• The New Macs that Never Arrived

    September 24th, 2005

    Now don’t take me too seriously here, but sometimes you wonder whether Apple really makes computers anymore. I mean, the biggest news so far this month could be described in two words: iPod nano. That, the iTunes 5 upgrade (and the fixer-upper 5.0.1 release) and a revised .Mac cover most of Apple’s new products. Oh yes, there was a minor Xserve and Xserve RAID update to expand drive capacity, which is hardly worth a second look unless you’re a systems administrator.

    Yet for weeks, we’d been reading almost credible sounding stories that a pair of the new dual-core processors from IBM would find their way into a new Power Mac. Now there is one more Tuesday left in this month, and there’s still time, but I’m feeling skeptical. I’d think that if a revised Mac were in the offing, word would have come at the Paris Expo, even if delivery wasn’t expected for a few more weeks. But that’s just me. Or maybe there are just too many unsold units around to risk a model changeover at this point.

    This isn’t to say there won’t be one or two more Power Mac G5 updates before the switch to Intel is in full force. Even though sales aren’t lighting any fires these days, faster parts will no doubt become available. Maybe Apple, which prices more aggressively these days, will consider a reasonable price reduction for the Power Mac. Yes, it’s Apple’s highest margin desktop, and you certainly don’t want to see the company lose money, but I expect there’s plenty of room to cut margins and still come out ahead. I’m thinking in terms of a top price of $2,599 and setting the base two processor model at $1,599. Yes, the latter makes an incursion into iMac G5 territory, but content creators who want something affordable yet expandable might lap them up. Remember, the first MacIntels won’t be here until June 2006, probably in sync with an official announcement at the next WWDC, along with the first demonstration of Leopard. But the betting is that the iBook and the PowerBook will be the first to migrate, and the Power Mac won’t join them until the middle or latter part of 2007. Meantime, Apple has to move product.

    There was also talk of an extremely minor update to the PowerBook line, which is stuck with a 1.67GHz G4. Some of the speculation had the processor upgraded to a 1.7GHz, hardly worth it. But faster memory was said to deliver a tad more performance. On the other hand, it’s not that the PowerBook is a poor seller, but I feel any update at this point would have to be more significant to make much sense from a marketing point of view. Without speedier parts at hand, maybe a modest price reduction, to the tune of $200 or so, would be ideal to goose sales for the holiday season.

    There’s also a story about some modest enhancements to the Mac mini, with a tad faster processor speed, and speedier hard drives. The latter might make sense, but the fact that the line was updated less than two months ago would seem to argue against any real changes at this time. Ditto for the iBook.

    But I can see where Apple might consider price cuts on those products too. A $399 Mac mini might be a bit much, but even $449 would deliver a psychological boost, particularly in light of those cheap PC boxes filing the aisles at Wal-Mart and elsewhere. Having an iBook at $899 might also seem a good idea, since PC laptop prices have been dropping gradually over the past year. Such a price change would deliver a psychological boost to Apple. Yes, we can cover all the old arguments about Macs being more affordable because they come with more standard equipment, but in the real world, lots of Windows users don’t see it that way. The sticker price says it all, and the fine print will never be read.

    Now maybe suggestions about Apple price cuts would seem a pipedream. But look at the iPod, which is aggressively priced and then some. You don’t have to pay a much of a premium for the Apple brand name, and, no doubt owing to its good fortune at cornering the market on Flash chips, the nano blows away the competition on pricing. All right, there is that $99 Dell DJ Ditty, which matches the $99 iPod shuffle with 512MB memory and trumps it with an LCD display and FM tuner. But does anyone really buy those so-called iPod killers from Dell? Besides, could you even tell them apart from all the other anonymous MP3 players from consumer electronics companies who just don’t get it?

    This isn’t to say that the Paris Expo wasn’t worth it. All right, there were no new Macs beneath the covered displays at Apple’s exhibit. But there was Steve Jobs and team holding court before the technology press and garnering plenty of headlines about those greedy music companies, the fact that nobody can rain on the company’s iPod parade and all the rest. So who needed a keynote anyway?

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