The mythical midrange Mac minitower

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I know most of you are just aching for more iPhone commentary, but let me offer a slight diversion into the world of other Mac hardware. Now that the Worldwide Developers Conference has passed with no new hardware announcements, and many people are pining for new Macs, it’s time to start speculating. Or at least wishing.

You see, I’ve been wishing for several years now that Apple would fill the gaping hole in its desktop product lineup between the low-end, non-expandable Mac mini and the high-end, super-expandable Mac Pro (previously played by the Power Mac G5). What’s that? You say it’s called the iMac ? Unfortunately, the iMac doesn’t really count—it’s a great machine, but in terms of expansion and upgrade options, it’s akin to a Mac mini with a built-in display, which, in some ways, makes it even less upgradeable than the mini.

As a Macworld forum member—a recent switcher from Windows—recently wrote:

I need to replace my desktop PC and, as I just purchased a MacBook which totally satisfied my expectations, I tried to look at Apple’s product lineup to find something that can, as I said, replace my desktop PC. There isn’t a single product in the whole lineup which can do that. The Mac Pro offers the possibility to install up to 16GB of RAM, 4 graphic cards, 6 hard drives, 2 CPUs… all those things are something I don’t need and I don’t want to pay for.

Amen, brother. What I’d like to see is a minitower design with—and this is just one possible configuration that would fulfill my wish—a reasonably powerful processor (perhaps a higher-end Core 2 Duo or a single Xeon); a good graphics card in an upgradeable slot; a decent amount of RAM and hard-drive space; a single free PCI Express slot; and room for one additional hard drive. The ability to swap out the optical drive would be a nice touch. I think such a machine would be a nearly-perfect middle ground between the Mac mini and Mac Pro; my code name for it is Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower —MMMM for short. (Feel free to call it the Mac medium , instead.) And in my ongoing daydream, the MMMM would sell for a relatively reasonable $1,499 to $1,599.

Sounds great, eh? A no-brainer, right? Well, I’m sure that the wise folks at Apple have considered just such a product. Discussions have likely involved issues of production, inventory, and increased product-line complexity. But perhaps most of all, there’s surely considerable fear that sales of the more-expensive Mac Pro would fall as some people buy MMMMs instead.

Even if this fear has merit—and I think it does—I contend that the overall upside is worth the risk. Consider the following four groups of people who would be prime candidates for the MMMM:

  1. People who have in the past bought a Mac Pro or Power Mac G5, even though it was overkill, because it was the only real option for them—the Mac mini and iMac simply didn’t have the power or modest expandability these people needed. People in this group would, given the opportunity, purchase the MMMM instead of a Mac Pro.
  2. People who would be satisfied with the power and features of the top-of-the-line iMac but who already have their own display or who don’t want an all-in-one machine that forces them to buy a new display every time they buy a new computer. A few of these people who would have purchased an iMac will buy the MMMM instead, but some will buy an Apple display with it. And I’ll bet there are plenty of people in this group who wouldn’t buy an iMac, for the reasons I just noted, but would buy the MMMM.
  3. People who truly need some degree of upgradeability but don’t need—or can’t afford—the power or total expandability of a Mac Pro. There are plenty of people out there right now, especially Windows users, who want to buy a Mac, but don’t see a machine that fits their needs at a reasonable price. For this group, the MMMM is the Missing Mac.
  4. People who don’t actually need upgradability but are convinced they do. The reality of the computer market is that the proportion of people who actually upgrade their computers beyond adding RAM is quite small. But at the same time, many of the people who will never upgrade their computers still think they’ll upgrade their computers—or at least want the security and comfort of knowing that they could. Many of these people would be well-served by the capabilities of an iMac, or even a souped-up Mac mini, but will never buy a “non-upgradeable” computer. The MMMM could quickly bring these people into the Mac fold.

The first group represents a possible loss of revenue. There’s also a risk, noted above, that sales of iMacs would decrease as people in Group 2 buy the MMMM instead; this may or may not affect profits, depending on the profit margins of each computer.

But here’s the thing: First, serious pros are still going to buy the Mac Pro. (Heck, I’d still buy one—I’m sitting here next to a Mac Pro with 4GB of RAM, four SATA hard drives, two optical drives, and two video cards, so the MMMM wouldn’t be sufficient for my geeky needs.) And, in fact, many of these people might buy multiple MMMMs, either instead of a single Mac Pro or in addition to one; for example, I know many developers who would love to have a few MMMMs sitting in their offices.

Second, there’s a good chance that enough people in Groups 3 and 4, above, would buy the MMMM, along with people in Group 2 who would buy the MMMM and an Apple display, that any loss of Mac Pro revenue would not only be offset, but would actually be surpassed by additional sales.

In other words, the MMMM’s potential market, which includes new customers as well as additional sales to current Mac owners, is large enough to make the MMMM worth making.

It’s for these reasons that I think Apple will eventually produce such a machine. Now that the first few surges of Mac Pro sales—when the Mac Pro was first released and when the Adobe apps went Universal, for example—are in our rear-view mirrors, thus reducing cannibalization of Mac Pro sales, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll be seeing the MMMM, or something like it, soon.

With that wish—and prediction—out of the way, I can turn my attention to my next pipe dream: a smaller, lighter Mac notebook…

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