Is Apple Missing the Boat?

1999 – Did it strike you odd that Apple completely ignored the iMac at the World Wide Developers Conference? Sure, the latest PowerBook G3 is an incredible machine, but what about the Power Mac, the consumer portable, the iMac?

Is Apple Missing the Boat?

blueberry iMacTime and again we hear that the main action in the Wintel world is in sub-$1,000 (sub1K) computers. Then we read about a $600 or $500 or even cheaper Wintel box.

Looking at the $1,199 iMac, we have to wonder if Apple is missing the boat.

Arguments against this view:

  • Apple is selling $1,199 iMacs as fast as they can make them. With limited production capacity, why build something even less profitable?
  • These cheap Wintel boxes are just that: cheap boxes. Slow processors, slow hard drives, not even a real video card – and the monitor costs extra.
  • The top selling Wintel systems are not under $1,000. PC World tracks them, and USA Today prints the list once a month. Almost all of the best selling Wintel systems are more expensive than the iMac – sometimes costing twice as much.

As Mac users, we can rest assured that people buying the cheap Wintel boxes are getting what they deserve.

But should we think that way?

Apple Is Missing the Boat

For almost as long as I’ve been running this site, I’ve been saying Apple needs an inexpensive Mac – but not a cheap one. I’ve worked with several different ideas of what this could be: iMacTV, a direct competitor to WebTV; the Tiny iMac, using the iMac’s brains without a monitor; and even a Mac-in-a-keyboard, sort of like the old Commodore 64 and some PCs built today.

The true danger to Apple due to sub1k computers is twofold:

  1. They’ll grow used to Windows and be resistant to the Mac OS.
  2. They’ll be so frustrated they’ll never want another computer regardless of OS.

For the sake of the user and the future of the Mac market, Apple can’t make a cheap computer. Inexpensive, yes, but not cheap. (I used to be a huge Compaq fan, but after setting up a Presario recently, I shudder to see how the mighty have fallen.)

Why Should Apple Build a Sub1K Mac?

There are many reasons for Apple to enter the sub1K market. First and foremost, it’s the entry level today. Since most users are not willing to switch from the OS they cut their teeth on, we need to get them started with Macs.

Further, since the first computing experience shapes future buying habits, getting them on a stable, friendly Mac makes it more likely they will not have a negative experience – and more likely they will buy Macs in the future.

Finally, not everyone wants or needs the 15″ monitor built into every iMac. Some already have monitors, whether hand-me-downs from friends or salvaged from an older computer. And some want bigger screens than the iMac offers; the 17″ screen has become very common and may have already displaced the 15″ monitor as the screen of choice for most buyers, both Mac and Windows.

What Should the Sub1k Mac Be?

The econoMac should be different than the iMac and the G3. There are certain things any computer must have today: 64 MB of memory, accelerated graphics, stereo sound output, a 24x or 32x CD-ROM player, a v.90 56k modem, a keyboard, a mouse, and a hard drive.

Being a Mac, it will also have ethernet.

Being a Mac, it will also be attractive.

Macinsoth IIsiDid you see the May 17 issue of Newsweek, the one with Star Wars on the cover? Sure, there’s an iMac ad on pages 2 and 3, but there’s more. In an article on the AT&T acquisition of MediaOne, the illustration shows phones, a TV, and a computer connected to coaxial cable. The computer? A Macintosh IIsi from 1990! That’s what computers should look like, unless they’re iMacs.

The econoMac need not be as swoopy as the iMac, but it must not be as utilitarian as the Presario and other inexpensive Wintel machines. It’s a Mac; it must have class.

If Apple plays its cards right, the econoMac could have one or two expansion slots, making it a very versatile computer. Gamers could drop in a Voodoo video card. Video fans could install a digitizer. Movie lovers could put in an MPEG decoder and DVD player.

Apple could go with a sleek consumer electronics look, something that would look at home next to a VCR, DVD player, stereo receiver, or CD changer. Put in an IrDA port for remote control, add an infrared keyboard, and you could give WebTV a run for the money.

Same unit plus a DVD drive and MPEG card becomes a movie player.

Or base unit with an old monitor becomes a homework machine.

Drop in a Voodoo card to turn it into a great game system.

Or add a 17″ or 19″ screen to that, and it becomes a perfect home office computer.

Can Apple Do It?

The big question is, Can Apple create a quality system that would take a bite out of the sub1K market?

I think the iMac and Power Mac G3 prove Apple can think differently enough to confound the experts. And the market has demonstrated that there is a demand for a user friendly, Y2K ready system that doesn’t run Windows.

By sharing a lot of components with the iMac and Power Mac G3, the econoMac could be Apple’s trailing edge machine. Although the iMac runs at 333 MHz, there’s no reason a 266 MHz or 300 MHz econoMac wouldn’t be accepted. Compared with the cheap 350 MHz Celeron II and Pentium II systems and their compromised designs, the econoMac could sell for $600-750 and still be seen as a viable option.

Could Apple go even lower? Undoubtedly, but there comes a point where you only get what you pay for – like the Webzter PC at $300 that doesn’t include a floppy drive or CD-ROM player.

Some compromises you don’t want to make.

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