Technology

The Mac Mini platform

So it took me some time to figure out what the Mac mini is about. Not so much what it is but what it’s impact in the long run may be and why and how it matters.

Size matters

My first thought, when I read the specs, was about the size of the device. My Shuttle computer, is 6 inches high by 8 inches wide and 12 inches long (yes, I had to pull out the ruler on that one). By comparison, the Mac mini comes in at 6.5 inches square and 2 inches high. Something tells me that there is more to the dimensions that pure aesthetic design. For comparison’s sake, I decided to take a quick look at my entertainment center: 2 inches happens to be about the height of my VCR (yes, I still have one) and my DVD player is taller than that.

I then decided to look around the web. Tivo 2 boxes come in at over 3 inches in height; The smallest Windows Media Center edition machine (from Hush Technology) comes in at 3.9 inches in height. In fact, I could find very few items that would come in at the same size. Somehow, I don’t think it’s a total coincidence or has much to do with design.

It seems to me that the play here is for the living room and not just the living room but right there under the TV. I would not be surprised if a future version comes in slightly larger but with things like a TV tuner built in or what not.

But the entertainment center is just the first place where a Mac mini would fit. It seems perfect for a car too. Apple has been courting a lot of car companies about integration with the iPod. What if the play is larger than that? Somehow I don’t think BMW, Mini Cooper, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Nissan, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari are only interested in the iPod. What if Apple has showed them something more? Something like a Mac mini as in-car entertainment center. The power input seems to be external to the mini itself, something that not only save space but is also unnecessary if you already have a power converter (as cars do).

Since Apple is currently playing the consumer card (hence the iPod strategy), why not take it all the way. The size seems to point to more than just the desk (so we can already assume the entertainment center). The car partnerships have one thing in common: generally higher end (luxury) cars. These are the types of cars that usually sport in-car entertainment centers (DVD player, television, GPS navigation, integration with cell-phone, etc…) so it seems that it’s a solid high end consumer market.

Price point

Which makes the price point all the more interesting. It’s a small computer so you’d expect to pay a premium but no. Apple has decided that this is their new entry point price, selling the machine at under $500. Why? Well, for starters, it makes it easy to go after the switcher market (they have monitors, keyboards, mouse, etc… already) so Apple plans to capture people that have bought iPods (or lust after one) and get them to check out the Mac. Cool… and obvious.

Less obvious, however, is the price to retailers. If you think that the average price on an in-car multimedia is around $500-800, then it starts to makes sense. About $400 for the machine, throw in another $150-200 for LCD screens and GPS navigation and you’ve got a good car system. All it needs is an interface.

The Interface Conundrum

So the iPod is nice but its interface is very text-centric, a bad thing if you’re sitting across a room. However, it’s simple and Apple has learned a lot about how consumer use electronic devices in the process. They are now learning about the mobile phone market, observing through their partnership with Motorola. With all this experience, they’re refining. I remember talking to the WebTV management team when they were getting started. One thing that always stuck with me was that they had all worked for Apple at one time and that they had all worked on set-top boxes. It means that, for almost a decade now, Apple has been playing around with the concept of entertainment centers.

The simplicity of the iPod interface was largely due to the fact that it was designed outside of Apple. However, the simplicity lesson may be one they learned. Look at the Shuffle and realize that they have seen how to “simplify” interfaces to the point where they become ubiquitous.

Ubiquitous computing or Apple as consumer electronic giant

Ubiquitous computing has long been a dream but Apple may be working on it. Notice how they tend to look at the PC world: ugly boxes, bad design, etc… The only company that seems to scare them a little is Sony. Why Sony?

Well, because Sony is a consumer electronic giant and that’s where Apple wants to play. At the end of the day, Steve Jobs realizes that the days of Apple as a computer company are numbered. However, the company can reinvent itself as a consumer electronics giant.

This is where the mini goes. It’s not really a computer but it may be the second front in the battle for consumer electronic supremacy.

I can already hear nay-sayers going “But Steve always says that there is no play for Video…”

If that’s truly the case, explain the work on Quicktime? Explain why the company continues to invest in products like iLife and Final Cut (and its express version)?

The truth is that up until last week, Steve Jobs was on the record poo-pooing the flash MP3 player market (that is, until he introduced an Apple branded one.)

At the end of the day, what he’s building with the mini is a platform, not just offering a new product.

Apple vs. Microsoft

When talking about Apple, the elephant in the room is always Microsoft. This is where it gets interesting. Apple and Microsoft are going after the same market but looking at it from different standpoint. In a way, Apple is the revolutionary storming the castle, offering a view of the world that is shaped around creating and sharing digital content (hence the iLife products and their higher end counterparts). Microsoft is about receiving content that has been created by others (hence the Windows environment, where the focus is on being able to record television, buy music, etc…) That’s the commonly expressed view, anyway.

However, upon closer inspection, Apple is trying to lock more down. Their strategy is an end-to-end one: we have the software, the music store, and the devices to play the music on. Microsoft is more egalitarian in its approach: we build the environment, what people do with it is up to them and we hope some good software will help us sell more.

Both companies offer DRM but with a difference. Apple keeps its DRM to itself. Microsoft sees their DRM offerings as respecting boundaries. I’m not sure I fully buy into the Microsoft argument or the Apple one but I know that I will be writing more on all this soon.

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