|Tuesday, January 4, 2005
21:06 - The Mac that had better be
Now that the tech press is in full cry over what they've determined to be a real newsworthy item swirling about the Mac rumor network—the sub-$500 iMac—I guess it won't hurt anything to engage in some irresponsible speculation.
After all, it's not like this thing is a secret anymore. Apple is generally better at keeping things like this under wraps; Think Secret doesn't usually get "exclusive" scoops this big without getting C&D'd within a day. Methinks maybe Apple is just as happy to be getting the publicity this time, maybe enough so to have allowed a little "controlled leak". (Update: Then again...) Though it's stilll technically a rumor, and we should be careful not to get our hopes up too high. (Shyeah.)
The original article and most of the derivative press are making the leap that Apple is bringing out this machine in order to capitalize on iPod mania, to sell a Mac to geeks who like geek toys and have enough scratch to throw around that they'll drop half a grand on anything sufficiently cool (we're talking about a Mac that's cheaper than some iPods). As a second machine, for a tech-head to play around on after hearing all this brouhaha about the Mac experience and wondering what a whole OS that runs like iTunes could be like, they could well be prime candidates as buyers.
Yet this seemed a little incomplete to me, for a business case for the introduction of a whole new class of computer. Apple doesn't usually make a new product on such a shaky, speculative foundation. Sure, there will be plenty of geeks out there wanting to buy this Mac on a lark. But could there possibly be that many?
Kris, however, came up with a theory that I think is totally sound and explains the rest of the story. The theory centers on new or casual computer users, and goes like this:
Apple has traditionally avoided the "entry-entry-level" bottom tier of the consumer market, even though the Mac is supposed to be so great for novices. Sure, some new computer users are well-heeled and discriminating, and even though they may not be tech-heads, they'll want to buy a more upscale computer than powers the unwashed masses, and so they'll buy an iMac: Apple's lowest-end, most consumer-level computer, which is comfortable these days starting at $1000, and never dropped below about $800 even back in the candy-colored G3 days. This doesn't do it for those who just want something simple, something cheap, something that lets them do e-mail and surf the Web and not much else—not even show it off.
Apple hasn't really wanted to court the $500 consumer market; and why? Well, because when you sell to the entry-level market, you get entry-level customers, not to put too fine a point on it. And this is not meant pejoratively. Support is the problem. You end up having to do a lot more of it, and the unsatisfying kind: lots of hand-holding, lots of explaining basic concepts, and lots of frustration at both ends of the phone line as neither party can see what the other is trying to explain to them. Novices aren't great fans of phone support in general, and when it comes to trying to articulate the details of a mysterious technology that's got them mystified, it's a recipe for a bad experience on the customer side and a money-loser on Apple's side.
So what's changed Apple's mind all of a sudden? Well, the secret sauce right now is the Apple Stores. They've probably got a threshold somewhere that says something like "80% of the American public is now within driving distance of an Apple Store". And what that gets them is that they can now provide end-to-end user experience support. The customer can unplug this little box (with the footprint of an iBook and the height of an Xserve), tuck it under their arm, and walk right into a mall; no need to lug an unwieldy adjustable-neck iMac or a leaden G5 tower in from the car. The guys at the Genius Bar can plug it right in, using a stock monitor, and show the customer what they need to do. They can do on-the-spot training. They can even sell some accessories while they're at it. They can solve the customer's problem, and satisfyingly, and for free—and support is suddenly a profit center, not a money-sink.
This, to me, is a much more compelling justification for Apple getting into the $500 computer market than an abundance of geeks with credit cards: the Apple Stores are ready now to handle an influx of newbies, so... bring 'em on.
That's about the only thing that has significantly changed in the landscape of the industry. This isn't the first time Apple has tried something like this. Remember this thing?
The Cube was not nearly the success that Apple had hoped it would be. The consensus was that Apple had misjudged the market, making the Cube an expensive "luxury" computer instead of a cheaper monitor-less iMac. In december the low-end configuration received a price cut to $1499. In February 2001, The cube received a feature and price change. The low-end configuration was repriced at $1299. A "better" configuration was made available, with a CD-RW drive and 128 MB of RAM, for $1599. Finally, the high-end version got a 60 GB hard drive, 256 MB of RAM, a CD-RW drive and an 32 MB NVIDIA GeForce2 MX video card, and sold for $2199.
The PowerMac G4 Cube was never officially discontinued, but in July 2001 Apple suspended production of the Cube indefinitely. While leaving the door open for a possible reintroduction of the enclosure, Apple quickly and quietly let the world forget the disappointing failure of the G4 Cube.
The Cube was Apple's first modern attempt at a "crossover" machine, a headless Mac that could use your existing monitor, whether VGA or DVI, Apple or third-party, and could wow all comers at your hipness. The idea was that your business could fill its cubicles with Cubes and use their existing monitors, mitigating the cost of becoming a corporate Switcher story. And if you were a home user with a lavish den to show off, what better thing to adorn it with than a sleek and silent little computer that looked like nothing else on the market? However, the machine suffered from a number of intractable problems, the most staring of which was that Apple had chosen unwisely to aim the Cube at the top end of the market, not the bottom. It was just too expensive without the monitor, and people balked at its weird form factor: it was just too "design-y", and all but demanded that you buy an iSub, some H-K SoundSticks, and a genuine Apple monitor to go with it, otherwise it would look so dreadfully gauche. (Apple's introduction in this model of the all-in-one ADC video/power/USB connector did nothing but boost this impression.) Besides, in a high-end machine, users expected expandability; the Cube had none. In the end, nobody wanted to spend $1799 on a computer that they had to explain to people was a computer.
It's probably fair, then, to imagine that this new low-end Mac is the long-awaited reincarnation of the Cube, only done right this time: aimed at the opposite end of the user spectrum. Now, the fact that it doesn't come with a monitor is an essential part of its draw: if you already have a computer, this Mac will use its monitor, and the $500 sticker price is all you pay. (Well, it's unclear yet whether it will come with a keyboard and mouse; it had better, because I can't imagine Apple telling people to go buy a USB keyboard without Windows keys and a one-button mouse off the shelf at CompUSA—what? You mean such things don't even exist?) Or you pick up a 17" CRT for a hundred bucks. It's a crossover machine the way it was meant to be, with all the important stuff included and all the right stuff left out. With a 1.25 GHz G4, it's got the same horsepower as the current PowerBook lineup. In fact, it seems that Apple designed this machine by pulling up the spec sheet for the entry-level Dell Dimension, copying down all its numbers (in the past week, the Dell has gone from the monitor being a free add-on in the online-only store to a standard listed feature), and wrapping a Mac around them. And at the same time shrinking it down into a compact little box instead of a bulky generic AT case, making it a stand-on-end-able "computing device" in form factor, and giving the user all the video output options one might need. A machine this small and unassuming won't outshine your glamourless CRT monitor or demand that you buy a $799 Apple display. It'll fulfill its expectations, and it'll do it quietly. That's all the home user wants from his computer. That, and not having to worry about it becoming infested with viruses and spyware within six hours of being pulled out of its box.
One other possibility, noted by Damien Del Russo, is that because this machine is more a "device" than a "computer", it could easily be retasked into a number of different guises—such as, for example, a Media Center-like set-top box. It could be turned into a DVR, it could run iTunes, it could play DVDs and home movies alike—all through a VGA connection to your HDTV. With a price point this low, imagination starts becoming the limiting factor.
The tech press is probably right to be all excited about this; as they've noted for many years now, the four biggest problems with the Mac are price, price, software availability, and price. The home user doesn't care much about whether there are six different iMovie clones for the Mac—just that iMovie is there. And now that Apple has ably defused much of the criticism that dogged it for years about the anemic performance of its machines by developing and releasing the well-respected G5 line, Apple is free to concentrate on these last remaining vulnerabilities. If they can bring out a Mac to challenge the true bottom level of the market, without any extra weaknesses anyone cares about and with a few extra coolness points, the critics will end up looking like Michael Moore on November Third: all out of ideas.