The “Halo Car” Effect

Mar 22, 2013 by

Hat tip to John Gruber’s Daring Fireball

The Case for a True Mac Pro Successor

 by John Siracusa

Lexus LFA

The xMac has been back in the news lately—the idea, if not necessarily the name. Whether it’s called a “Mac minitower” or a “Mac Pro mini,” we long-suffering Mac Pro fans are all looking forward to the “really great” thing Tim Cook told us to expect this year.

What almost no one expects is another straightforward revision of the existing Mac Pro, a gargantuan tower-style computer built with server-grade CPUs and RAM that pushes the limits of computing performance. Very few people want that kind of computer these days, and even fewer people actually need one.

On paper, the Mac Pro may no longer be a viable product, but it would be a mistake for Apple to abandon the concept that it embodies. Like the Power Mac before it, the Mac Pro was designed to be the most powerful personal computer Apple knows how to make. That goal should be maintained, even as the individual products that aim to achieve it evolve.

Why is this important? If Apple produces a new Mac that’s faster than any of its current models by leaps and bounds, will people suddenly buy it in huge numbers, choosing it over the laptops, tablets, and phones they prefer today? No. Is it because a very fast Mac can be sold for such a high price that its huge margins will make its profits significant, despite the expected low number of sales? No, that won’t happen either. Is a new, insanely fast Mac even guaranteed to make any money at all for Apple? Sadly, no.

So why bother creating a true Mac Pro successor at all? Good riddance, right?

Bean Counters and Car Guys

In the automobile industry, there’s what’s known as a “halo car.” Though you may not know the term, you surely know a few examples. The Corvette is GM’s halo car. Chrysler has the Viper.

The vast, vast majority of people who buy a Chrysler car get something other than a Viper. The same goes for GM buyers and the Corvette. These cars are expensive to develop and maintain. Due to the low sales volumes, most halo cars do not make money for car makers. When Chrysler was recovering from bankruptcy in 2010, it considered selling the Viper product line.

Why wouldn’t a company want to get a low-volume, money-losing product line off its books, bankruptcy or no bankruptcy? If you can’t think of a reason, you may be what is known in the auto industry as a “bean counter.” Luckily for Viper fans, Chrysler had a few car guys left. Here’s a passage from Car and Driver’s preview of the 2013 SRT Viper—the Viper that almost didn’t exist.

“I knew the very last thing Chrysler needed during our bankruptcy was a 600-hp sports car,” says Ralph Gilles, the 42-year-old president and CEO of SRT and senior V-P of Chrysler Product Design. “But I’m an optimist. I wanted to fight for a chance. We discussed it for a year. I got Sergio [Marchionne, Chrysler CEO] to drive one of the last Vipers. He jumped in and disappeared to God knows where. He came back 15 minutes later and said, ‘Ralph, that’s a lot of work.’ He meant it was a brutal car. But he didn’t say, ‘Good riddance,’ or anything. Then in late ’09, I showed him a video of a Viper breaking the Nürburgring record. He watched all of it and was impressed. I gave him a list of the supercars the Viper had put away.

The car guys won; Chrysler chose to keep the Viper.

Apple is not yet in bankruptcy, but every other reason that Chrysler should have run screaming from the Viper applies equally to the Mac Pro (except perhaps the lack of profitability; Apple doesn’t share that information about individual Mac lines). To understand Chrysler’s decision, let’s consider why halo cars exist at all.

One reason is prestige. Though few people can afford to buy a Viper, its mere existence makes the affordable cars from the same manufacturer that have even the mildest bit of sporting pretension slightly more attractive to buyers. Yes, this makes little logical sense, but it’s a very real phenomenon. (There’s a reason the term “halo effect” reportedly dates back to at least 1938.)

Halo cars also push car makers to their limits. Engineering teams must use all their powers and all their skills to create the very best car possible. This exercise inevitably leads to the exploration of new technologies. The failed experiments are forgotten, but the winners eventually find their way into more prosaic cars from the same manufacturer.

To Boldly Go

The Mac Pro is Apple’s halo car. It’s a chance for Apple to make the fastest, most powerful computer it can, besting its own past efforts and the efforts of its competitors, year after year. This is Apple’s space program, its moonshot. It’s a venue for new technologies to be explored.

Consider Larrabee, Intel’s project to create a massively multi-core x86-based GPU. Rumor has it that Apple was working on integrating the technology into a Mac Pro. Intel eventually scuttled the project, but consider what would have happened if it had taken off, reshaping the GPU market in the process. Apple would have had a head start on integrating the technology into its OS and application frameworks. Its drivers would have had their kinks worked out. When it became feasible to incorporate Larrabee technology into the rest of its product line, Apple would have been ready.

I intentionally chose a (rumored) failure as an example because that’s part of the point. Better toexperiment on your niche product than your high-volume money-maker. There are plenty of success stories as well.

Think of all the technologies that debuted on Apple’s high-end Macs: hard drivescolor,FireWiremultiple CPUsmulti-core CPUs64-bit CPUsprogrammable GPUsreal-time video processing. All these features had a chance to get shaken out on machines that most people don’t buy. When they trickled down to “normal” Macs, Apple had enough experience under its belt to implement them competently.

As for prestige, perhaps you think the existence of the Mac Pro has precisely zero influence on the average MacBook buyer. The existence of the Corvette probably doesn’t affect the behavior of Chevy Malibu buyers either. But things change as you creep up the respective product lines, edging closer to the high end. The Titanium PowerBook G4 was all the more impressive for incorporating the CPU previously only available on Apple’s “supercomputer” Power Mac G4.

I used the present tense earlier when I said that the Mac Pro is Apple’s halo car, but that hasn’t actually been true for a while. By allowing the Mac Pro line to languish for so long, Apple has negated any possible prestige effect and abandoned an arena where it could safely push the limits of PC performance.

I know what you’re thinking. That was then, this is now. The age of the high-end PC is over! But halo cars are even more absurd than high-end PCs. There are some pretty hard limits on car performance. Anything that carries a human around can only pull so many Gs before its fragile cargo gives up the ghost.

Compare this to computing power, which has no apparent useful limit. While car performancehas increased by perhaps a factor of 5 in the past 50 years (and that’s being generous), humanity has absorbed a million-fold increase in computing power during that same period without sating its appetite for more. (And that factor gets quite a bit larger if I add GPUs to the mix.) Computers are not “fast enough.” They weren’t when they were invented, nor when they got 10x faster, nor when they got 100,000x faster still. They never will be.

To be clear, absolute performance is not the only worthy technological frontier. Apple continues to push the limits on many other fronts: miniaturizationpower efficiencymanufacturing processesmaterials, and, of course, user experience. The same is true for car manufacturing, where fuel efficiencysafetyreliability, and even comfort are arguably more important axes of innovation than absolute performance (the limits of which can’t be legally explored on public roads anyway). And yet there they all are, those absurd halo cars, laughing in the face of logic.

Look Into Your Heart

This brings us to the final, and perhaps most important reason that halo cars exist, and that the Mac Pro—or its spiritual equivalent—should continue to exist. Let’s talk about the Lexus LFA, a halo car developed by Toyota over the course of ten years. (Lexus is Toyota’s luxury nameplate.) When the LFA was finally released in 2010, it sold for around $400,000. A year later, only 90 LFAs had been sold. At the end of 2012, production stopped, as planned, after 500 cars.

Those numbers should make any bean counter weak in the knees. The LFA is a failure in nearly every objective measure—including, I might add, absolute performance, where it’s only about mid-pack among modern supercars.

The explanation for the apparent insanity of this product is actually very simple. Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, loves fast cars. He f’ing loves them! That’s it. That’s the big reason. It’s why the biggest car maker in the world spent ten long years and well over a billion dollarsdeveloping a car that almost no one will ever own—or even know about, for that matter. It explains why Toyota scrapped the LFA’s frame design and essentially started over with carbon fiber midway through the development process. (Talk about a Steve Jobs move.)

And perhaps it also explains why the famously cantankerous Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, a man who has driven nearly every supercar produced in the last several decades, recently called the LFA “the best car I’ve ever driven.”

I’m not here to convince you that the LFA is a good car, that you should trust Jeremy Clarkson’s opinions on cars (or anything, really), or that you should buy a Mac Pro. All the common reasons you’ve heard for Apple to abandon the market for high-end PCs are logically and financially sound. They also don’t matter.

Apple should keep pushing the limits of PC performance because it’s a company that loves personal computers. If Apple can’t get on board with that, then all the other completely valid, practical reasons to keep chasing those demons at the high end are irrelevant. The spiritual battle will have already been lost.


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