• The State of the Mac: Things Change

    January 29th, 2005

    Up until that rumor explosion in December, some things were absolutely certain about Apple. For one thing, Steve Jobs would never allow the company to sell a cheap Mac or a cheap iPod. There was no profit in it, and it was better to get large profit margins and remain a boutique computer company. This belief was so ingrained in some quarters that folks who dared disagree were labeled as “deluded.”

    Through it all, there was the ever-present tendency to first throw cold water on a possible product, then eventually find a way to produce it. The ultra thin form factor of the iMac G5 is a telling example. When Jobs first introduced the flower pot version of a flat panel iMac, he said that the possibility of putting the computer within an LCD display was discarded. Just too plain ugly. But never say never.

    But let’s go back even further. Do you recall the Cube? At the time, I wrote that its stunning looks made it suitable for a museum, and I would facetiously quote a similar line from an old Indiana Jones movie. I recall a press briefing at Apple headquarters when Jobs was asked to comment on the possibility the Cube would soon be discontinued. Jobs shot back “You don’t know what you’re talking about” in his inimitable style. It wasn’t very long after that when he threw in the towel, realized the Cube wouldn’t never be a true sales success and discontinued that model.

    Today, folks cherish their Cubes, and some suggest that the basic form factor of the Mac mini is little more than a slimmed down Cube. Apple just continued to work on the concept till it got it right, and I think the mini is probably what the Cube should have been all along, a cheap no-frills personal computer that had all the basic elements that made a Mac a Mac. In creating its first sub-$500 model, Apple found a way to ignore its own advice and deliver a compelling product. There was also an opening, at long last, that revealed the possibility of gaining market share for once as more and more PC users became disgusted with spyware, virus infections and all the rest of the ills that plague the Windows world.

    Sure enough, the Mac mini, like the iPod mini a year ago, is back ordered for weeks, and the folks who managed to acquire one when it officially went on sale last weekend are just plain lucky. The iPod shuffle? Forget about it.

    Now about that Shuffle, when the iPod mini was first unveiled, Jobs sharply attacked the concept of a Flash-based model. Wouldn’t work, not enough capacity, and, besides, people would just toss them in the closet after realizing how impractical they truly were. What happened? Flash memory became cheaper, and the stunning success of the hard drive-based models made Apple strike while the iron was hot. And speaking of movie quotes, remember the unforgettable comment that “greed is good”?

    The first reviews of the Mac mini actually disputed the low price factor, suggesting that once you optioned it up with a decent keyboard, mouse and monitor, it would still cost a lot more than a low-end PC. But if you actually visited a PC retailer, you’d see input devices for $10 each or even less, and monitors priced below $100. So the price of admission wasn’t so great after all. And let’s not forget about all the stuff left over when you toss out your malware-ridden PC box.

    Now about the cost of those options: Apple quickly cut the price of its Pro keyboard and mouse to $29 each, and shaved $10 from the price of its wireless variations. And, without fanfare, the price of official Apple RAM and wireless networking upgrades went down. You want to max out at 1GB of RAM? The original price of $425 seemed a bit much, so Apple cut it to $325. You could still do better on the open market, where prices would dip to $199 and perhaps even less, but for Apple this is a pretty drastic price reduction. In fact, it’s downright aggressive in the scheme of things.

    But that’s not all: The cost of adding Bluetooth and Wi-Fi decreased from $129 to $99. The $100 SuperDrive upgrade will provide an 8x drive, twice as fast as the one first announced; unfortunately the specs have since reverted to 4x, but it was nice while it lasted. You want to upgrade from 40GB to 80GB? It’s just $50.

    One more thing: If you never ventured beyond the bundled software, or similar products, the stock 256MB of RAM was probably enough for decent performance. Even adding Microsoft Office wouldn’t drag it down, so long as you avoided large files. It’s fun to toss conventional wisdom on its ear, but I still go for more RAM every time despite the benchmarks. In addition, it seemed at first that the closed box form factor of the Mac mini precluded easy RAM upgrades. But Mac users quickly discovered that a thin putty knife, and some extra care in using it, made the process a little awkward but not all that hard. In fact, that’s how Apple does it. I can just imagine Steve Jobs asking his product design people how to open the thing, and staring with astonishment as they pulled out their putty knives and went to work.

    Just how many Mac minis can Apple shove out the door? Well, if the folks disappointed by the non-availability of the iPod shuffle want to add another hard-to-get model to their shopping list, you can see where it’s all going. This is not to say you can’t find a mini. I expect you can get one fairly quickly if you shop around. I’ve seen Mac mail order houses quoting three to five days for delivery and even less. Of course, things change rapidly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those estimates prove to be strictly come-on’s to get your order. Once you place yours, you’ll probably get a letter suggesting that they ran out of stock just five minutes before your order was received. Or maybe not.

    I’m really curious to see what products Apple will produce in 2005 that it originally said wouldn’t or couldn’t be done. An iPod video anyone? What about that PowerBook G5? Maybe cooling the thing presents the “mother” of all obstacles, but don’t think for a moment that it’s not going to happen.

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