What the Mac Pro update means for next week’s Expo keynote

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Apple got the jump on next week’s Macworld Expo by rolling out a pair of product announcements a full seven days before Steve Jobs takes the stage for his keynote. The company delivered a long-awaited update to its Mac Pro desktop as well as a faster Xserve.

If you find the timing of Tuesday’s announcement strange—why not just wait until next week when we’re all packed into the Moscone West convention hall?—releasing products now instead of later makes sense. It’s clear that, by rolling out new hardware this week, Apple didn’t want to be overshadowed.

Oh, I’m not talking about the other trade show that’s going on right now—the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Nice as the doodads and gadgetry being unveiled at that event might turn out to be, there’s no chance they’ll overshadow anything Apple has planned for next week. Unless, of course, you think that the sight of Bill Gates jamming with Slash from Guns ‘N Roses is enough to knock Apple out of the public consciousness, in which case, thanks for reading Macworld, Mr. Ballmer.

No, if Apple is worried about anything stealing Steve Jobs’ January 15 thunder, it’s Apple itself. Or to put it another way, there are only so many product announcements you can cram into 90 minutes or so of keynoting. If you can clear the decks of some announcements in advance of your alloted stage time, why not go ahead and do it?

And, to be frank, updates to the Mac Pro and Xserve product lines seem like fine candidates for deck-clearing. Glancing at the specs of the new Mac Pro models, there’s plenty to like about this update, from the faster clock speeds to the boosted L2 cache and memory capacity. (We’re getting our mitts on one as we speak, and Macworld Lab is champing at the bit to see how the performance of the new Mac Pro compares to the times turned in by the previous standard configuration.)

All that said, this is not what that radical a change for the Mac Pro line—”same guts, bigger engine,” is how one forum poster put it. This is the sort of thing that rates fairly low on the ooh-and-aah-o-meter (where the highest score goes to the iPhone and the sound of crickets chirping goes to charging an annual fee for iTools). That’s especially true at a show like Expo which is dominated by consumers and not the high-end professionals that make up the Mac Pro’s core audience. And all that goes double for the Xserve. So announce the updates now, and leave more keynote time for the products that require a longer stay in the spotlight.

Which brings us to the part of Tuesday’s pre-Expo product push: If Apple’s making these sorts of product releases now, just imagine what Steve Jobs plans to devote his time to talking about next week. Last year, for example, the Apple CEO ignored a perfectly fine AirPort base station update to spend the bulk of his keynote singing the praises of Apple TV and the iPhone. I’m not prepared to speculate on what Jobs might talk about this time around—that’s why discussion forums were invented—but I do suspect it must be pretty intriguing if Apple feels it has to get hardware updates out the door this very instant.

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