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Revisiting the Midrange Mac Minitower in a Down Economy

All things being equal, you’d expect more and more Mac note-books to sell in the months and years to come, at the expense of desktops. Some day, not even the iMac would have any reason to exist, and might disappear in favor of a few portable models with larger screens — or at least that’s one possibility.

The other has it that people are looking to save money in any way possible, and that may be one of the key reasons why Microsoft is squandering so much cash on its new ad campaign. Forgetting the obvious flaws in those annoying TV spots, they want to show people that you can get PCs real cheap if you shop around.

In yesteday’s commentary, I suggested that any movement on Apple’s part towards a lower-cost Mac would probably involve a little cost-cutting and perhaps a MacBook and iMac with smaller screens, to knock $200 or so off the retail price. There is, however, another way.

For a number of years, some of us have been urging Apple to deliver a desktop computer that sits between the Mac mini and Mac Pro but does not, as with the iMac, have a built-in display. Such a model would serve the purposes of folks who don’t want to pay extra for a screen when they already have one that’s perfectly serviceable, but for whom the Mac mini isn’t powerful or flexible enough and the Mac Pro is overkill.

I have called it the headless iMac, since I envision a product that would possibly contain much of the same components, but are simply installed in a box that has a few expansion options. This case design would afford space for a second internal hard drive, a second graphics or other expansion card, and perhaps room for additional memory modules.

Dan Frakes, of Macworld, refers to it as a Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower, but call it what you want. The question is whether Apple could sell enough of them to make sense. As far as R&D expenses are concerned, I don’t expect that it would involve a large figure, since the design elements would mostly involve the case and internal layout. Indeed, they could employ the same aluminum layout as the iMac, and give it sort of a family resemblance. It would be sleek and tiny, but surely larger than a Mac mini, so as to contain the additional parts.

Looking back at the early Mac lineup, the Mac IIcx was probably the closest equivalent. This model — and its immediate successors, such as the IIci and Quadra 700 — were perfect for people for whom the IIx series was too expensive and offered more computer than they needed.

On the PC side of the ledger, there are tons of desktops that exist above the entry-level, which afford good performance, reasonable expansion capability and are not super expensive. Apple could likely sell one of these babies for $899 and up and possibly move a fair number of units into homes and businesses that don’t find the existing Mac lineup to suit their needs.

I understand Apple doesn’t want to enter too many product segments, because it engenders customer confusion and increases manufacturing costs. At the same time, the Mac versus PC wars have stepped up in recent months because Microsoft has decided it’s no longer going to sit back and simply take it. Although still making decent profits, their business is down and they are laying off thousands of employees. They can also see a slipping market share, and that has to cut to the bone.

This doesn’t mean that Apple’s computer business is in danger. It’s quite possible that the worst of the economic crisis is over, and that the situation is stabilizing in most industries. Renewed growth is being predicted by the so-called financial experts during the last half of the year.

So Apple could possibly rest on its laurels as far as the Mac lineup is concerned and perhaps do just fine. On the other hand, with increasing speculation that a netbook is in their future, I also have to wonder whether a fourth desktop model is also called for. Apple’s market research might possibly require looking at the profiles of people who buy iMacs, or don’t consider Macs at all.

How many potential customers are removing Apple from their shopping list because there’s no model in the Mac lineup that meets their needs. Certainly Apple offers plenty of flexibility when it comes to iPods, with multiple models in various colors serving different price ranges and needs. Surely that level of flexibility ought to extend to Apple’s original business — personal computers. What’s more, if they could gain sales of several hundred thousand units per quarter by adding another desktop model to their arsenal, then it makes quite a bit of sense to move in that direction. It would also provide another affordable point of entry for people who find that the Mac mini doesn’t fit their needs.

Of course, I might be wrong about all this. After all, I’m just a tech journalist. What do I know? But I do believe that Apple ought to consider more than just netbooks as it continues to consider changes to the Mac lineup.