Mac Musings

Think Choices

Daniel Knight - 2000.02.09 -

Once upon a time there was one Macintosh. It came with 128 KB of memory and had no upgrade path.

That was January 1984. The first Mac was replaced by the Fat Mac in September 1984. It came with four times the memory, a whopping 512 KB with no upgrade path.

This model was replaced by the Mac Plus in January 1986. The first post-Jobs Macintosh had 1 MB of memory - but it could be upgraded to a mind-boggling (for 1986) 4 MB.

Think Choices

For the first time, Apple had two Macs at the same time, and in April 1986 it replaced the Fat Mac with the 512Ke. This was pretty much the same machine, but it had the same double-sided 800K floppy drive as the Plus, although it did not have a SCSI port.

To move further from the Jobsian one-model ideal, Apple introduced the Mac II and SE in March 1987, giving the consumer three different computers to choose from.

Too Many Choices

Ten years later, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, it was virtually impossible to keep track of all the models. There were PowerBooks, Power Macs, Performas, and LCs. Sometimes the same model was available under three different names - and the Performa version might have several different model numbers to further confuse matters.

Steve fixed all that. There are no more Performas. There are no more LCs. There are four product lines, each with one to three different models: iMac (3), iBook (1), Power Mac (3), and PowerBook (2). Not counting different colors, that's exactly nine choices.

Too Few Choices

But has Apple gone too far in simplifying the line? After all, their ad slogan is Think Different, yet the consumer is required to do that different thinking from a relatively restricted line of models.

Worse, if you want any choice at all about monitor size, you are restricted to the powerful and pricey Power Mac G4 or adding an external monitor to an iMac DV (and that monitor will only mirror what's on the internal iMac screen).

What of the customer who would be perfectly happy with a 350 MHz G3 but needs 1152 x 870 or higher output on their monitor? The only option is the Power Mac G4/350, since the iMac DV won't go beyond 1024 x 768 on either the internal or an external screen.

Don't need AGP video, DVD, FireWire, PCI expansion slots, or drive bays? Sorry, Apple doesn't think that different.

Need a couple more PCI expansion slots, multiple processors, and extra front-accessible drive bays? Sorry, Apple doesn't think that different, either.

Want a lightweight computer for field use, something in the 4-5 pound range? Or a PowerBook with an SXGA (1280 x 1024) screen? You'll have to learn Windows, because Apple is still ignoring those needs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the current Apple lineup. Each and every one of them is a wonderful computer - but Apple has some holes in their product line.

The Solution

I've suggested it before, and I'm sure I'll suggest it again. Apple needs to make more models.

The Tiny iMac. I think I've been beating this horse since before the iMac even shipped. All Apple has to do is repackage the iMac DV without an internal monitor and remove the restrictions which limit video to 1024 x 768. They wouldn't call it an iMac, but the 400 MHz G3 would make it a welcome upgrade for a lot of Performa and LC owner and an inexpensive way for Wintel folk to join the Mac community. This compact unit could offer iMovie and speed with very limited expansion at a very nice price.

The econoMac. Take the Power Mac G4, drop in a less expensive G3 processor, and Apple could probably shave $300 off the retail price while leaving the AGP video card in place. Make CD-ROM standard and DVD with a decoder card or an extra cost option, and maybe take another $50 off the price. (That's based on the difference between G3 and G4 upgrades at the same MHz rating.) Anyone for a Power Mac G3/350 at $1,249 - one that becomes a Sawtooth G4 just by replacing the CPU? Best of all, Apple could make this one just by replacing the CPU and DVD on the current G4.

The megaMac. Take the Power Mac G4, make it three inches taller, add two more PCI slots and two more front-accessible drive bays (even if two of them are 3.5" only) and you've got the Power Mac video professionals have been after since Apple discontinued the six-slot Power Mac 9600 in November 1997. This may be a somewhat limited market, but they are (or were) avid Mac fans. Instead of having them scrounge up used Macs that meet their needs, Apple could sell them new computers.

The Light PowerBook. In the Wintel world, you can get 4-5 pound laptops only one inch thick. They're hot. In the Mac world, you can choose a 5.8 pound PowerBook G3 or 6.6 pound iBook. They're great computers, but big and heavy.

The Mega PowerBook. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would replace his desktop Mac with a PowerBook if only one offered a 1152 x 870 or larger screen. We need that much space to work efficiently, whether designing web pages, writing, working in Photoshop, designing books, surfing the web, or even playing some games. We find 1024 x 768 very constricting. We'd gladly haul around a 6-7 pound PowerBook to have the big screen we need.

Choosing Different

I've been a Mac user since 1986. I've seen the times of too few models, followed by too many, and now back to too few.

If Apple is serious about increasing market share, they need to create new models that leverage their current designs, such as the "tiny iMac" and "econoMac" - computers that don't depend on the scarce and costly G4 processor.

Best of all, Apple has learned to outsource production, so they don't need to build new factories.

If AppleDesigns them, the buyers will come.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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