Macworld Expo hits from Apple

by Michael Alderete on 1/12/2005

Like a lot of other Mac aficionados, I followed yesterday’s announcements by Apple quite closely. A lot of people are writing about them, so I’m just going to jot down a couple of thoughts I’ve had that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Mac miniBut first: I think the Mac mini is a grand-slam; I expect Apple to sell a million units a quarter through the rest of this year (assuming they can make that many), with only a modest impact (cannibalization) of sales of existing products. Most of these will be to first-time Mac owners. The price point and the packaging are both trying to suggest that the Mac mini is an impulse buy (even if the idea of switching platforms on an impulse is ridiculous).

My one surprise and concern is that the unit is so small. Normally a good thing, but small means it’s using more expensive laptop-style components (photos on the Mac mini Design page seem to confirm this). Making the device a little bigger, say the size of a dictionary, would have allowed them to use full-size hard disk and optical drives, and a less miniaturized logic board, which I think would have taken $50 off the manufacturing cost, without making the device unattractive. Seems like that $50 could have been a nice extra discount, or a nice extra profit.

On the other hand, a switcher doesn’t have to find room for the Mac mini at its current size; finding a spot on your desk, or even setting atop an existing beige box, should be child’s play. That might turn out to be important.

iPod shuffleI think the iPod shuffle is also a home run product.

There are already people — analysts, competitors, and other “experts” — who are already comparing it to other products, and describing its flaws. And there are flaws, the iPod shuffle will not please everyone. But the comparisons and complaints of flaws miss the point. For the people it works for, and there are a lot of them, it is a nearly perfect device. Stupendous design, great sound, great size, great battery life, great price point, and more-than-good enough controls.

Two things I haven’t read elsewhere about the iPod shuffle. First, don’t underestimate the value of having rechargeable batteries. They allow you to always leave the house with a full charge in the unit. With the standard batteries most flash players use, because they cost money and are toxic waste when spent, you want to eke out the last remaining ergs of juice before disposing of them. With the Otis flash player I inherited from Rochelle when she got her iPod mini, I ran out of batteries in the middle of my commute — when I cannot change them, because I’m driving — several times. Incredibly aggravating. Rechargables, while they take time to recharge (instead of an instant swap with disposables), let you juice up when you’ve still got half a charge in the unit, so you can be confident it’s not going to die unexpectedly on you.

Second, and far more important, comparing the iPod shuffle to other devices with the same capacity or at the same price point, or complaining about the lack of a screen, is leaving out a major part of the story. The unit itself is only half the experience. The other half is iTunes, the software which runs on your desktop computer to push audio onto the device. And iTunes stands head and shoulders (and full torso) above its competitors, both in general use, as well as providing ways to work with the lack of a screen on the iPod shuffle itself:

iTunes Autofill

iTunes lets you manage the contents of your iPod shuffle, in such a way that not having a screen is not a major liability for most uses of a music player.

Personally, I think Steve Jobs should have sent the CEOs and marketing executives of Apple’s competitors some clean underwear, set to arrive the morning of his keynote. They may not admit it in public, but I know they needed it.

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