Is this Apple a surprise to anyone?

So, Apple unveiled its new Imac today. (I’m sick of improper capitalization. We speak English, not C++.) To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, it has a bigger screen. And I’m sure it’s not too surprising that they crammed everything into the unit next to the screen. It’s the next logical step, after the lamp-shaped Imac.

So how’s it gonna do?I think it has potential. Do people really want laptops because they can carry them everywhere they go, or do they want laptops because they can move them about the house freely and don’t have to have a dedicated “computer room”?

I suspect to most people, the latter is more important. Most people have better things to do with their lives than surf the ‘net at Starbucks or Panera Bread.

This new Imac can go on a small desk in a study or spare bedroom and not take over an entire wall the way computers have been doing since the late 1970s. As long as there’s a way to add some memory, and there are ports for people to plug in their digital cameras and their portable MP3 players and a printer, they’ll be happy.

Who knows, maybe demand for wireless printers will increase too.

Some analysts have said they don’t think all-in-one is the slam dunk it was in 1998. I agree it isn’t, but small is a slam dunk. Witness the explosive popularity of cube PCs. Yes, it flopped for Apple, but Apple’s cubes lacked the flexibility, there was too much confusion about their expandability and what exactly they were compatibile with–I designed a Mac network for a client right around the time the Cube was released, but the rumor was it would only work with Apple monitors. That alone killed the deal. They bought G4 towers instead, which would work with NEC and Viewsonic monitors.

But the other problem with the Cube was the price. Yes, it was cheaper than a G4 tower. But the price difference wasn’t enough to make people willing to take a chance on it. And besides, if it was cheapness you wanted, there were at least four companies willing to sell you a PC for half the price of a Cube. Emachines would even sell you a PC for half the price of an Imac.

And that’s the biggest problem I see with this new Imac: price. $1299 gets you in the game. Ten years ago, that was cheap. But this isn’t 1994. Emachines didn’t exist in 1994, and while a Mac would cost you more than a Packard Bell, there wasn’t much price difference between a Mac and a Compaq or an IBM. Compaq or IBM usually had one model that sold for a hundred or two less than the cheapest Apple, and Apple usually wouldn’t give you quite as much CPU speed or quite as much disk space, but if you walked into the store with $1500 in your pocket, which was pretty much the selling price of an average PC, you could walk out with a Mac just as easily as you could walk out with something that ran Windows.

What will Dell give you today for $800? 2.8 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB hard drive, CD burner, printer, 17-inch monitor, and some software.

For the same money, Apple gives you 1.25 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB HD, CD burner, and a 17-inch display. No printer.

For $1,299, the price of the new Imac, Dell gives you twice the CPU power and twice the memory. Just not as much wow factor.

Yes, I know the Pentium 4 is a horribly inefficient processor but the design does scale surprisingly well, and efficiency alone won’t make up a 1.6 GHz speed deficit. Besides, if you’re willing to spend four figures, you can get an AMD Opteron. Just not from Dell.

Will this Imac sell? Yes. Will it do much to increase Apple’s 2.2 percent market share? I doubt it. The main audience is going to be people with aging CRT-based Imacs who’ve been holding out for something with a G5 in it. They’ll buy it, find it’s a lot faster than their old one and takes up less space. Of course they’ll like it. But it’s still the Amiga problem. The Amiga didn’t take over the market because it it only sold 6 million units. The Amiga was a commercial failure because those 6 million units sold to 1.5 million people.

People will ooh and ah over how little space this new Imac takes and how convenient its wireless keyboards are. But most of them will buy a Dell because it’s faster. Or cheaper. Or both. Maybe they’ll complain about how much less convenient it is, but it’s just as likely they’ll forget about it.

It happened with the first Imac and it happened with the Cube and it happened with the dual G4 and it happened with the G5. Who are we kidding? To some extent, it’s been happening since 1983 when the Lisa came out. People see the machine and it knocks their socks off until they see the price tag. The classes buy it anyway, while the masses figure out how to get by with something cheaper.

History is going to repeat itself one other way too. Somewhere in the Far East, I guarantee you a no-name maker of whitebox PCs is designing a box that puts the brains of the outfit behind the LCD, just like this Imac. Maybe the thought didn’t occur to the designer until this week. Maybe the designer has been working on it for months already.

It will look a lot like this new Imac, only it will have an AMD or Intel processor in it, and it will run Windows. It might be three months before we see it. It might even be six. But it will appear, and it will be priced under $1,000.

It will sell. And within another six months, everyone will be doing it. This new form factor may not come to dominate the market, but it won’t take much for it to outsell this new Imac. A small percentage of 97.8 percent is likely to be a lot bigger than even a large percentage of 2.2 percent. Compared to the new Imac, these clones will look like a runaway success.

And Mac fanatics will be screaming about another Apple innovation stolen by someone else.

3 thoughts on “Is this Apple a surprise to anyone?

  • September 1, 2004 at 8:34 am
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    When I saw the announcement, I immediately thought of the Gateway Connected Touchpad. Unfortunately, that had a slow Transmeta Crusoe processor, wireless networking wasn’t available, and USB was still pretty flakey. I can’t see where this is terribly original, but your observation is correct. The 2.2 percent who buy Mac will get one of these, and hand down their old Mac to the kids, or write it off on their taxes, or something similar. And the clone makers will have a field day copying it, now that it’s trendy and fashionable (and dare I say, "Hip"?)

  • September 2, 2004 at 8:37 am
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    History is going to repeat itself one other way too. Somewhere in the Far East, I guarantee you a no-name maker of whitebox PCs is designing a box that puts the brains of the outfit behind the LCD, just like this Imac.

    Gateway has been doing something like this for several years now with their Profile series of desktops, but I noticed they’re not priced any better than the iMac. Then there’s Sony with their V series and W series, but those cost even more. If this is the competition, I’d just as soon have the Apple if I were in the market for such things. (my next computer purchase will be a laptop, so I’m hoping they’ll rev. the iBooks – esp. the screens, which are a bit dim & washed-out compared to good quality Sony models)

  • September 2, 2004 at 3:53 pm
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    Apple’s proprietary hardware is always more expensive than PC’s built with commodity hardware. What Apple has is a niche market. They appeal because of the sexy design, the usability, and the fact that stuff "just works." Now clearly Apple is trying to increase the size of their niche market. They’ve been successful with the iPod and iTunes. Now they are trying to market the new iMac to Windows users who already own and love their iPod. On their front page it says, "From the Creators of iPod…The new iMac G5." Sure most people are probably going to buy a Dell or whatever. But there is a group of people who are willing to pay a bit more for the Apple image, design, and usability. And 64-bit computing. 🙂

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