Here Comes The cMac

Apple is going to introduce a Mac which will cost less than $500 soon.

For the moment, let’s call it the cMac, as in Cheap Mac.

It certainly is less expensive, but not quite as cheap as you might initially think.

First, that $499 price tag is without monitor. Top it up with a 17-inch LCD, and $800 will be more like it.

Second, what Apple will be selling is essentially a repackaged last-generation iMac: 1.25GHz G4 processor, 256Mb RAM, 40 or 80Gb hard drive. No doubt the new wrapping will look really neat, but this is the equivalent of AMD selling a cool-looking Athlon XP 2000+ system.

For those not so interested in looks, Dell currently has a 2.8Ghz Prescott box with 512Mb RAM and a 40Gb hard drive for $499 after a rebate. While the G4 does considerably more per clock cycle than a Prescott, there’s no doubt the Dell system would trounce the cheapMac in performance.

However, for those who are potentially interested in buying one, this argument is about as impotent as telling your wife that Handbag A holds a lot more than Handbag B when Handbag B matches one of her outfits.

That’s essentially what cheapMac is meant to be, a matching accessory for an iPod.

I had my first encounter with an iPod over Christmas. I guess I’m old-fashioned and PCish, but talk about a touchy-feely device! If you want to do things like move around the menus or increase the volume, you don’t click or press something. Instead, you have to gently caress the damn thing, right around and just outside the nipple center button, and you have to stroke it just right before it responds.

While I don’t doubt most of you have incessantly practiced this skill in a much different field of human endeavor, I personally feel a little perverted having to feel up my computer equipment to get it to do what I want.

And that illustrates the real difference between PC and Mac users. A Mac-type would find stroking an extraordinarily human and elegant feature reflecting in perfect harmony their gentle, sensitive (and, it goes without saying superior) natures.

It’s two completely different mindsets that have much different priorities and values. PC vs. Mac is much like red state versus blue state, Bud Light versus Chablis, Big Mac versus Brie, pickup versus Volvo.

For PCers, a computer is a tool, an animated screwdriver. You don’t have an “experience” with a screwdriver. It either works well or it doesn’t. If it does, you like it; if it doesn’t, you don’t. You don’t admire its aesthetic features, or find one a reflection of your good taste, or a symbol that proves you’re an {fill in the blanks: admirable, special, creative, artistic} person.

For Macsters, it’s just the opposite. The object is an extension of themselves just as much as their clothing or interior decoration, it’s a part of them in a way a PC never is for a PCer.

One might think case modders or overclockers in general might be more prone to the Mac outlook, but that’s not really so. What such people are proud of is not mere ownership of the equipment, but what they’ve done to it to make it what it is. It’s a much more hands-on sense of accomplishment: what has been done rather than what it was out of the box.

For such people, telling them that a Dell is cheaper and better is like telling them that Old Navy overalls are cheaper and last longer than Dolce & Gabbana jeans. When you do that, what they hear is, “Be a common pig like the rest of us” when the whole point of the purchase is to prove the opposite.

If this is incomprehensible to you, well, that’s why you own a PC and not a Mac.

But if this description sounds like someone you know who is already a Mac user, or is prone to becoming one, this is why the standard arguments for buying a PC falls on deaf ears. You’re thinking screwdriver; they’re thinking fashion outfit.

The Test

There’s certainly a fairly sizable chunk of the population who will pay more for design and mystique, certainly a bigger group than those who own Macs today.

This is because Macs have generally cost far more in sheer dollars than PCs. It’s one thing to pay $70 rather than $20 for a pair of designer jeans; it’s another to pay $1,300 rather than $700 for a designer computer.

On the other hand, a very large proportion of iPod users have been happy to pay a premium for their designer MP3 player. The idea behind the cheapMac is to see if that much larger group of people will buy Macs too if the price/performance differential goes from a whole lot more to just a lot more.

After all, this cheap Mac is probably the rough equivalent of a Palomino-era Athlon XP box, which should be OK enough for little computer use, and transferring songs to your iPod isn’t exactly stretching the computing envelope.

For eons, Macsters have said that legions of PCers would abandon PCs and adapt Macs the day Macs became even vaguely price-competitive. Now we’ll find out if that is so.

Personally, we don’t think that will be the case, at least not soon. We think the cMac will have about the same effect on Apple as the original iMac. That boosted Apple’s worldwide marketshare from a sub-3% to almost 5% a couple quarters after introduction.

Eventually, iMac sales faded. We suspect that won’t be true for the cMac. If the initial incarnation is a bit underpowered for lightweight computing, future generations of cMacs will remedy that.

The stiffest competition the cMac faces may well not be from PCs, but from XBox2s and Playstation 3s. The PC/Mac division may fade into a bigger war defined as IBM vs. Intel, little box vs. big box. (It will be interesting to see how all these powered-by-IBM boxes play together in the next few years.)

What is most interesting about the cheapMac are some underlying reasons why it shows up now, and not before. Now that the Era of Speed has gone on at least hiatus, and there’s consensus that computers are fast enough for the mundane, lightweight activities most people use them for, the cheapMac is yet another early indicator (along with XBox2 and Playstation 3) of what you get when Speed Doesn’t Count (much) any more.

What happens is that other values get a chance to become more important, and here, it’s a combination of cheap but-good-enough making more fashionable (and smaller) design more affordable.

We will see more of this in the years ahead.

P.S.: To The Nuts-and-Bolters

Some of you may be wondering, “But can you overclock it?”

Well, yes, unless it’s a sealed box, it’s very likely that you can. There is such a thing as Mac overclocking. It’s nowhere nearly as prevalent as PC overclocking, but it does exist. A good place to start looking if you’re interested is here, though typical overclocks tend to be only 10-20% and tend to be “take what the machine gives you.”