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More iMac Conventional Wisdom — Maybe

It’s hard to believe that the first iMac appeared nearly nine years ago, that famous Bondi blue pear-shaped personal computer that proved to one and all that Apple was here to stay. In fact, I had a prototype model, although it soon had to be returned to Apple after a firmware update killed it.

After going through several generations with different color schemes and speedier processors, the iMac was reinvented as a lamp base with a display that was fitted onto an elaborate articulated arm.

Well, maybe that was too radical a form factor, because sales reportedly didn’t quite match those of the original. Regardless, the most recent iteration of the iMac is probably what it might have been in the fast place if the innards could have been miniaturized sufficiently. In other words, a slim display with the computer built-in. Indeed, the most recent incarnation is somewhat thinner than the original, and no doubt the size of the components will be reduced even further over time.

But today’s iMac hasn’t been changed since last year, despite speculation that we can almost smell its presence and that it’ll show up any day now. In fact, it could come within hours after this column is posted, or maybe not. Not even the rumor sites have a clue.

So how will the iMac change when the long-awaited upgrade finally sees the light of day? Will Apple find a way to make it thinner, to reduce the large expanse at the bottom to give a sleeker look? What about ditching the plastics and going for brushed aluminum, similar to the most recent style of Apple’s own displays? Or would that just be taking a step backward?

What is probably certain, although I do not pretend to have any secret information, is that many of the components that are now part of the MacBook Pro, which features Intel’s Santa Rosa chipset, would find their way into the iMac. But that’s nothing different as far as packaging is concerned, because the iMac’s internals have always been based on those of an Apple note-book.

So far, there are no surprises here. All this can be gleaned from past history and trends, and there’s little reason to think that Apple would have any incentive to change. After all, roughly two thirds of Mac sales these days are in the note-book category. Desktops are doing well, but there’s little incentive for any major design alterations.

The other brand of speculation has it that the 17-inch iMac is destined for the closeout racks. Why should this be? Well, perhaps the lower prices in raw LCD panels have made it possible to deliver a 20-inch version for almost the same price as 17 inches. That would be nice, of course, but if millions of Mac users are happily buying note-book computers with 17-inch displays, why should a desktop version be considered unacceptable?

I don’t pretend to understand the reasoning behind this theory. After all, if LCD panels are cheaper, then the price of an entry-level iMac with updated processors could also be reduced proportionately. Would you mind paying $799 or $899 for one? After all, original-style iMacs and its direct descendant, the eMac, were priced at that level.

Would it cannibalize sales, perhaps, from the Mac mini? Maybe, but another piece of conventional wisdom has it that the mini isn’t doing that well anyway, and could, perhaps, join the 17-inch iMac as a discontinued product.

As someone who has long championed low-cost Macs, this would be a sad day, should both models be discontinued. But if people aren’t buying them in sufficient quantities, Apple would have no business justification to keep building them. That is, after all, why they’re in existence in the first place. No, it’s not to make you feel cool because you own a product adorned with the Apple label.

But if the very cheapest Macs are no longer going to be produced, I might as well throw out one more thing for your consideration, since that’s how I started all this discussion a few years back: The headless iMac.

Indeed, that’s how I originally envisioned what eventually became the Mac mini, only I was thinking of something with the guts of an iMac, not an iBook and — later — the MacBook.

So what about taking the internal workings of the iMac and delivering a minitower computer with, say, room for two hard drives and an extra expansion slot? Is there sufficient potential demand for such a product or does Apple prefer to believe you’d rather buy an iMac or upgrade to a Mac Pro?

I don’t pretend to have the product research in hand, but I have long believed that there is a wide gulf between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro that the iMac simply doesn’t fill. But only Apple knows for sure.