• Can the Mac mini Really Convert Windows Users?

    January 22nd, 2005

    For years, diehard Windows users, and that includes some technology writers, have pronounced Apple dead and buried. It’s not that Apple hasn’t at times contributed to the speculation. But a company that has loads of cash in the bank and shows good profits each quarter isn’t on life support. At the same time, the market share hasn’t been all that exciting. Despite its charms, Apple was long regarded as a boutique brand, and you had to pay extra to join this exclusive club.

    With the iPod, it was demonstrated that a slightly higher price isn’t going to put off customers, if you can show a lot of value. The understated elegance and relatively easy user interface have triumphed over competitors that may offer more features and lower prices, but no prestige. Being able to buy something that you can show off with pride counts for a lot; it’s that indefinable “thing” that Apple has down pat, but the competition just doesn’t understand.

    It would have been easy to make the Mac mini a small, undistinguished box, such as the LC, the entry-level Mac of the early 1990s. The LC was, for a Mac, relatively inexpensive and definitely didn’t catch your eye. It was just, well, there.

    The biggest thing the Steve Jobs regime has brought to Apple is a sense of cool. Style may not be everything, but it sure gets you through the front door, and that’s where the Mac mini may perform miracles. On an objective basis, it has its shortcomings, and since I’ve dwelled on them in detail, there’s no sense in boring you all over again. The published comparisons I’ve seen from skeptical writers demonstrates they just don’t get it. It’s the same argument all over again. Dell and Gateway may produce systems that offer more stuff at a lower price, or maybe not, depending on your point of view. But Michael Dell and his compatriots don’t understand what style means and I don’t think anyone can teach them at this stage in their lives.

    You can look at almost any product category and see where the right sense of style wins out. In the automobile business, take a look at two new models, the Chrysler 300 and the Ford Five Hundred. The both compete in the same market. On an objective basis, the Ford has the advantage of more comfortable and spacious accommodations. The Chrysler’s unique retro-modern look is a bit impractical, because the high body panels and short windows can create a claustrophobic feeling for some drivers. But put them side by side and the 300 is striking, the Five Hundred frumpy. You don’t have to guess which model is doing best in the marketplace. The Chrysler owner can proudly show off the new vehicle. The Ford owner? Well, it’s a nice car, quite practical and all, but not much more.

    Not that I have anything against practical. But I wouldn’t mind paying a few more hard-earned dollars to buy something that I can look upon with pride. Tell me, honestly, Windows users, do you really want to show off that Dell? Really? No, you usually stick it under the table; out of sight. You might even get some work done if you can stay free of spyware and virus infections for a while.

    Now here’s the next part of the equation: I can’t begin to count how many Windows users are totally frustrated at the spate of malware. Till now, it has been difficult to consider alternatives, even though the iPod leads the way. Even if you can show, feature-for-feature, that a Mac is a better value, and certainly has greater longevity, the up-front costs are deal breakers. It’s not just the computer, but the cost of buying new software and, whether you want to admit it or not, there’s a learning curve. Yes, you might be able to accomplish something under Mac OS X in five steps, whereas it’s 15 steps in Windows, but you have to know which steps to follow.

    So moving to a new platform, despite potential advantages, isn’t something to take lightly, particularly for business users that have large investments in their existing hardware. On the other hand, the Mac mini makes purchasing a new computer a casual process. Look at the cute little thing, look at the cute box. The first thing I noticed when I saw one was that it makes you want to pick it up and look it over. Maybe Apple has discovered the secret of the pet rock, but whatever it is, the Mac mini has it in spades.

    How can you resist? How can the Windows user resist? At the same time, Apple cut the price of its regular keyboard and mouse by $20. What about the display? Come now. You probably have one catching dust in the closest or going unused somewhere, and the monitor that works fine on a Dell will work better on the Mac. Now maybe it seems incongruous for the Dell to display Mac OS X on its screen, but think of the dollars you save. You can always buy that fancy new Apple display later on. No rush.

    When it comes to your software investment, Windows users, just what do you need? The Mac mini, like all consumer Macs, comes with a decent package of software that will suit most home users. You have a serviceable email client, a powerful Web browser, plus the famous iLife digital hub applications. For now, AppleWorks is still being offered, and that’s nothing to be ashamed off. Actually, it can do most of the work people use Microsoft Office for, without the huge investment.

    If you need Office, think for a second whether you have a student or a teacher in the family. If school-age kids are around, it’s a no brainer. A nephew or niece? No problem. They hang around the house so much you almost regard them as members of your immediate family. This gives you every reason to purchase the Student and Teacher edition of Microsoft Office 2004, which lists for $149 and can be had for about 20% less if you shop around. And, no, Microsoft doesn’t require you to sign a loyalty oath to get this low-cost version, which, by the way, gives you three user licenses. It may not be a solution for the larger business, but for most other users, it’s just the ticket.

    Where the Windows person might run into trouble is the vertical market application, the one designed for a specific profession, say for a lawyer or doctor. Here you may be forced to look into a Mac alternative; maybe Virtual PC will suit for occasional use if you must stick with what you have. But if all your personal computers have to run that program, switching to a Mac becomes less practical. The one hope here is that, as Apple’s market share rises, more publishers will be encouraged to put make Mac versions of their specialty products. In fact, a dentist told me the other day that the original authors of DentalMac, discontinued years ago, are back in the game. Sure enough, they have formed a company known as HealthWare, which is the name of the flagship product that’s being developed under Mac OS X’s Cocoa environment. It’s designed to support both dentists and physicians.

    So it may well be that former Mac users who deserted the platform after the software they needed migrated to Windows may have reason to return. The iPod opened the door, but the Mac mini may finally close the deal.

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