Erik Ableson 5 minute read
May 14, 2008

Mac Mini Dead?

Can we get over this one? I keep running into more and more articles bemoaning the imminent demise of the Mac Mini. This is getting tired, especially since there's absolutely no reason to kill the Mini. Why not? In it's current incarnation, it's just about perfect. Now it's not necessarily the machine for everyone, but you have to remember what market niche it plays in, hint: it's not the bargain basement-entry level competitor. If that were the market, the Mini would not be tiny, silent and made out of notebook components. The Mini is in the imagination market. It's small enough that you can squeeze it into a car stereo mount, the design permits you to leave it in plain sight in the living room without embarrassment, and all of these places without making any noise.

Something to look at if you think that the Mini is going to be end of lifed, is to look at its competition. There are two current niches where the Mini plays well: the silent PC market and the HTPC (Home Theater PC) market - and there's a lot of overlap in there. The silent PC market is made up of DIY fanatics who will select each component of their machine one by one and build a custom machine that's probably in the minitower size, or the custom PC media PC market where the object is something that resembles a high-end audio component. The two major players that have solutions close to the Mini that I've been able to find are AOpen and Hush.

Good luck finding an AOpen reseller in Europe. I've done the tour of the online resellers in France with none of them run an online store. I did manage to find one in the US with an online store though (myAOpen.com/) where I ran the configurator to something roughly equivalent to the entry level Mac Mini and came up around $830 USD. The Hush machines are targeted directly at the media PC market that you want to put into your living room. However, like the AOpen, they're stupid expensive. The HUSHâ„¢ E1-Mini is a nice little PC tricked out for media work, but about four times the volume of the Mini and current sells for 825 pounds. (yikes! I just looked closer and it's 969 with the VAT). The basic entry level machine in this chassis is the Hush B1 Mini ITX PC which goes for 487 pounds. Prices from A quick tour of the Apple UK store shows the Mac Mini starting at 399 pounds, incl VAT.

When you look at it from this vantage point, the Mini is nicely positioned for this specific market niche. Remember that Apple has never oriented itself to the mass market. It's going there slowly, but not whole hog - it's managing the margins well by keeping to the profitable segments of the market and avoiding the morass of the lowest common denominator where each sale must be subsidized by various spyware bundles to make them viable and still end up costing the seller in high support costs.

The one thing that would push Apple to replace the Mini would be the same reason they replaced the iPod Mini with the iPod Nano. They've designed a better one before anyone else in the market has caught up with their old one. However, there's nothing that would bring any massive new benefits to the Mini without adding more cost for dubious benefit. Apple could replace the internal drive with solid state memory, but at best this might shave 5-6mm off the height for massive additional cost. The only thing that I can see Apple changing about the Mini is to plunge into a stackable design. By expanding on that philosophy and separating the components into a series of stackable platters connected by a vertical PCI bus they could keep the form and spirit and step out ahead of the competition again. This would bring expandability to the "low-end" of the Apple market, but at some additional risk.

Expansion means multiple new items to stock, new SKUs to manage and keep track of in the supply chain, which is a non-trivial exercise. You don't jump in to adding products to the mix unless there's a good business case. The stackable, modular idea has been bounced around by various designers over the years, but the closest I've seen to date that really takes the idea and runs with it is Asus. The Asus approach is wireless connectivity between the modules which strikes me as inefficient (in 2008...in 10 years, I suspect that the line between a module and a "PC" will be awfully fuzzy). Another example that looks interesting, but doesn't go as far as I would go (remembering Steve Jobs' hatred for cables...).

One example and another that are pretty much in line with where I think they could be heading. Something worth noting is that Apple is again playing the design leader in this market space. Look around at the number of add-on peripherals specifically designed to mate and stack with the Mini, from Apple's own Airport Extreme base station, various usb and firewire hubs, and hard disks galore. I would say that this indicates a robust Mini user base that continues to grow in order to justify this level of interest in by aftermarket manufacturers. The Mac Mini is far from dead and if it disappears, it will certainly be replaced with something even more interesting...

Update to add link to a followup article