Mac OS X and the econoMac

1999: Our friends at the Macintosh Broadcasting Company (MacBC) are thinking different. In the article Is It Time for a Cheaper Mac?, they propose that Apple wait to release a new inexpensive modular Mac until it can ship with Mac OS X Client installed.

I think it’s brilliant. Once OS X Client ships (I’m guessing that will at or shortly after the Macworld Expo in January 2000), a lot of Mac owners are going to be left out in the cold.

Apple Mac PlusMy Mac Plus, SE, and Portable can’t run Mac OS 7.6. Neither can my more powerful Mac II or IIcx. The IIci, IIfx, and PowerBook 150 won’t do Mac OS 8. The Centrises and Quadras (610, 650, 660av) don’t run Mac OS 8.5.

Umax SuperMac J700And neither the SuperMac J700 nor the SuperMac S900 is expected to be able to run Mac OS X Client, although they will probably run Sonata (expected to be released as Mac OS 8.7).

Out of over a dozen Macs in the house, not a single one will run Mac OS X, the operating system for the 21st century.

Not a single one.

Which leads MacBC to propose that Apple ship a less expensive Mac when OS X ships.

The idea has great merit. I already have monitors, a network, and more. If I could swap out a Quadra or SuperMac for a new inexpensive G3 Mac running OS X, it would be a very natural upgrade.

I wouldn’t mind doing it today, but the only options are the US$1,200 iMac 333 and the US$1,600 Blue and White Power Mac G3. Both are out of my price range. Besides, the iMac’s 15″ monitor is too small for me – working with a 21″ screen at work, I even find the 17″ monitor at home small (see Living Large for a discussion of huge screens).

The release of Mac OS X Client should be a compelling reason for a lot of longtime Mac users to upgrade from our antiques. We love them, but they’ll be left behind by the new system architecture. (We’ll keep the old Macs. Count on that. We haven’t surrendered them yet – and we’ll do our best to use them until they can no longer display the proper date.)

I think MacBC is on to something important here. OS X Client can create a hardware market such as Apple has never seen before as every pre-G3 Mac is suddenly outdated (at least as far as running the current OS is concerned once OS X ships).

Still, I’d rather see Apple release an economical Power Mac before January. It could share almost all of its components with the iMac, Blue and White Power Mac G3, and even the PowerBook G3. Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • 350 MHz or faster G3 CPU
  • 64 MB RAM, one memory expansion slot
  • accelerated motherboard video with 8 MB VRAM
  • 10/100 ethernet
  • USB and FireWire ports
  • at least one PCI slot
  • 4 GB or larger IDE hard drive
  • 24x or faster ATAPI CD-ROM

I’m guessing Apple could leverage current designs and parts inventory to offer this for $600-750 in an attractive case and still maintain their usual margin.

But to go a step beyond what MacBC proposes, what if Apple released this econoMac in August with a free upgrade to OS X Client when it ships – instead of waiting until January to ship both the new inexpensive Mac and the new OS?

At a price that’s a reasonable alternative to a 400 MHz daughter card for my old SuperMac (currently $800 and up), a computer that will probably never run OS X Client, an econoMac at under $800 could be a very attractive option.

Update: At the time, we had no idea how far off Mac OS X was. Apple had released Mac OS X Server in March 1999, and we all assumed that the Client version would follow shortly. The Public Beta arrived in September 2000, 16 months after this article was written. The release version, Mac OS X 10.0 Cheetah, didn’t show up until March 2001, almost two years after this was written, and even then it was not ready for prime time. Things got better with OS X 10.1 Puma, a free upgrade for Cheetah users. In January 2002, Apple made OS X 10.1 the default operating system on Macs, making Classic Mac OS 9 optional for the first time.

As for a modular “econoMac” – that would have to wait for the debut of the Mac mini in January 2005. However, some entry-level G3 iMacs were priced as low as US$799, which was a very attractive price for a Macintosh.

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