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  • Apple Stays the Course

    October 22nd, 2008

    One line still used by politicians running for reelection is that they did a good job and want to continue to perform in a similar fashion, to stay the course. That is, unless things are going badly, in which case they try to reinvent themselves as reformers, who will fight all those big, bad politicians.

    Of course, they will probably find the worst offender simply by looking in the mirror.

    In any case, during a surprise guest shot during Apple’s meeting with financial analysts this week, Steve Jobs answered some questions and delivered a tantalizing hint or two of what was going to come. That should keep the rumor sites buzzing until Macworld Expo 2009, where the speculation will be shown to be true or false.

    It does seem that, despite his reputation as a master at the great art of verbal spin, Jobs was refreshingly honest in some of his comments. Take, for example, his remarks about the present state of economic uncertainty: “We are not economists. Your next door neighbor can likely predict what’s going to happen as well as we can.”

    And possibly better.

    As far as those future products are concerned, Jobs admitted they were watching the “nascent” category of netbooks — cheap, low-feature note-book computers — closely, but hadn’t decided whether it was worth their attention as a future product category.

    When it comes to Jobs, of course, you can’t always know for certain where his intentions really lie. He might, for example, dismiss a product category outright, and then introduce it a short time later. Consider the Mac mini, for example. During a certain analyst meeting in the fall of 2004, Apple’s financial people were asked whether the company was going to enter the low-cost PC space. They said no. Sure enough, at Macworld Expo 2005, in San Francisco, the Mac mini was unveiled.

    Now it’s also true that the mini probably hasn’t fulfilled its promise sufficiently for Apple to deliver regular upgrades. There are even published reports from Europe that it has reached end of life status, with no indication whatever that a successor is waiting in the wings.

    We’ll probably know for certain when the expected iMac refresh arrives later this month. If there’s no accompanying Mac mini speed bump, perhaps using the same NVIDIA motherboard that premiered in the new MacBooks, you’ll know the mini’s days are numbered.

    That, of course, would be unfortunate. I always saw tremendous potential in the mini. For one thing, it was a cheap way for Windows switchers to adopt the Mac and still keep their existing monitors and input devices. But not just Windows users. One of my clients actually sold off his Power Mac G4 and replaced it with a Mac mini. For him, it was just the perfect computer, and actually a whole lot faster than the one he had, despite the mini’s well-known performance limits.

    Consider all those millions who buy $399 PC bundles at Wal-Mart. At $599, the mini might seem pricey. But if they’re on a budget, paying $999 for the entry-level MacBook may be way out of reach, particularly in difficult economic times.

    The question is, of course, whether Apple is really losing lots of potential sales there, and whether the profit margins are even worth the bother. Besides, isn’t it also true that more and more personal computer users are ditching desktops and relying strictly on note-books?

    In fact, when I interviewed Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, he confessed that he now does all his work on a MacBook Pro. Sure, it’s often connected to separate input devices and an Apple display when he’s in his home office, but this is his ideal all-in-one solution.

    More to the point, over 60% of all Macs sold these days are note-books. So they might indeed feel there’s no incentive for Apple to develop any more desktop models at this point in time. It’s not as if they can or should occupy every potential market segment. They pick and choose carefully, and you can bet they gave careful thought to a thin and light note-book before the MacBook Air debuted.

    Now I remain among those who stick with a dedicated desktop Mac. While I wouldn’t buy it personally, I still see potential for that “mythical midrange Mac minitower” or headless iMac that some of us have been clamoring for.

    But if desktop PCs are truly yesterday’s news, where’s the incentive to develop yet another entrant into this segment? Besides, if the current economic crisis continues without letup through the coming year, Apple will have to fight tooth and nail to sell you the products they have, and the prospects for new gear have lessened considerably, at least for now.

    On the other hand, Apple’s existing lineup seems powerful enough to definitely withstand the worst the economy can throw at them. That is, so long as there are still enough people around who are able to buy.

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