For Your Consideration: The Mac Micro

Among the speculation that continues to wash ashore in the wake of last monthis Macworld Expo is that Apple may be retreating from the very core of its existence: its lineup of Mac hardware.

As briefly noted in my previous column, the most recent incarnation of this speculation was stoked by a combination of events. First was Appleis decision to drop the word "Computer" from its name (now called simply Apple, Inc.). Additional fuel came from Steve Jobsi keynote address, which was almost entirely limited to two products that are compatible with both Macs and PCs: Apple TV and iPhone. Even the concurrently-announced new AirPort Extreme is cross-platform.

More recently, various media outlets have pointed to Appleis latest financial statements as evidence of a "decline" in Mac sales. An AP article, for example, noted: "For the first quarter, Macintosh computers and services accounted for only 43 percent of total revenue, while music products and services accounted for 57 percent of total sales." A article was more blunt, referring to analystsi "initial shock of the disappointing Mac numbers."

If these trends continue, so the speculation goes, Macs will increasingly become a financial liability for Apple. The result will be the eventual abandonment of the Mac as Apple transitions itself into a consumer electronics company.

The Mac isnit going away...

I am more than a bit skeptical of this scenario. Let me state that more strongly: The idea that Apple will be abandoning the Mac any time soon is simply insane. It makes no sense at any level.

Mac sales may be a bit depressed right now, at least compared to what analysts had hoped. But PC vendors, such as Dell, are generally in even worse shape. On the plus side for Apple, there was a 28% growth in Mac sales this past quarter, the Macis market share has been on an upward swing, and the number of new Mac users continues to grow. Thatis not exactly what I would call "disappointing."

Further, the publicis perception of Mac hardware and software has never been better. The ease of use of Mac OS X and iLife software together with Appleis stylish hardware have been winning converts, especially when contrasted to the more clunky PC boxes running the security-weak Windows software. Even Microsoftis just-released Vista is receiving, at best, a lukewarm reception. Add the geeky appeal of Mac OS Xis Unix foundation and the broader appeal of Intel-based Macsi ability to run Windows (if and when needed), and you have a recipe for the continued success of the Mac.

Any doldrums in Mac sales now are only temporary, due to factors that are all set to change. First, there were no significant upgrades to the Mac hardware in the past year, other than the transition to Intel processors. Here, Apple went out of its way to minimize the significance of the transition, so as to assure buyers that they would not have trouble running old software on the new machines.

While the shift went as smoothly as promised, it may have led Mac users to conclude that there was little immediate benefit to upgrading their old machines, ironically lowering Mac sales as users opted to wait for a future generation of hardware. Second, the next version of Mac OS X (Leopard) was announced last summer but is not scheduled to see the light of day until late spring, with iLife i07 apparently on a similar hold. This is likely having a similar suppressive effect on Mac sales, as users wait for the release of the new software before investing in new hardware. The good news is that all of this points to an especially great second half of 2007 for the Mac, by which time new hardware and software should be available.

More generally, Macs remain the glue that holds Appleis product lineup together. While the iPod and the iPhone could exist without Macs, working with PCs, they would be like flowering plants that survive and grow, but never blossom. On a Mac, these devices blossom, and the appeal of the resulting flowers leads to greater Mac sales.

...but suppose it is?

But what if Iim wrong? For the sake of argument, letis suppose that Apple does somehow become convinced that terminating the Mac is in its financial interests. How might such a future play out?

For starters, I donit see Apple simply and suddenly announcing one day that it is no longer making Macs. Rather, the "termination" would occur gradually, perhaps over a decade or so. By the time the last Mac rolled off the assembly line, it would not be a surprise, as the direction that Apple was heading would have been apparent for years.

During this gradual withdrawal of the traditional Mac lineup, the driving forces would be "mobility" and "consumer-oriented." That is, the Mac products that are the most portable and have the most appeal to the consumer market would be the ones to survive the longest. Any new products would similarly be required to adhere to this focus.

Taking all of this into consideration, if I were the Apple employee asked to oversee such a transition, here is what I would recommend:

The Mac Books. I would leave the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines pretty much alone, aside from continuing to upgrade and improve them of course. These "mobile" models are already the lifeblood of the Mac lineup. Market analyses consistently show that most of the Macis growth is driven by notebook computer sales. If and when the Mac reaches the end of the line, the notebook Macs will be the last to go.

The Mac Pro. I would demote the profile of the Mac Pro to match that of the Xserve. Given that much of the public doesnit even know that the Xserve exists, I am talking about a pretty low profile here. For starters, I would no longer include Mac Pros on the floor of retail Apple stores, nor would I include them on the home page of the Web-based Apple Store or in any other mainstream Apple marketing. The Mac Pros would remain available for the relatively small number of Mac users who demand that level of desktop power. But otherwise they would remain in the background. If sales of the Mac Pro and Xserve remain profitable, keep upgrading and producing them as demand warrants. Otherwise, get rid of them altogether.

The iMac. I would dump the iMac entirely!

You may be shaking your head in disbelief at this point. Not the iMac! It was the product that began Appleis turn-around in 1998, after Steve Jobs returned to the helm. Aside from the Apple logo, it is the companyis most iconic symbol. But, given that I have been directed to start a "phased withdrawal" of the Mac hardware lineup, I would say goodbye to the iMac.

The integrated all-in-one design of the iMac was a brilliant marketing idea at the time. But one can argue that it has outlived its usefulness. It no longer fits as well with the increasingly mobile lifestyle of todayis consumers.

It is also too expensive, especially when it comes to upgrading or replacing it. For example, suppose you bought an iMac G5 shortly before the Intel iMacs came out, and decided you wanted to upgrade to the Intel model. What could you do? Your only choice would be to sell your old iMac and buy a completely new one, even though this would mean replacing your keyboard, mouse, and display with new ones that are virtually identical to what you already have. What a waste.

Similarly, suppose you bought a 17" iMac, but soon realized that a 24" iMac suited you better. Youid like to just swap displays. But it canit be done. Again, you are faced with having to buy a completely new iMac instead. As one more example, suppose you intended to use Logitechis wireless keyboard and mouse with your iMac. Could you save a few bucks and buy an iMac without the standard Apple keyboard and mouse? Nope.

True, some similar points could be made about MacBooks. But the MacBooks compensate by offering the portability that is absent in the desktop-bound iMac.

Still, there are a significant number of people who will prefer a desktop Mac, with its large display, full-size keyboard and mouse -- rather than the smaller display, "partial" keyboard and trackpad found on a laptop. For these users, there remains:

The Mac mini. Unlike the iMac, you can separately upgrade selected components of the mini. I would expand the Mac mini lineup to include new upgraded models that match the processor speeds and overall specs of the abandoned iMacs. I would also introduce less expensive stand-alone displays, so that Apple could sell a complete Mac mini set-up (CPU box, display, mouse, and keyboard) for about what a comparable iMac would have cost.

But wait! I am not quite done. There is still "one more thing."

The Mac micro. This entirely new Mac model would function as a significantly smaller version of the Mac mini. I imagine it as somewhat larger than a portable hard drive, but still small enough to be considered truly "portable." To get it down to that size, I would eliminate the optical disk drive and the built-in speakers.

Even so, I know that there will be problems fitting in a full-scale processor, graphics card, at least 1GB of RAM and the needed FireWire, USB, and external display ports. Given the current level of technology, itis probably not possible yet. But itis not far away (especially given Intelis recent announcement of its forthcoming 45 nanometer CPU chips). Even today, an iPod can pack an 80GB hard drive; a similarly-sized iPhone is still big enough to run a version of Mac OS X. Both include a display that a Mac micro will not have. The capability to make a Mac micro cannot be far off.

The Mac micro would use an external power source, similar to the power adapters used by MacBooks. It would also feature a built-in battery sufficient to maintain a "sleep" mode when the micro is not connected to AC power. This would allow it to awaken ready to go, without needing a restart, when reconnected to external power.

While standard peripheral components could be attached to a Mac micro, just as they can with a Mac mini, what would make the micro truly special is that it would also work in combination with a new "super-display." This display, designed specifically for the micro, would have built-in speakers, an optical drive, standard ports, and a power supply -- much like todayis iMac. However, unlike the iMac, it would not have any other internal hardware: no processor, no hard drive, no RAM. Instead, it would provide a recessed dock. The Mac micro would have a connector port to attach to the displayis dock, similar to how todayis iPod and matching dock connect. Once connected, the Mac micro and super-display would function as a complete desktop computer system.

This arrangement offers several unique advantages:

  • You could buy two displays to go with your Mac micro, keeping one at home and one at your office. Just drop your Mac micro into your backpack when you leave home and, when you arrive at work, you can pick up exactly where you left off. No need to synch anything, launch anything, restart anything, mount anything or anything else anything.

    Yes, you could accomplish the same basic goal with a MacBook. But the Mac micro is far smaller than a MacBook, and offers the advantages of working with a desktop Mac in both environments.

  • If you have a friend that has a similar Mac micro setup, just bring your micro with you when you visit, and you can instantly set up to show your friend anything and everything that is currently on your Mac!

  • Schools could use super-displays in computer labs, allowing students to bring their own Mac micros to class. This could facilitate students being able to take their lab work with them, for finishing a project at home.

  • Libraries and other public places could provide super-displays hooked up to the Internet. This would allow Mac micro users to conveniently get their e-mail, or do almost any other task, without most of the security risks of doing so from a public computer.

  • It would not be much of a stretch to imagine that iPhones and iPods could also fit into the super-displayis dock, allowing these devices to work via a keyboard, mouse and external display when connected.

Wait a minute! The Mac micro could turn out to be such a huge success that it would lead Apple to reverse its decision to phase out the Mac lineup. The Mac would survive after all, different than it is now, but still healthy. Apple would once again prove to be on the leading edge of where the computing world is headed, leaving PC makers in its dust. At least we can hope.