Apple’s Mac mini timing, or, where is the spec bump?

A lot has been written about the Mac mini’s imminent demise, since at least May 2007, and again recently. I’ve never been particularly willing to believe this speculation, because the Mini is the product most in demand for shared desktop computing facilities in educational establishments. In the university I am most recently familiar with, this accounts for at least 100 machines in the libraries alone. That’s not including what individual departments may have in their computing labs (another 100 to 300 maybe?), or any orders by individual researchers, particularly where low spec machines are desirable, e.g. for grad students (scientists sometimes opt for iMacs because they have enough cash, and spare screens tend to be consumed by Windows machines or dual head set-ups; the main opportunity to target here is students who are “visiting” a lab for small projects, either undergraduate or Masters research projects, or grad students visiting from other universities, typically abroad; a completely untapped opportunity is arts students and staff, for most of whom any word processing machine will do, so why not buy a cheap Mac?). If you scale this to the number of universities in just the English-speaking world alone, you can clearly see a market of a size that Apple would want to harvest. In addition, in a “catch ’em young” world, Apple cannot afford to lose those markets – or the revenue it makes from more unusual applications of the Mac mini, such as server farms. The compact size of the Mini remains quite competitive, in spite of being somehow spared the slimming frenzy that Mr. Jobs put the iMac, Powerbook/MacBook Pro, and lately MacBook lines under. I suspect the reason why this myth remains popular is that these educational markets are to a large extent invisible to the tech writers, who tend to focus on street and internet retail rather than large corporate/educational orders or wholesale.

It does not need saying that the anticipation of a longer recession will spur sales of low spec machines, a job description superbly fitting for the Mac mini in its current incarnation. Nonetheless, it may be true that Apple has decided to delay a spec bump until after the holiday season, to not steal the show from its re-engineered laptop line. Remember that at 1.31kg (2.9 pounds), the Mac mini is among the most portable non-laptop computers ever, and will give you much joy as long as you have a screen available in each location you want to use it (e.g. home and office; I also recommend buying a second power adapter as these are somewhat bulky, with attendant unwieldy cables, and take away from the weight advantage; final word of warning: it’s not entirely designed for being lugged around, so do treat it kindly!) So it would be a shame for it to go, and possibly too great a loss to AAPL for them to really consider this step.

A recent macminicolo article has outlined that company’s reasons for believing in a refresh of the Mini, and a response from Apple Insider points to the possibility that the Mini is an efficient way for Apple to divest of old component stock from other product lines (in this case, possibly the Core 2 Duo chip, but it’s not the only candidate I can think of, with the move away from Intel integrated components). As far as the rumours of the demise go, I can only agree with the above-cited articles that the mini is here to stay for some time yet.

Update 2008/12/17: Further evidence that Apple is making the right decision. Interesting tidbit is that the Mac mini has continued to be one of Amazon’s top five selling items, apparently all the way through 2008, in spite of the ageing hardware!

Four features Opera needs

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and finally decided to make it public. Opera is possibly the fastest browser currently out there – certainly the fastest available in a final release. There are four features that Opera needs so that I would use it. “Bookmark all tabs”, a dropdown selector showing the title of all the tabs (like in Firefox; I know about the tab preview, but gliding over the tab bar is cumbersome), a scrapbook like Firefox’ scrapbook extension, and good ad blocking. As it stands, I’ll probably be swayed to continue with Firefox if they live up to the 3.1 speed promise in the final release. Otherwise it will be a tough call. Hmmm… Webkit? V8? Except for Opera’s exceptional security track record, those other contenders offer nearly the same features.