Apple’s Advantage

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For years, Apple’s percentage of the worldwide computer market remained mired in the single digits. Conventional wisdom held that the high price of Macs was responsible for the small market share. But that argument has always been debatable, and with the introduction of the Mac mini, it has lost much of its remaining oomph.

However, the Mac mini’s success won’t depend on its low price alone. While the $499 price tag is a great way to draw the attention of potential Mac buyers, converting those people into actual Mac users would be pretty hard if it weren’t for a major change in the way we use our computers today.

Media Machines

Apple started using the phrase digital hub a few years ago, because Steve Jobs and company realized that digital media were going to be at the heart of why people used their computers, especially in the home.

Apple’s incredible success with the iPod and the iTunes Music Store has borne out the wisdom of that strategy. But while digital music is a major part of Apple’s future, it isn’t the only big trend out there that’s breaking in the Mac mini’s favor.

Over the past few years, digital photography has gone from oddball to mainstream. Most computer fans have bought digital cameras, and now even the computer-shy are buying them in record numbers.

Throughout this transition, Apple has been right there, ready to help. iLife comes free with every new Mac, so even the $499 Mac mini comes with a full suite of top-notch digital media software. iLife’s apps are all easier to use than anything available for Windows, so when it comes to the digital stuff people really care about, Apple isn’t playing catch-up with Windows. It’s years ahead.

Priority Formats

As you may have guessed by our two successive cover stories on the subject, everyone here at Macworld thinks that the Mac mini could be huge for Apple (see “Inside the Mac Mini” to find out what makes it tick, and don’t miss our review of the mini ). It’s not just the most important Apple product to be introduced since the iPod; it’s the most important Mac to be introduced since the original iMac.

In the past, many people scorned the Mac because they thought that their home computer had to replicate the machine they had at work. If a Mac couldn’t run the database they used at the office, connect to their company’s Exchange mail system, or surmount any of a zillion other compatibility hurdles, buying one for their homes didn’t make sense.

But consider what people use their home computers for these days: Safari’s got Web browsing covered, and if that doesn’t suit your tastes, there’s always Firefox or OmniWeb. Mail is a simple, fully functional mail program. And Microsoft Office for the Mac lets you work with any Word, Excel, or PowerPoint files.

But the most important file formats for today’s home computer users aren’t .doc or .xls: They’re MP3 and JPEG. And which company is the leader when it comes to giving people easy access to and control over their music and pictures? The same company that’ll now sell you a $499 computer—or, rather, a $499 digital media appliance. (For more on how the Mac mini compares to a similarly priced PC, see Dan Frakes’s look at the Mac mini-Dell PC price war.)

A Computerized Appliance

The Mac’s special chance for success really hit me a few weeks ago, while I was visiting some friends—PC users at home and at work.

Soon after my arrival, they began asking me about the Mac mini. One of them had used a friend’s Mac to build a book in iPhoto and had been very impressed. So they’d thought about the number of digital photos they’d taken since their young daughter’s birth, and about how easy it had been to use the friend’s Mac to manipulate and organize those photos, and to create books, slide shows, and more.

The Mac mini’s price may have spurred their interest in a Mac, but what really made the Mac a contender for them was a change in how they viewed it: not as a PC, for working with word processors and databases, but as an appliance for managing all their digital photos and music.

I think this shift, more than anything else, will give Apple an advantage over its PC competition. Because while Microsoft is the big name in PCs, what company has the hottest product in the consumer electronics world? Thanks to the iPod, it’s Apple.

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