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!

Apple hurting innovation? I think not.

I promised pownce friends a reply to this article, so here goes.

I have to admit I find it difficult to respond to the article, principally because it starts out with the premise that companies are out to make money, and that Apple is a late adopter that steals innovation by making new technologies useable once they have matured.

This sentence here is key, “In fact, it may be that [the more innovative competitors of Apple] can’t, but that doesn’t mean the public doesn’t win by them trying.”

So Apple can make money, while everybody else has to work hard to please the public without any direct benefit. Doesn’t sound very fair, nor particularly sound advice.

So let’s see where the problem is. First off, why are there so many tech companies throwing new gadgets onto the market? Well, why are there so many bloggers, podcasters and vloggers? Because there’s a market for it? No, because people want to talk/write/be rock stars. Are they making any money? For 99% of bloggers, the answer would be no: on an economic analysis, it’s a waste of time.

Good companies are driven by demand, bad companies are driven by supply. This is what is happening in the tech industry: Microsoft, Archos, Creative, SanDisk et al. (hereafter MACS) have engineers who are fascinated with the technology and want to bring it to end users as quickly as possible. Apple, by contrast, will only release a polished product, for a market that has been proven to exist, and only after it has passed the test of usability consultants, not to mention the usability aspect. Every good CEO should know that only 8% of industries are dominated by the market leader, and yet companies continue to push themselves to be pioneers.

This brings us to another flaw in the article, which is the implicit assumption that without MACS pushing the envelope, innovation would cease. This is clearly not the case, because by the article’s argument, Apple’s business would shrink if they did not innovate. Last I checked, consumer electronics devices were the largest money earner in Apple’s business, and if they can’t “out-date” last year’s devices, they’re stuck. So if you believe yourself to be unfairly parasitised, just cease innovating and let Apple take the lead. Plug your holes, keep your R&D bottled up, as Apple has done for years. Let’s assume an unrealistic worst case scenario for illustration here. Let’s assume MACS refuse to innovate, and Apple bites the dust because they’ve forgotten how to do it (remember, I said it was going to be unrealistic!) Where would innovation come from? (Insert your choice of smurf or gummi bears intro music.) A long, long time ago, there was a little forest in whom little creatures dwelled – dashing and daring, courageous and caring, faithful and friendly, I’ll spare you the rest. Yes, universities, academics. They develop technologies, see?

All that would result from MACS taking a back seat would be mature devices with better interoperability, using standard protocols. I cannot but applaud Apple for showing that mature products can win consumers, even though I may individually criticise their devices and software, their business model, standards compliance, and thinly veiled desire for consumer lock-in.

5 items that Apple sells us that we don’t need

…and that are bad for the environment. And how Apple doesn’t leave any room for consumer choice. Prices quoted are for iMac except where stated, but reasoning applies across the product range. Assembly locations referred to may not be assembly locations for all Apple products.

  1. Keyboard: Dear Apple, I understand that maybe you didn’t deliberately design the last keyboard with rubberised keys so they would pick up dirt quickly, and with transparency so that the dustballs formed from debris falling between the keys would be plain for all to see at the base of the k’board. But really, the keyboard still works, and the environment will thank’ee for not forcing another one on us. YES WE ALREADY HAVE A KEYBOARD THANK YOU.
  2. Mouse: Not much to add here, same deal. If I need a mouse, I’ll buy one from Logitech, so thanks, thanks, and thanks again. I can has iMac without keyboardnmouse?
  3. RAM aka memory: 512MB for a system running OS X was plenty of insult, glad to see you now sell them with 1GB minimum (so Leopard is a memory hog?), but 150 USD to get an extra 1GB? What are you smoking, Steve? I can get that for 54 USD from Crucial. It’s not like you use Corsair or anything. Or like you don’t buy bulk. Or like that Chinese boy is going to chip his nails putting the extra 1 gig module in. Or like you care if he does. And let’s not forget that you used to ship the 512MB system with two 256MB modules just so you could have that extra bit of environmental footprint. *Boom*. Not funny.
  4. Hard disk: Until recently, I could get a 160GB 7200 RPM drive from Seagate for less than the price of configuring a Mac mini with a 100GB 5400 RPM drive rather than a 60GB 4200RPM one. But yes, there’s that guilt over having a spare 60GB around the house and having to find a use for it. Well, I pass that guilt right back to you, Apple, with your innocently smiling Mr. Gore on board (excuse the pun).
  5. Screen: And how about designing the iMac so that at the end of its lifespan, I can take off the back cover, motherboard and all, and be left with a screen and DVI socket? Wouldn’t that be nice? Think different? Well, here’s your chance. Go green!

Dell vs. HP – who “gets” consumer Linux first?

As I’ve outlined in recent posts, there is a race between HP and Dell for being first to market with a consumer Linux computer that receives the consumers’ blessing. I have a hunch that Dell will win this one, because they are completely focused on doing whatever pleases the consumers most at this point. Dell will find out that Ubuntu is the currently popular kid among Linux distributions, and they will collaborate with Ubuntu and Canonical to bring consumers the distribution they love on a computer that works. HP, on the other hand, may rely on its in-house Linux expertise. They may therefore be more accepting of the idea initially, but may realise too late that their in-house expertise is for the server market, and is not the kind of expertise they need in order to produce a compelling consumer laptop or desktop. Take my comments with a pinch of salt because it’s early days and HP’s cards aren’t really on the table yet. They may end up doing the right thing, and their existing ties with the development community (the kernel, particularly) may serve them well in preparing better software support for their chosen hardware components.

Dell’s imaginary Linux problem

Dell has a problem. On the IdeaStorm website, many customers have supported the idea of Dell computers being sold either without an operating system or with Linux pre-installed. They have also asked for Firefox and OpenOffice to be pre-installed, and for an option not to have extra software pre-installed. So Dell has a problem. They have to decide to either satisfy their customers, or to become able to negotiate more favourable terms with Microsoft. The solution to their problem is going to be… er… what was the problem again?