Apple Professional Customers Ripe for the Picking

Chimney Group CEO Henric Larsson at HP's workstations event

Chimney Group CEO Henric Larsson has relegated his Apple MacBook Air to e-mail and Web duty.

Creative and design professionals have traditionally amongst Apple’s biggest supporters on the professional side, with many in the profession showing tremendous loyalty to the vendor. But as Apple has refocused on the consumer marketplace with smartphones, tablets, and services, and simultaneously let its professional product lines – particularly desktops – grow long in the tooth, many customers in that field are also refocusing, towards a platform that ten years ago would have been unthinkable.

At HP’s recent workstations product launch in New York City, several HP workstation customers took the stage to tell their stories of working with the company. Many of them had been – or in some cases still were – Apple customers. But for all of them, the biggest workloads are now going to PC workstations. That has to be troubling news for Apple in the professional sphere, an area that remains very attractive, because, quite unlike many in the PC world, this is a segment where price is not a significant factor.

“I don’t really care what it costs. I shouldn’t say that in front of HP, but I really don’t care,” said Henric Larsson, CEO of Stockholm-based post-production house The Chimney Group. “If it was double the cost it is, it wouldn’t matter to me.”

It’s a matter of economics. Chimney, he says, writes down its workstation hardware over a year, typically refreshing its top producers with the new top-of-the-line as it becomes available, with the now-older models moving down to more junior workers. Even in writing down a workstation over the course of just one year, he estimates the cost of the machine at about $6 per working hour of productivity. When the company can charge well into the hundreds of dollars an hour for client time in a development suite with a workstation, that amounts to a rounding error.

Performance is clearly important to this power-hungry user base. But Larsson noted that while the CPU horsepower is important, it’s the GPU about which his people care the most. Truly CPU-intensive work is sent out to a render farm away from the desktop, so it’s mostly the real time adjustments where a top-of-the-line GPU makes all the difference.

But really, it all comes down to reliability – Larsson’s economic model says $6 per working hour on a workstation. Downtime, though, is much more costly than uptime is profitable.

“If we have a client in the room and we have a hardware problem, we have about two minutes to fix it before the client is pissed off,” Larsson said. “There’s no super-duper diamond-coated support contract in the world that can solve that problem.”

For Larsson and others, both performance and reliability are areas where Apple is not cutting it today. The company has let its Mac Pro get long in the tooth, and while it’s promised an updated later this year that will bring the performance up, there are still concerns. Apple is opting for an interesting cylindrical design with the next-generation Mac Pro. It’s eye-catching and different, but at least for these would-be customers, there are serious concerns. While CPU performance will likely be more competitive on the new Mac Pro, customers expressed frustrations with both Apple’s GPU roadmap and its expansion and reliability message. The company seems to be sticking with its consumer approach of locking down the internals of its machine, and is betting the farm on the high-speed Thunderbolt connection as a way to expand. While that’s fine for storage, it’s less than ideal for other expansions.

“A GPU belongs inside the machine, not sitting on the floor beside it with cabling and a separate power supply,” said one of relying to closely on Thunderbolt.

In the end, Larsson says, he still loves the MacBook Air that sits in front of him as he meets with reporters. But it’s basically an e-mail and Web device for him at this point. Any serious productivity for his company is done on a Windows-based workstation – in the case of Chimney, that means HP.

That means new opportunities for solution providers selling workstations. Apple-centric creative professionals may have been off-limits in years gone by due to their dogmatic support for Apple. Granted, this was an audience of customers who’ve already made the move away from Apple, but they aren’t alone in their sentiments.

While customers have started to make the turn, Windows-based workstations seem to be having more trouble gaining traction in another Apple-focused audience – the channel. Ira Weiss, category business manager for workstations at HP Canada, said the company has good channel coverage for its workstation lineups. But the Apple channel is proving tough to take a bit out of.

“I’d like to see some of those resellers who’ve traditionally sold that product set start to look at our product line,” Weiss said. “It would be very cool.”

Very cool, and if Apple’s professional customers continue to move away from the vendor, likely very necessary.