The WWDC Report #4: The Products Apple Doesn’t Talk About

June 11th, 2008

You know that this year’s WWDC was designed first and foremost to be an iPhone event. That’s why you didn’t hear much about Snow Leopard, Mac OS 10.6, which has features that are of more interest to developers than the rest of us. In fact, most of the information about Snow Leopard was provided under Apple’s typically rigorous nondisclosure agreement, and only a brief press release and some online highlights were actually revealed in public.

For the same reason, it makes a lot of sense that the rumors of a major refashioning of the MacBook didn’t come to pass. This wasn’t the venue for introducing a brand new consumer note-book computer. Besides, the newest Intel chipsets aren’t even available yet, so if there is going to be a big change, in case structure and otherwise, it won’t happen for another month or two, in time for the back-to-school season.

The other rumor, this one the silliest of the batch, spoke of a Mac Fusion, some sort of development environment that would be designed for working on the Mac OS, Windows and Linux on the very same box. But you can do that now, so I fail to see the upside.

Apple has, though, real products in its catalog that it seldom mentions anymore. The most obvious is the Mac mini, whose case design inspired the AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule and, of course, Apple TV. But, beyond a minor processor update last year, this unsung hero of the Mac lineup hasn’t been mentioned one bit, and this is quite unfortunate.

You see, the Mac mini is a terrific switcher’s computer. At $599 or $799, plus the necessary RAM upgrade, you can use your existing display and input devices, more or less. Although it has note-book-based internals, meaning a rather pokey hard drive, performance is actually quite decent for the most part. While you won’t see much in the way of gaming performance, the sort of tasks the home or small business user routinely requires of a personal computer can be handled quite well, thank you.

Sure it may seem pricey in comparison with those $399 and $499 Windows boxes that are available at the discount superstores, but Apple provides a lot more value, and even those on a budget ought to seriously consider a mini instead.

Unfortunately, Apple’s entry-level box is perennially placed on the endangered species list, with the suggestion that it’ll either be replaced, or quietly discontinued. I hope not, but if Apple is using sales performance as a guide for what to build and what to cancel, maybe they’d sell more minis if they’d spend a few dollars promoting them.

The other neglected product is Apple’s display line. It hasn’t changed in several years, except for some minor performance improvements and a lower price. But none of the three displays Apple builds are really competitive when you calculate the cost. You can, for example, get a great 24-inch display from Dell for less than $500. Apple’s equivalent, the 23-inch HD Display, is $899.

Sure, Apple’s brush aluminum case is prettier. But is that worth an extra $400? Not to me, and maybe not to others unless your design sensibilities and checkbook allow you buy the more expensive product.

What’s surprising to me is that Apple has been pretty much ignoring its display line. I mean, they surely sell enough Mac Pros to warrant providing the complete package, and what about the Mac mini? Since ditching the proprietary ADC display scheme, any HD Display is perfectly suited to the Windows market too. But then again, the Windows user knows they can get cheaper — and sometimes better products — elsewhere.

Myself, I stick with my trusty 30-inch Dell display.

Even more troubling is the fact that, taken just for its display component, today’s iMac actually impresses you as being sleeker and nicer to look at. It also seems somewhat thinner than the standalone display, and that indicates that the latter is long overdue for a refresh.

In fact, if you didn’t see an Apple display in one of their stores or in the online catalog, you might never even know Apple had such products to begin with.

Now I don’t pretend to know their future product plans, and the rumor sites are, at best, only partly right. However, it would be unfortunate if Apple were to dispatch the Mac mini and HD Display to their final resting places. Both products have plenty of mileage left, so long as there’s the proper degree of redesign and enhancement.

And maybe, just maybe, with a few dollars spent for a decent ad campaign.

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10 Responses to “The WWDC Report #4: The Products Apple Doesn’t Talk About”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    If we’re going to talk about the Apple display, we’re really talking about two different things, a.) price points, and b.) design. Regarding price, yes, Apple needs to drop the prices down to a level competitive with other brands. Since Apple set their its prices, I bet manufacturing costs have gone down to the point where Apple makes a whopping profit on each unit sold. Problem is, they are probably selling darned few of them at current prices. Surely it would be more profitable to accept a much lower profit-per-unit in exchange for selling a lot more units. Isn’t this exactly the strategy they are adopting for iPhone 2.0? This ought to be done immediately, it’s long overdue. On the other hand, it would make better sense to refrain from issuing redesigned monitors until the next major redesign of the tower case, so that the next generation of monitor and case can be as good a stylistic match as the current aluminum ones.

  2. Seth Steinberg says:

    It’s probably an issue of market attention. If you look at Apple sales, they’ve been spending wisely. Their big winners have been laptops, and that’s where they’ve been pumping in the marketing time and money. In comparison, the iMac is lackluster, and the mini and display products are dead in the water. On the other hand, there is no reason for Apple to kill the iMac, mini or their displays right now. They are probably not making a lot of money, but they are useful market placeholders. It is also useful having your technology team in place, even if it is reduced.

    One never knows where technology will lead you. For example, the future trend might be a series of stackable mini type boxes, one with the media computer, one the screen driver, one the game box, one the sound processor and so on. Got a second 50″ screen? Slap on another driver box. Need a bigger, more powerful home server? Slap on a second computer. When OLEDs come down in price, we might see Apple building a reputation there, and they’d have stylish housings to help justify the high OLED price. They could add to their cachet by simply calling them Design Studio Plus while everyone else is screaming !!**OLED**!! and mounting them in Chinese takeout boxes.

  3. hmurchison says:

    I think the real issue with dispays is this. Apple likes to do refreshes when they can tout significant new features. Today’s displays really haven’t changed much. On the horizon we have the proliferation of LED based lighting coming and hopefully becoming more affordable as well. We have some new LCD panel sizes in the new 26″ HD resolution.

    My guess is that Apple is going to roll out new ACD when two things hit. DisplayPort is the first technology Apple will jump on. Montevina chipsets will have native DisplayPort interfaces and you will be able to add legacy VGA/DVI and even HDMI converters. DisplayPort is license free from VESA and supports 2560×1600 resolution without the bulky DVI connector. The internal and external interfaces are the same and more efficient so the display can be made thinner and it’s more cost effective. Finally it has an auxiliary channel with can run audio or even USB signals (think iSight output here)

    Next I think Apple is going to move to a range which has 24″ being the entry level size (they’ll simply use the same IPS panel sourced for the iMac) and then they’ll move to 26″ and 30″. Apple will market that all ACD are HD monitors perfect for today’s HD digital media. Let’s face it ..20″ monitors are a commidity with the corollary low margin/high volume sales. Apple doesn’t want to play here.

    The Mac mini is the perfect platform for a smart Montevina based system. You put a DisplayPort connector on the mini and you now have a mini that can run dual monitors easily in a space efficient mini chassis yet still have legacy support through adapters.

    The only question is “will Apple be bold enough to make the mini a decent headless Mac?” At times I fear they will protect their iMac line too much. Time will tell.

  4. jsk says:

    If ever there was a company completely run by the personality of a single executive, it’s Apple. The reason for the neglected products is simple: Steve Jobs isn’t interested in anything that isn’t the iPhone (or the Mac he does his emailing on, currently the MBA). (Why else would the keynote for a developer’s conference devote 1:44 to a single product and NOT software development tools.)

    Mini, Pro, iMac, and ‘Books all take a back seat to the MBA (a crippled, executive email machine if there ever was won).

    iPhone needs push email and push sync? Wow, look at that. We have something called .Mac. Who knew? But, get rid of that “Mac” moniker. Who want’s to be associated with THAT thing. How about .iPhone?

    External displays? iPhones don’t use them.

    iPods (yesterdays favorite child)? Again, they’re not iPhones. The iPhone has some iPod software built in. You should get an iPhone. (Never mind the fact that AT&T, and it’s poor GSM coverage, isn’t in business everywhere in the US, move to the city.)

    AppleTV? Jobs doesn’t like TV, end of story. (Which probably explains why the iPhone doesn’t do video recording either.)

    Mac OS? New features? Who needs them, we have the iPhone OS to worry about. Oh, and get rid of the “Mac” moniker again.

    I’ve been a loyal Mac user since 1987 (and used an Apple IIe before that), and I’m beginning to see why Apple fired Jobs the first time. He has impeccable taste, a great sense on when and where to simplify, and really good instincts on UIs. BUT, he’s not an effective executive when handling a large and varied product line that all require his attention. Maybe the Apple board should put him in charge of the iPhone devision and put someone else in charge the rest of the company, someone who can care about more than one product at a time.

    Let the flames begin! 😉

  5. hmurchison says:

    No need to flame jsk. You have your opinion and some of us will either agree or disagree but that doesn’t prove nor disprove your points.

    Apple is certainly vexing with their secrecy and all but but under Jobs stewardship we’ve seen Apple and Pixar both flourish. This is not by accident but by skill and deft decision making. Job’s isn’t going to be perfect but in an era where highly compensated CEO exist who yield no improvement to their company Jobs is an anethema. He’s literally worth billions to Apple. If he retired tomorrow Apple’s stock would take a fearful drop IMO.

    I believe that mobile computing with devices smaller than the typical laptop are going to be huge. Smartphone to tiny pocket EE PC type devices will rule the day in 5 years. If I didn’t have to carry a laptop around just to do general computing I wouldn’t.

    I’m thrilled that the iPhone’s cost of entry is now lower and that Apple has created a system that works across platforms and leverages the Web and desktop/notebook computing to keep everything important in my life syncronized.

  6. Dana Sutton says:

    I’m not going to flame jsk either, but I don’t think it’s a simple question of what interests Steve and what bores him. There’s something deeper at stake. Steve has figured out that there’s more money to be made in focusing on products aimed at more or less passive content consumers than at content producers, and this is a matter of his business calculation, not merely his attention span. Content producers have traditionally been one of Apple’s core markets, but nowadays it’s a bit too easy to see why they feel they are being treated as second-class citizens in Apple’s scheme of things.

  7. Jeezy says:

    Are those Dell monitors SWOP certified?

  8. Are those Dell monitors SWOP certified?

    Good question. It is not listed in the specs, so I’ve asked their PR people.

    If not, I can see a problem in certain work environments.


  9. AdamC says:

    Gene you were right about the mini it is a great machine, I am using it for my designing work. I can open a strings of apps like Photoshop, Freehand – hate Illustrator (the saved file is humongous) and it works just fine, mine you, mine is a duo core running at 1.66ghz.
    A lot of people knocked it, saying it is under power but I believe they have not used it before and probably based their comments on other people’s comment. But if they ever tried it they will sing a different tune.
    Always find it pleasant to read your article, keep up the good work.

  10. CPTKILLER says:

    The product that I had hoped for and really knew that it would not show up was the mini tower. That could be a wide open genesis for Mac users from those looking at the Mini to a Mac Pro. It can do basically everything that the others cannot. This one where users are happy upgrading rather than buying a new Apple box every other year. It is scalable meaning that it could have near nothing video card and hard disk to whatever the market will bear. It could have a simple superdrive up to Blu Ray.

    That is a dream but one must wonder what in the $%&* Apple is thinking about. The latest ATI graphics card will fall on a small Mac Audience, the Mac Pro owners and a much larger PC market where the mini towers rule.

    This is like having a date with a Super Model (as if my wife would go for that) and spending the evening talking about Prada instead of something more interesting.

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