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  • Memo to Apple: Please Don’t Discontinue Cheap Macs!

    July 9th, 2007

    There are troubling signals in the wind about the possible fates of the 17-inch iMac and the Mac mini. None of this has been confirmed, of course, but when it seems that a product is not getting much promotion, you have to wonder whether it’s destined for the closeout rack.

    When it comes to the mini, I suppose its obituary has been written and rewritten for a while now. You don’t hear much about it, and it’s been a while since the product line was updated. Even the recent speed bump for the MacBook, with which it shares many internals, didn’t migrate to the Mac mini.

    Now it may just be that Apple has lost interest in building products below the magic thousand dollar plateau, simply because sales are tepid. More profits are to be made with more expensive gear, and it’s certainly true that Apple’s sales growth is exceeding that of the PC market as a whole. Here in the U.S., for example, Apple’s note-book share is now over 14% in the retail chain, even though the cheapest MacBook is $1,099.

    So in that respect, Apple isn’t being hurt by lower-cost products. Or maybe they are, but not sufficient to warrant price cuts or new entry-level models.

    Now in retrospect, I wonder if Apple didn’t grudgingly enter the cheap PC arena. They had been urged to do so for so long, particularly by tech pundits who claimed that Apple couldn’t succeed if it didn’t have something in its product lineup that had a price close to that of a basic Dell or E-Machines.

    However, the Mac mini is not something you’d casually dismiss. True, it has some serious design shortcomings, such as the convoluted process of opening the case and adding memory, which was made even more complicated on the Intel-based model. But that’s not something that couldn’t be addressed in a more carefully considered redesign.

    Besides, the average Mac mini user is probably not going to upgrade memory after the initial purchase, so that annoying task can be left to the dealer.

    In fact, I know several people who swear by their Mac minis. They upgraded from much older Macs, so the mini’s apparent performance shortcomings do not exist for them. What they have is a simple, reliable personal computer that just gets out of the way and allows them to concentrate on getting their work done. Sure, it has integrated graphics, but folks who aren’t into gaming may not care, because the mini is perfectly capable of handling digital video with aplomb, particularly if you max out the memory and didn’t buy the original single-core Intel model.

    I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but some mini owners have even set up their computers to serve duty as Web servers. They may seem highly underpowered for such chores, but if you don’t saddle the sites with high-bandwidth multimedia content, they are probably powerful enough to serve up less-demanding content.

    But if sales haven’t otherwise taken off, I can see the wisdom of discontinuing the Mac mini. That is, unless Apple really does have an upgrade in mind, and no, I’m not talking about the Apple TV. It does seem interesting, though, that Apple TV and the new AirPort Extreme base station both have case designs based on the mini. So Apple isn’t abandoning that form factor. Maybe they’ll surprise us yet!

    Then there’s the claim that the 17-inch iMac will be gone when that model gets its next upgrade. When will that happen? Well, I can see where Apple isn’t inclined to want to upstage the iPhone, so you probably won’t see anything for another week or two, though I could be wrong. However, such an upgrade would not come later than the middle of August, the better to guarantee sales to students before classes begin, although we’re well into the school year here in Arizona by then.

    Now if the upgraded 20-inch iMac’s price were reduced from its present $1,499 to $1,099, you might not miss the 17-inch version all that much, even though its starting price was $100 cheaper. Also, the slim, all-in-one style doesn’t seem to come into its own until you migrate to the 20 inches. The 17-inch model’s screen seems overpowered by the vast white space beneath it.

    As I said, I have no special insights into Apple’s product plans, nor do I pretend to be a marketing expert. But I do believe that folks who don’t have a lot to spend on a new computer should be able to buy a Mac without stretching their bank accounts or credit cards beyond their limits.

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