Making a Mac mini (and Pro) Pitch in an iMac/MacBook World

Yes, I understand that Apple’s laptop sales are radically eclipsing desktop sales. And yes, I will completely acknowledge that Apple really would prefer to design computers around a $1,500 average selling price, rather than ones for $500 or $600.

But let’s talk for a moment about the Mac mini. Follow the clues from Apple and it’s apparent that the company doesn’t like this product: there are constant leaks that it’s on the verge of discontinuation, and little hints that the company’s customer base doesn’t want a machine like it. Then there was yesterday’s Mac press event: the Mac mini was upgraded with a 39% performance boost, but Steve Jobs never even mentioned it, and you won’t see anything about it in the QuickTime video of the conference. Put another way, the $599 low-end computer in the Mac family gets less respect from Apple than the $79 low-end iPod shuffle. Odd, right?

Thinking back to the Mac mini’s introduction, it was obvious back in early 2005 that Apple created the machine to satisfy an external demand rather than its own internal goals. People kept asking Apple, explained Jobs, why it didn’t offer a $500 computer, especially for potential switchers. So it came up with the Mac mini, and provided a low-cost entry point for people who were on the fence about becoming Mac users. No keyboard. No mouse. No monitor. Buy it, carry it home in a lunchbox-sized box, connect it to the stuff you have already, and go Mac. Simple. But Apple doesn’t like that. It apparently wants to sell you a new monitor, keyboard, and mouse every time you buy a computer, and its laptop sales are predicated on such bundles.

From my perspective, and no matter what Apple’s sales charts may or may not say, the little Mac mini experiment has worked—perhaps better than Apple even realizes. The low price point doesn’t just sell Mac minis; it brings cost-conscious customers to Apple’s web site and stores, where they may—or may not—make the decision to buy something more expensive. The Mac mini customer may well walk out with an iMac. Or a MacBook.

Yet if a customer buys the Mac mini, something else invariably happens later: he or she goes back and buys more Apple stuff. The old PC monitor gets replaced with a shiny new Cinema Display. An extra backup hard drive is added on. Or the beat up keyboard and mouse get swapped for nicer Mac versions. If Apple wins this customer with a low-priced mchine, gently teaching him or her the value of paying a bit more for Apple’s products, the customer eventually comes back. If Apple doesn’t have the low-priced machine, sale 1 never happens, and neither do sales 2, 3, and 4.

I’ll provide a quick example. After literally raising me on the Mac, my dad became a PC user as a result of Apple’s “bad period.” My mom gets dad’s hand-me-down computers, so she was a PC user too, and had problem after problem getting simple things to work on her PC. I bought mom a Mac mini—the ideal gift Mac—and suddenly, her computer problems basically stopped. She could video conference (and got an iSight). It all “just worked.” So dad got jealous and bought a Power Mac. Not an iMac, but an expensive, top-of-line machine. You get the idea. I can say with certainty that none of this would have happened if there wasn’t a Mac mini in Apple’s lineup.

This isn’t the only happy Mac mini story I could tell you. Mine has served as a very reliable, if not particularly fast emergency Mac when our Apple laptops have developed (regrettably too many) problems, as laptops unfortunately tend to do. The mini has gone from room to room of my house, into two offices, a kitchen, and temporarily a living room during the time I’ve had it, connecting to an old PC monitor, two different Cinema Displays, and even an HDTV or two. I’ve been using it for the last two weeks, and as my mom found, it just works.

Apple may not like the Mac mini. It may not understand why it needs to continue producing such a machine, or publicizing its upgrades, or even telling people that it offers a computer for only $599—a slightly sore point for me, given how smart the $499 initial price was. But to me, and to many others, focusing too much attention on $1199 machines is not a winning strategy in the PC business. Like it or not, average people want options, and even if they eventually gravitate towards the iMac, they want to know that the options start at a price that won’t hurt that much.

With all of that said, I have to concede that I spend more time dreaming about mid-range and high-end Apple desktop machines than I do thinking about Mac minis. I am, and possibly always will be, a two-computer person—I want a powerful desktop machine and a highly portable notebook computer, and I need to have both in case one has a problem. My ideal solution, and what others tell me they want as well, would be something smaller than the Mac Pro; if Apple was selling a powerful (but more reasonably priced) Intel version of the G4 Cube right now, I’d buy it in a heartbeat and hook it up to my Cinema Display. Since that’s not happening, I’m waiting on a redesigned Mac Pro, though I’m getting the sense that Apple isn’t as concerned about allocating its industrial designers (or other energies) to the high- or low-end markets these days. The new iMacs are nice, but they’re not what I need, and while the Mac mini is a great backup machine, I need more horsepower. And I’m willing to pay for it.

What about you, readers? Are you Mac mini, iMac, Mac Pro, Apple notebook, or non-Apple computer users? What would it take to get you to buy a new Mac?