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Mac is t3h mini.

by Rob Friesel

As promised, we’re back to follow up on my headless speculation (and my debunkery…) and put a few items out about the Mac mini right off the bat.

Like some people, I think that there’s a lot to like in this little package. And I go back and forth on whether/not I think it will go the way of the Cube. My initial suspicion is that it will see some initial success but will ultimately get discontinued as Apple keeps their product line pared down to their “i” and “Power” lines (with the “e” getting phased out as well as Apple lets CRT technologies fade into the sunset).

What’ll Work

First and foremost, the initial success is going to come from the price point. The $500 entry-level price tag is very competitive with the a lot of the mass market Dell and Gateway PCs. With prices being so comparable, Apple gets the extra edge of the lust factor — everyone that’s always wanted a Mac but couldn’t justify the price has lost their excuse. Now they can just ditch schlepp their worthless XP-running POS to their local computer recycling station (or charity org) and be done with that whole sordid chapter of their life for good. Like Cringely said earlier in the past week, this is a slick move by Apple to buy market share. Like Pete said earlier (on EA), this targets the folks that already have an iPod and feel quite the sharp sting of anodized aluminum lust.

While the price point alone is enough to make this thing an initial success, there’s a few other factors at work here. See also, “lust”. (Yes, I’m really harping on that right now.) It looks like the Mac product everyone expects and wants. While some folks are seeing this as a reincarnation of the Cube, there seems to me a key and fundamental difference. The Mac mini isn’t being branded as “the PowerMac Mini” or “PowerMini”. Right off the bat it’s being presented as a kinder, gentler, stripped down, simplistic Mac. Checking the Apple store, it’s about as far away from the PowerMac as can be — with plenty of white polycarbonate shells in between the two aluminum cousins. It’s also extra-extra low profile. The Cube was (what?) half the height of the PowerMac at the time. It was discreet by comparison only and looking at pictures of it, you’d think of it as almost an ottoman. (Maybe I’m reaching there.) And what was up with the vertically loading drive? The Mac mini leaves those all as bad, fever dreams, safely in the past — with a drive that behaves the way you expect it to (horizontal in/out) and a slim form factor that says “Where’s my computer?”

The success of this product line also comes from its “hands off” attitude. This machine will not appeal to power users of any kind (unless they want a coaster that can run serious floating point operations). Some have pointed this out as a flaw: “no user-serviceable parts” and “how am I supposed to mod this?” and the like. Those folks are not the target market and I’m surprised they’ve even spent 10 minutes wondering about those things. The target is definitely the folks that want to buy it, put it on their desk, turn it on, and forget about it. Literally these folks. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Quite the contrary, this will fill that niche perfectly. If the Mac mini’s stability is anything like my iBook, these ppl are going to need only to run software update once in a while and restart and they’ll never have a problem. I know I’ve written plenty about my iBook woes but that almost always gets traced back to something I was monkeying around with.

Given the above, the success of the mini will ultimately not be measured in sales figures or in the life of this product line. It’s going to be measured in how many folks stick with Apple long after they’ve retired their mini. Like Cringely said, this move is going to be about market share and grabbing a few percentage points and then capitalizing on software sales, accessory and peripheral sales, and (ultimately) in better hardware sales after these folks have forgotten the psychic upheaval of their Switch and have long forgotten about how those WordPerfect letters to Grandma didn’t make it over.

Oh, and can I add one more thing: 2.9 lbs!?!?!?!?

What’ll Not Work

As much as like this design and hope Apple has run away success with it, there’s a few things that bug me here.

First, there’s a few things about the design that raise an eyebrow for me. Everything everything everything but the disc load slot is on the back. Everything. I’m sure there’s some perfectly sound engineering at work there but there are some aspects of this that people are going to grit their teeth at after a month or two of use. The power button for one thing. I suppose we’ll be turning it on and leaving it on (or at least that’s the assumption) — but I still know plenty of folks that turn off their PCs when they’re done using them. That’s a hard habit for some people (especially older folks) to get out of. Following the power button there’s… Everything else. Headphone jack comes to mind. Your “one of two” USB ports. Your Firewire port. The peripheral ports are easily remedied by hubs (which you’ll want anyway, I suppose) and the easy counter argument of “but it’s so small and light anyway…” is there but if you’re like me, you tend to tuck the body of the machine (and as much of those other guts) out of sight unless you need to get at it. Perhaps that’s exactly why they spent a little extra time making it look nice. But they always do their best to make it look nice.

The other big-ish sticking point for me is the off-the-shelf specs. It’s been said already but like any other modern OS, Mac OS X loves memory and loves having lots of it around. For the uninitiated, memory is sometimes the thing that they forget to add on or think they can compromise on or refuse the sales rep’s advice on. Tragic misunderstandings can happen, you know. If the strategy here is to buy market share and hold on to it, then let’s make our first impressions be one of smooth, solid, stable performance. I suppose 256 MB is enough for adequate performance but I know at 384, I’m oft wanting more. Granted, I’m usually running somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 apps plus various system services but still… It’s safe to say that if the target is those hold-out Switchers, we can rely on them to go through a honeymoon period where clicking the red dot is still considered the equivalent of quitting the app. In a scenario like that, we can start to run out of 256 MB of memory pretty fast.

While the stripped-down-ness of it is part of its appeal (and part of its price point), I can see this being a point of frustration for some. The scenario that I envision is someone looking to ditch an older Dell Dimension in favor of a Mac while spending as little as possible. This person hears from a friend that they can use the keyboard, mouse, and monitor that they already have. $500 down and you’re off and running! So the tiny little box arrives and… There’s a moment of frustration in realizing that 17″ CRT needs the adapter. No big deal but not the best first impression. Then this person realizes that their old Dimension had a PS/2 keyboard and mouse. Ouch! While nearly all USB keyboards and mice are true plug-and-play devices on the Mac, many PC models still ship with PS/2 versions of these peripherals. Given that the assumed target market for the Mac mini is the folks that use it as an email-checking appliance, I doubt that they’re going to have invested in 3rd party input peripherals.

While I wouldn’t call this a “failure” on the mini’s part, this last point brings me to consider that the mini might be bait. Assuming for a moment that they are going to sell some of these “regardless”, we’re much more likely to see this thought process:

Starting at $499… My friend said to double the RAM… I know already I’m going to want a bigger hard drive… Skip the SuperDrive and the AirPort… That guy at work said that my keyboard won’t work with it… Hmm…. $782 with no kind of screen. Add a 20″ screen for $999? Not when I’ve already got one at home! Not when $1374 gets me a comparable iMac with the screen as part of it…

I’ll admit that I’m defintiely reaching there. No one is going to spring for something twice as much just because of the screen. But who knows… The lust factor may take over in the store, comparing one to the other. Getting sucked in by the G5 hype. All kinds of craziness can happen in those stores. I suppose we’ll see…

What’ll Happen

The Mac mini is going to have a big first quarter. It’s going to fly off the shelves. Corporate IT departments might even go for it. The latter is doubtful but this will be a huge hit in the consumer market. Lots of Mac geeks are going to nab one as a second computer and we’re going to see all kinds of iSync hacks or similar freeware. Firewire hub sales are going to hit an all time high. But by the end of Q2 the mania will have died down and there will be plenty of reports of “I hate that the power button is on the back” or “I could have used just one more Firewire port”.

In Q3 Apple will unveil a companion monitor for this baby — a widescreen 17″ that’s going to hit the $400 price point. They won’t pre-package these bad boys together but we’ll see a “starter kit” promotion of some kind — a big rebate maybe if you get a Mac mini with the 17″ monitor and keyboard/mouse kit. This will come around the same time that the mini will come pre-installed with iWork and Tiger instead of AppleWorks and Panther.

Next year they’ll revamp the whole mini line all together but by ’07, it’ll have gotten phased out all together (along w/ the eMac) in favor of the iMac line (with “new and improved” price points).

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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