• The Mac mini is Just the Beginning

    January 22nd, 2005

    The concept of a cheap Mac is so unusual in our tiny corner of the universe, I dare say a lot of you probably aren’t quite sure what to make of it yet. Mac users, at least those who have made online comments, regard it as just another Mac and a new source of potential modifications. Technology writers consider whether Apple’s foray into the low-end PC market will end in failure, become a modest success, or just blow away the competition in the fashion of the iPod.

    And what about the profit margins? Well, since the mini is mostly a clever repackaging job, in large part using parts that appear in other models, such as the iBook, Apple benefits from a lower cost of production. Some corners were clearly cut, with just one RAM slot being available. I’ve mentioned the prospect of opening the case being a potential warranty voiding affair, but if you do it without damaging the computer, and it won’t be easy, Apple isn’t going to come to your home and serve you with a cease and desist order. However, the mini’s target audience isn’t going to care all that much about probing the innards, any more than you’d want to probe the innards of a toaster oven.

    Yes, my friends, the mini is perhaps the closest realization yet to the philosophy behind the original Macintosh back in 1984. It is indeed a computing appliance, designed for the rest of us, folks who don’t much care about the technology, how it works, and the prospects for expansion. What’s important is what you can accomplish with the mini, and you can see where Steve Jobs led us during his keynote. Look at all the great things you can do on a Mac, harnessing the power of iWork, iLife ’05 and all the rest. Compared to all that, the mini only got a few minutes of his attention. It’s just a means to an end.

    At the same time, Apple made it a little easier for you to buy a mini and the options you need to run it. Dropping the price of the Pro keyboard and mouse to $29 each is a good start. Of course, if you can live with less style, you can pay less than half that for generic input devices at your favorite computer superstore. Monitors? Well, this is another story. To some, the monitor is, in effect, the computer, and not the box that contains the rest of the hardware. Today, if you want to stick with Apple, the price of admission for its cheapest display is twice that of the mini. Sure the 20-inch Cinema you buy at that price is a neat product, but it’s overkill for a mini.

    So what about a low-cost line of displays to complement its new model? The way LCDs are priced, it’s quite possible for Apple to deliver a 17-inch widescreen flat panel for $399. This is on the high side of what the competition is offering. And while Jobs killed off CRT displays long ago, except for the eMac, it’s still true that millions of them are being sold every year. Now I don’t expect Apple to jump into the $99 game, but a 17-inch flat CRT for $199 or even $179 would be a great Mac mini companion.

    At the same time, this is an arena where third parties will doubtlessly fill the gap, in somewhat the same fashion as a cottage industry grew up around the iPod. Now I don’t expect to see near as much in the way of accessories, since so many existing products work with the mini, but there’s plenty of room for creativity. First, of course, are the carrying cases, but no sense stopping there. If Apple won’t do it, matching monitors and input devices, assuming low price points, would also fly off the shelves. Not every potential mini owner has this stuff lying around.

    The other part of the equation is how much money Apple is going to allocate for mini advertising. Right now, most of the money is being spent to help make the iPod continue to fly off the shelves. But there are all those ads for cheap PC boxes from Dell. If Apple truly hopes to compete in that arena, it has to loosen the purse strings. With all that cash lying unused in the bank, there is plenty to give the mini a healthy send off.

    Of course, building cheap computers is something new for Apple. The waters are being tested, and if the potential is realized, more promotion would no doubt follow. You may want to think the mini will sell itself, and maybe that’s true for existing Mac users, or the folks who happen to see one at an Apple dealer. But the unwashed masses will remain oblivious to its existence. Not everyone is as tuned into the technology as you and I are. The ultimate success of the mini cries for a substantial ad budget, not just on TV and radio, but in the PC magazines.

    At the same time, Apple is no doubt considering version 2.0 of the mini, and I don’t need a crystal ball or a secret news source to guess that prototypes are being examined even now. Perhaps the difficulty in opening the case is being reexamined. Maybe a tougher case is being considered, so you can actually put something on the top of the mini without causing damage, or the CDs to stick. Is there room for a second RAM slot? Sure there is, but I expect hard-nosed cost cutting and nothing else limited the RAM allotment to just one. If sales skyrocket, the profit margins will be sufficient to add stuff inside without increasing the price.

    My wish list includes a speedier hard drive and, perhaps, gigabit Ethernet. This would allow the mini to be used as a tiny server in a small office, or, at the very least, an equal partner to other computers on the network. Now this has, up till now, been one of the lines of demarcation between Apple’s pro and consumer lines. But consider that you can buy a basic gigabit Ethernet card for less than $30 these days, so I don’t imagine the cost of the chip is that much more than the one used for the slower network protocols. Increased production of the mini would also make it possible to include Wi-Fi as standard equipment. In fact, I’m surprised it’s not there already, hard wired to the logic board. Adding AirPort, unless you order a custom configuration, is going to be a pain.

    Some day, there may even be a Mac mini G5, but don’t hold your breath. Maybe next year.

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