed entirely of artists, designers and other free-thinkers that needed to have enough horsepower in their computer to run their own company. The new Mac Pros – which includes an eight-core model with 8MB of shared L3 cache and 6GB of 1066 MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM memory expandable up to a full 32GB – actually comes close to achieving this goal.

Normally I wouldn’t expect Macs, even as powerful as these, to make much a dent among the enterprise market, and I still wouldn’t count on many IT managers to replace their fleet of HPs or Lenovos with Apple product. But in smaller firms, like a startup, it may make more sense to offer employees greater choice in the devices they use, especially ones as well priced as these. With Bootcamp, the Windows/Mac OS debate is less volatile, and the Intel architecture may dovetail nicely with decisions about compute requirements across a network.

The point is that Apple customers have always chosen Macs for value, by which I don’t mean “cheap” but value in the original sense of the word. They pay more because they believe they get more. They choose Mac because there is an attention to detail and a premium in performance they feel they can’t get anywhere else. The way they make use of these machines – the applications they run, the tasks they carry out, the results they see – could teach us a lot about what an investment in desktop computing will yield. There may not be a lot of major desktop launches amid this downturn. This is one to watch closely.

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