• The Headless iMac: The Rumors Soar

    January 1st, 2005

    You probably know that I don’t really pay much attention to rumor sites. I enjoy reading that stuff, but try to take it all with a grain of salt. On the other hand, sometimes they get it right, which indicates they really have access to inside information. Or perhaps made a good guess. No, I won’t allow crystal balls and ouija boards to enter the picture.

    You also probably know that I have long believed that Apple should produce a low-end Mac, in the tradition of the LC. In case you never heard of it, the LC was a light, pizza box styled computer, which offered the basic features the home and small business user would need, and all at a price that was reasonably affordable for the period. In a sense, it would be a variation on the iMac theme that simply dispenses with a display, which clearly accounts for a big part of the cost of the current model.

    Apple has, of course, thrown cold water on the idea. But that’s nothing new. Do you remember how Steve Jobs once said that it didn’t make sense to install a computer within a display? So never say never.

    Today, there is even more reason for Apple to build a low-end Mac. Millions of those $399 and $499 PC boxes are sold every year. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have state-of-the-art processors or graphics chips. The watchword is cheap. Sure, you can demonstrate that, for example, the eMac is a far better value of $799, and that equipping a low-end PC in the same fashion would pretty much equalize the prices. But a dollar is a dollar, and, when someone drops into a Wal-Mart to pick up one of those PCs, they aren’t going to sit back and compare the features to a Mac. They are looking at the price tag and nothing else.

    Apple also has a golden opportunity to capture disgruntled Windows users, particularly those who have been exposed to Apple’s ultra-slick technology courtesy of the iPod. Yes, those malware-ridden PC boxes are huge headaches, but if the cost of switching to the Mac is daunting, they may choose to simply tolerate the situation.

    The existing rumors speak of a headless iMac costing either $499 or $599. This unannounced computer has even been granted a code name in all this speculation, and that’s Q88. Don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean. In any case, speculation has it that it would be equipped in pretty much the same fashion is the cheapest eMac. That means it would incorporate a 1.25GHz G4, the standard USB and FireWire ports, a cheap ATI graphics chip and a combo drive. I suppose Apple could add built-in AirPort Extreme, rather than make it an option. This would be ideal, particularly for educational environments, or to serve extra duty as a digital hub device, expanding on the concept of AirPort Express.

    I think that adding a G5 chip might be a bit much, but consider what a $1,299 iMac might cost without the LCD display. That would be a pleasant surprise.

    Actual design details of this iMac “mini” generally take the form of a modern-day variation on the pizza box theme. That would, of course, be keeping with Apple’s current design philosophy of simplicity and elegance. I could also imagine something that looked like a fancy double-sized external hard drive. Consider taking a hard drive and a combo drive, putting one atop another, and adding a couple of inches for the rest of the circuitry. But you’d end up with a variation on the Cube, and I don’t think Apple wants to go there. Thin is in, and I could also envision something similar to the iMac, with a side-mounted slot-loading optical drive on one side, and perhaps the connection ports at the other. It may even be made of a material tough enough to withstand placement beneath a display, but that’s nothing new for Apple. It would indeed make it very much like the LC.

    This all sounds great in principle. If Apple can make a few bucks off every sale, and go for broke advertising the new model, they might sell a ton of them to iPod users who currently run Windows. Maybe even bundle a copy of Move2Mac to cement the deal, and make it easy for the Windows user to migrate their stuff.

    But whether this alleged iMac mini, or whatever it’ll be called, really materializes is anyone’s guess. In a dream world, Steve Jobs might take the Expo stage next month to announce cheaper iPods, including a flash-based model, the headless iMac, a PowerBook G5, and maybe even a slick and fast successor to the eMac. There is also talk of major upgrades for iLife and Keynote and perhaps that digital audio interface that is the subject of a certain lawsuit by Apple against someone who allegedly spilled the beans about the product.

    While the usual offenders are having a ball talking about the iMac mini, I was surprised to discover that my old friend Bob LeVitus, author of nearly 50 Mac books, has also jumped in with both feet. And Bob isn’t the sort to pay much attention to rumors, so this may, itself, give the whole thing more credibility.

    Or perhaps not. Maybe the rumor sites just need something to entertain us during the quiet period between Christmas and New Year’s. All right, consider me entertained, but I’ll be more entertained if Apple finds a way to make it so.

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