Apple's mini big idea

Apple's new Mac might come in a tiny case, but it's the start of something big - if the company does everything right

Apple has made some questionable decisions in its life, but it's never been short of chutzpah. At first glance, Apple's Mac mini looks like a laptop without battery, keyboard or screen. That's because it is -- and who else would dare to sell such a thing, let alone with so much razzmatazz? Out of the box, it's a useless dismembered torso. But then, what use is a cuckoo's egg?

Apple has taken a leaf out of the same marketing book used by American Biblical creationists. They regard science -- especially evolution -- with the same baleful malevolence many afford Microsoft. But after years trying and failing to get their agenda accepted, they've switched tactics: now, they're concentrating on an equally wacky idea called Intelligent Design. That looks enough like science to get into school biology lessons, or so they hope: once it's there, they say, it'll be a wedge that they can start to use to break apart the rest of the scientific establishment.

That's what the Mac mini is: a wedge. It's less expensive than an iPod Photo and falls well within many people's discretionary budget. It looks gorgeous, so nobody's going to get into trouble for bringing one home. When people decide to upgrade their old PCs, it's going to take very little persuasion for them to give the Mac a go. As the fundamentalists know, one bite of an Apple changes everything. The main difference with the Mac is that it really does work better than the alternative. You can find ZDNet's preview of the Mac mini here.

Apple fanatics have been calling for a device like the Mac mini for years now, but it's taken the iPod to convince the company that the time is right. Yes, you can assume that your target market has got a lot of digital infrastructure at home: monitor, keyboard, broadband are already in the nest. Yes, you can repackage mature technology and it'll still be more than powerful enough to do the job. Apple understands the principle that products work best when matched to their environment, and that's a key insight for profitability.

There are three important questions that have to be answered before Apple can pronounce the Mac mini a success: does it perform to expectations, can enough be made and will it substantially increase the OS X user base? It'll take all three to go right before that wedge can be used to break into the greater challenge, the business desktop market. On this sort of confident form, Apple seems up to the task.

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