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Andy IhnatkoThoughts on the Keynote

by - January 12th, 2004



"It's absurd, right on the face of it. Not once in its 70-year history has Apple ever been a 'Cram the retail channel full of cheap merchandise and score a win by sheer force of numbers' sort of company. They're the 'Make the highest-quality products imaginable and offset high profit margins with insanely high consumer demand' company. And while Mac users have been whining about cheap Macs ever since they evolved their way above the Gills and Fins rung of the techno-geek evolutionary ladder, has the Mac community ever shown any real enthusiasm for stripped-down hardware?"

So folks, that was the column I was going to write last week in advance of Steve's keynote. It was formulating in my mind for days. I would have tarted it up o'course, but that's the jist of it.

Gosh, now wouldn't that have worked out well. In my defense I was indeed quite insane with fever all last week. When it's Day Four of the flu and you pull the thermometer out of your mouth and you discover you have a temperature of 102.4 and that's good news because it means your fever is down nearly two whole degrees...well, you know you've had a real way-hey-hey of an evening.

Still, you know, I stand behind the column that I never wrote. I think it's nonsense to imagine that Apple will actually introduce a $499 cutthroat-cheap no-frills headless Mac yesterday. Despite -- I will manfully admit -- dramatic evidence to the contrary. It's part of the game we all play before every Steve Jobs keynote. The rumors swirl and some of them manage to congeal enough that they make it into serious play, until it almost seems impossible to imagine a future in which Apple has not introduced a new Bluetooth waffle iron that imprints each morning's pastry with up-to-date stock quotes and weather forecasts. But most rumors are fairly easy to smoke out because Apple does nothing at random and nothing simply because It's A Cool Idea.

Take the long-rumored Flash iPod. That was an easy one and last week I woulda greenlit that rumor as fact even if my only source for the info had been one of the many purple elves I spotted floating above my sickbed. "But Apple wouldn't taint the iPod brand with a filthy memory-based player, for heaven's sake!" my straw-man opponent would sniff. "Plus, it'd cannibalize sales for the 'real' iPods!"

Well, maybe. But the fact remains that if you want an iPod, the minimum buy-in is $250, which is not a trivial chunk of change for someone who just wants to listen to his Troggs albums while he works out on the Stairmaster. Plus, you gotta look at the iPod Shuffle as a portable wrapper for iTunes Music Store content. Up 'til now, the Store has enjoyed an almost reality-TV style exemption from elimination. Yup, it's hands-down the best digital music store out there, featuring both the largest inventory and the greatest online storefront system, but where was the real competition?

That all changes this year, with new digital music retailers selling selling tracks protected by Windows Media wrappers. The digital marketplace has been beaten into submission by the Beast, who inflicts his cloven-hooved fury upon the land not by laying waste to continents but by steadily lowering Humanity's standards and convincing us to keep settling for less. "Buy Windows Media content from our store," the Beast (wearing a blue Best Buy polo shirt) muses, "and you can play it on any music player from any number of different manufacturers. Buy it from iTunes Music Store, and you'll need a $399 iPod to do anything with it at all!"

(Yes, he's lying. He is the devil, after all. He gets terrific longterm results from the aforementioned Subtle Mediocrity plan, but still likes to screw with people, you know, just to keep his skills sharp.)

So even if the iPod Shuffle were a cheap-ass piece of crap instead of a clever and unexpectedly exciting player, it'd still be an important product for Apple. If there hadn't been an "Apple will announce a flash-based iPod that will sell for under a hundred bucks" rumor a few weeks ago, I would have felt obligated to go ahead and start one.

But "a stripped-down headless Mac for $499"? It just didn't smell right to me. Sure, Apple's been fighting the "Macs are nice, but they're not affordable" tag since the days of the Reagan Administration, but y'know, they've been doing all right for themselves, limiting their product line to midrange-and-higher machines. When you take your nighttime cold medication (which is sold as generic-brand whiskey under a different label) and think about this rumor, you find yourself asking "From Apple's perspective, what problem does such a machine solve?" and you come up blank. Then you imagine the sorry lot of an Apple Store employee who takes a customer to an underlit table ringed with exotic hardwood and says "For $499, you can have this iPod...or, um, this entire functioning Macintosh." Then you imagine that the employee has grown adorable plaid bat-wings and has started singing the bouncy song from this really old Warner Brothers cartoon, what was the name, all you know is that it was sung by these two characters and one was singing about how he hasn't got a hat and the other one sings "bom-bom-bom-bommm..."

(No, seriously, everyone: as of Saturday morning, I was going to cancel my trip to San Francisco. Fortunately, my head started to clear by the afternoon, and I was feeling nearly human again on Sunday.)

Two things -- again, apart from the raging fever that wracked my body and threatened to snuff my very life -- prevented me from writing a column dismissing the rumor of the cheap-o Mac. First, Apple sued ThinkSecret and other sites that reported on the rumor. It's one thing for Apple to hit the macro key on its keyboard that dumps the phrase "Apple does not comment on unreleased product" into an official statement, quite another for the company to get lawyers involved. It means that somebody has just said something that might screw with Apple's stock price, and when Apple takes that step, notice must be paid.

And just as importantly...Apple still has the limitless ability to surprise people. One of their greatest strengths as a company -- at least during the eras in which they've been led by Steve Jobs -- is that no other entity understands the company's purpose more than Apple itself. So yeah, Andy: you might not understand why a cheap-ass Mac makes sense, but rest assured that Apple does.

Sure enough, now that we can see the actual product, it makes perfect sense. The giveaway is the machine's style. When old-timers (read: old enough to think that when a movie theater runs commercials before the feature, the audience has the right to dunk paper napkins in ketchup and throw them at the screen) think "headless computer" they imagine a fairly stripped-down, practical, and wholly unexciting design. The Mac Mini is the epitome of Apple's modern design language: flash through simplicity. The Mini is, in fact, larger in person than it is in your mind's eye. I had a couple of hours between the end of the keynote and my one-on-one briefing, and I wanted to (but didn't) slip out to a McDonalds' on Market Street to buy a Quarter Pounder. I was sure that if I placed the box next to the Mini, the two would be about the same size.

Here's the brilliance of the Mini: it's the iPod, produced as a computer. Not in features, or appearance. I'm talking about marketing. The iPod was innovative in every possible way that nitpicky geeks with websites value innovation, as well as all of the ways that the geeks don't but should. Apple has to be lauded for the way they sell those devices. It wasn't the first digital music player with a hard drive, but the biggest contributor to its success was the fact that it was the first one sold as a piece of consumer-electronics instead of a computer accessory. Take it out of the box, plug in headphones, and go. No worries.

The Mac Mini is probably the first grand experiment in marketing a desktop computer as something that could (conceptually, at least) be blister-packed next to the cellphone headsets and off-brand CD players over at Wal-Mart. The thing is even packed like an iPod: open the lid of its lunchbox-style container and you see a styrofoam well containing a slim wallet of CDs, followed by a slick rounded box representing The Thing Itself, followed by a final well filled with coiled cables. Think back to the last time you bought a notebook, which is the most straightforward of all computers. Was it presented to you in anything close to such an offhanded format?

The Mini's a $499 piece of hardware, but still, I'm inclined to wonder if it'll be the first true Impulse Buy computer. I can easily imagine someone wandering into a mall Apple Store and thinking You know, we've been thinking of buying a second computer for the house... The Mini's packaging and presentation seems to shrug and say "Sure, why the hell not?"

It's mondo cool and I want one. And I'm amazed that I live in a world in which Apple is selling a $499 Macintosh. It's true what everyone always said: once the Red Sox win the World Series again it'll pull open the curtain on the biblical End of Days and in the intervening days before the Apocalypse, all things will become possible.

Still, let's look at this dispassionately. In the cold light of day, a Mac Mini isn't that much more attractive than an eMac. $499 for a Mini plus $100 for a keyboard and mouse plus $150 for a VGA monitor (one of the Mini's few includeds is a stubby VGA plug adapter) puts you in the same price/performance range as Apple's next-cheapest Mac.

I suppose we'll just have to wait and see how things shake out. It's for certain that in deciding to sell a Mac with absolutely no accessories, Apple is quite aware that most tech-savvy households have extra gear languishing in closets somewhere. Particularly with the popularity of LCD screens. The flat-panel lands on the desktop and the CRT winds up in the basement. If you threw yours away, just visit any community back home in Massachusetts on the night after trash day. Most of them have classified tubes as hazardous waste and the trash guys won't pick 'em up. So you can just drive around until you find exactly the size, make, and model you want, and then just haul it into your car from off of somebody's lawn.

Still and all, what makes the Mini different from the eMac isn't the form factor or the features. It's the fact that they'll be sold the way Apple sells iPods, not the way that they sell computers. There's a reason why Apple didn't call this the iMac Mini. The motivation is plain to anyone who attended Tuesday's keynote and learned that Apple sold 8.2 million iPods in 2004.

digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).

You can send your comments directly to Andy, or you can also post your comments below.

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