Santa Tim brings Christmas in March – but is it enough?

David Braue
4 March, 2009
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Those who were concerned that the sidelining of Steve Jobs would kill Apple can rest easy: with its slew of hardware updates, including the much-anticipated Mac mini refresh, the company has more than proved it’s still capable of progressing its product range under the temporary leadership of Tim Cook.

As you will no doubt have already paged through the announcements – the new iMac, Mac Pro, Time Capsule and AirPort Express and long-awaited Mac mini – I will spare you the boredom of running down a checklist their features. Rather, I will consider only the questions of innovation, and what the new products mean for Apple.

First, innovation. We have become accustomed – perhaps too much so – to having Apple wow us with new technologies, innovative products, new bundlings of magic inside cases of shiny aluminium and highly-reflective glass. So when the company releases a bunch of products all at once, we might expect something new to tickle our fancies and make us reach for our wallets.

This is exactly what happened to me in 2007, when I waited for months – and told everybody around me – that I was going to switch to a Mac when Apple updated its iMac. It finally did – and introduced the gorgeous new design we have now – and I bit.

Do these products have that kind of appeal? Yes and no. For all the obsessive hand-wringing and rumour-mongering that we’ve been enduring for the past year, the new Mac mini looks like the previous version, except that it’s faster, has the same NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics as the new MacBooks and new iMacs, has faster FireWire 800 and a SuperDrive.

In other words, it is no longer the features-poor cousin of the iMac line: buying a Mac mini gives you a capable, albeit slower, iMac that’s great for the kids’ rooms or other uses. Yet its $1049 pricetag is still well above that of competing Windows-based systems – and, I suspect, was kept intentionally high to avoid cannibalising the Apple TV. However, its cuteness factor – and the fact that today’s 20-inch monitors cost less than $400 more – make it a compelling desktop deal.

Good, one tick there. But what of the iMac, Apple’s meat-and-potatoes desktop line? Sure, there’s a bit more RAM, faster processors, bigger hard drives and faster graphics – but they are still, fundamentally, the same beautiful desktop machines Apple introduced several years ago. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that; there’s just nothing new about it either.

But what of the other products announced in the flurries of this particular Christmas? Of the 8-core Mac Pro, well, all I can say is start your drooling; yet for all its appeal, the nearly $6000 pricetag is going to send most people running screaming to high-specced Windows machines costing less than half as much. Professional graphics designers, video editors and the like may be able to cost-justify the Mac Pro in terms of the time it will save them, but there’s nothing in the new Mac Pro for the average punter.

Let me not forget the bigger Time Capsule and the faster AirPort Extreme, which can now connect your iMac and your Wii without slowing everything down to the lowest common denominator. Nice, but nothing that hasn’t been seen elsewhere.

Now, to the question of what this all means for Apple.

I’m not saying that Apple’s new products aren’t nice, or that people won’t like them. But people have expectations of Apple which, deservedly or not, seem to include regular metamorphosis of its products and the injection of the occasional life-altering features. And, for all that there is to like in this bunch of products, they are all simply incremental updates to the innovative products Apple released a while ago.

The question, then, is do we need to attenuate those expectations with the realisation that Apple does, in fact, only make computers? Should we consider that these products have already reached the Jobsian goal of design perfection, and that Apple’s computer innovation from here will mainly consist of nudging the specs and prices to hedge wildly fluctuating currencies? Or do we just point to the broad functionality of iLife ’09 and continue arguing that the Whole Package is still a better deal than Windows machines? (it is).

Analysts, who seem so jaded by innovation that nothing short of a flying MacBook might seem to stir them, are already expressing disappointment at the new lineup, as are fans (see here and here among others). Call them ungrateful, but people – and investors – listen seriously to their opinions. And that can’t bode well for Apple.

I have frequently wondered aloud when Apple will get serious about the business market or when it will release a netbook to contend the high-volume, high-value deals for which Wintel rivals are eating its lunch.

Given the lukewarm reaction to this launch, it seems that sooner may be better than later: business users don’t complain about design and don’t expect mind-blowing innovation with every breath. They only want a computer that works, and keeps working thanks to a company that stands behind them. And they’ll pay through the nose for it.

Santa Tim may have brought us some nice shiny playthings, and I for one have some uses for a Mac mini or two when I find the cash. But is there anything fundamentally compelling that will win over customers who were on the fence before, or help Apple explode into important new markets? Not necessarily.

What do you think? Is the market being too harsh on Apple? Were you waiting for something else? Share your thoughts in the AMW Forums.

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