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Should I be offended?

There’s a lot of buzz in the news this week about the Mac Mini. And it deserves a lot of buzz. It’s way cool. There’s also an irresistible urge to compare it to the (in)famous Cube. Most of the comparisons are somewhat unflattering to the Cube, and some Apple reps bristled at the suggestion, as if Cube was a four-letter word. As a Cube owner, should I be offended?

Actually, my Cube is retired now. I replaced it about 6 months ago with a Power Book, which provided a significant capacity and performance boost. At home, it’s hooked up to the same full-size keyboard, mouse, and 17″ display I used with the Cube, so it feels just like any other desktop Mac. And when I need computing away from home, I just unplug a few cables and take it with me. (It would be nice if Apple still sold docking stations). But for a few years, the Cube was good to me. In fact, it was the first real Macintosh I purchased for my own use. Prior to that, my home computer was a Motorola Starmax, a Macintosh clone manufactured in that brief window when Apple allowed other manufacturers to license the Mac OS.

A lot of the recent Cube-bashing is based on its poor price/performance in comparison to the Mini. But that’s really not a fair comparison. Any computer manufactured 4-5 years ago looks pathetic when compared to today’s models. At the time it was introduced, it was a good value. Admittedly, it was a marketing flop. I’m not sure why. Of course, all computers have a fairly short marketing life-cycle; within a couple of years, almost any model has been superseded. I assume that if the Cube had been more popular, Apple would have continued to introduce faster, better, cheaper versions of it. In fact, some people might claim that they have just done that, but the folks at Apple apparently don’t like hearing that.

Granted, I’m not a marketing expert, but I can’t help wondering if Apple is making a mistake with the Mini. Sure, it’s way cool, but who’s really going to buy it? By selling it without keyboard, mouse, or monitor, they’re obviously targeting PC owners who might be ready to give up the pain of Windows. But is a Mini enough computer for someone like that? Most people like to trade up, even if they don’t really need the capacity, and the Mini might be a little underpowered for somebody seeking his next computer.

Another possible market segment might be first-time buyers, and the $500 price tag might look attractive to them at first glance. But, for those folks, what does that $500 computer cost by the time they get it home? There are lots of bargain monitors available on the market, but a neophyte might not know where to look. When I went wandering through Apple’s website looking for a link to my 17″ flat-screen, I found that they don’t sell it any more. The least expensive monitor Apple sells is the 20-inch Cinema display for $999. Imagine the reaction of an inexperienced buyer lured into an Apple store by the Mini’s $500 price tag, when he finds out that it’s really going to cost him $1500 to walk out of the store with a usable system.

It’s quite possible that, in more ways than one, the Mini really is just a reincarnation of the Cube. If Apple really wants to compete on a price basis, they need to make it easy for people to buy less expensive monitors.

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