The Non Existent Glaring Hole in the Mac Lineup

by Chris Seibold Apr 18, 2008

If there is one constant refrain among the Mac elite it is that there exists a hole in the Mac line. Where, these people wonder, is the upgradable Mac? The Mac Pro is too much for the average guy, the Mac mini isn't enough and there is nothing in the middle. What these people would like to see is a mid level Mac. Two cores, a dedicated (and swappable) video card, and room for another hard drive. The cost isn't generally specified except to say that it should be less than the Mac Pro and iMac but more than the Mac mini.


Before getting into the nuts and bolts (or chips and cards) of such an offering it is important to realize that when people say there is a "glaring hole" in the Mac lineup what they are really saying is that Apple has missed a legitimate marketing chance without a good reason. They probably imagine that executive meetings go something like this:


Steve: Everything is great. Macs are growing, the iPhone is strong, that AppleTV thing is getting better and the iPod is paying off like a busted slot machine in Vegas!

JoeUser: I know how we could sell more Macs.

Steve: More Macs?

JoeUser: Well, here’s my idea: People won't spend $2800 on a Mac Pro but if we offered a computer that they could upgrade for $1500 they'd buy that.

Steve: Wait a second. Are you telling me that people actually factor price into the buying decision? Are you seriously saying that not everyone is a millionaire?

JoeUser: Yeah. It turns out, and I've looked into this Steve, that some people don't actually make more they can spend.

Steve: Well I'll be damned. Who knew? I get by on a dollar a year and all… Still, selling more Macs is a lot of trouble. That is one more model for the stores to carry and Jonny Ives is pretty busy. Plus we'd need a name. The Mac almost Maxi? It doesn't work. Thanks for the input JoeUser, it was interesting but we'll pass. By the way you're fired and anyone who brings up the cost thing gain can get the hell out of the room too.


Apple is, of course, aware of the "glaring hole" in the product lineup and the company doesn't see it as a problem.


Finding the Holes


The idea there is a void in Apple products line up is obvious, every other company has a cheapish expandable tower configuration therefore Apple should have a cheapish expandable tower configuration. Apple is more interested in price points and avoiding consumer confusion than having a me too product so taking a look at the current Apple line up will be revealing:


Mac mini: $599,

Mac Mini: $799

MacBook $1,099

iMac: $1,199

MacBook $1,299

MacBook, iMac: $1,499

MacBook Air, iMac: $1,799

MacBook Pro: $1,999

iMac: $2,249

MacPro: $2,299


With Apple pricing listed it is time to look for unserviced price points because price points are more important to most consumers (yes, you techies are an exception) than models. So where are the gaps in the price structure? There most obvious spot for the longed for Mac is between the mini and the MacBook, a $300 range where Apple could conceivably stick a new model.


Can $999 meet the Demands of Users?


Users generally ask for a PCI slot, two hard drive bays and a replaceable video card when whining, err, opining for the missing link of Macs. The idea being that they'll be able to upgrade the video card as time goes by thus keeping their Mac current. Those are the specs to hit and the processor should be something current, something iMacish. Say a 2.0 GHz core Duo. Put all that together for $999 and Apple will have a brand new winner bunch of inventory to store. While users say they want it, and demand the mythical machine when faced with the option of buying a machine that is basically a screenless iMac with a replaceable video card or buying an iMac for two hundred dollars more they'll opt for the iMac every time.


Those who don't go for the iMac are left in a puzzling predicament when it comes time to upgrade the video card. Two years from now iMacs will be cheaper but the video card they want will cost them $250. So they'll be faced with a new dilemna: Drop $250 into the Mac min maxi with an already out of date processor (these are techie folks who need power after all) or drop a grand on a computer with more cores, more memory and a screen. That is a big case of buyers remorse waiting to happen.


What Happened the Last Time Apple Caved?


The immediate objection will be, of course, "No people really want a computer they can get inside and fiddle with." Well, perhaps. Before allowing that what people are really after is a cheaper upgradeable Mac consider the case of the last time Apple caved in to user demands in the Mac arena. What people said they wanted, what they constantly pined for was a really cheap Mac. A complete solution that would get Macs on everyone's desk. Apple listened and introduced the Mac mini. As soon as the mini was revealed  everyone went from "We want a cheap Mac" to "That isn't what I meant."


Why didn't the Mac mini fly off the shelves? The Mac mini was considered by many to be underpowered . (It wasn't and isn't. When Steve jobs said the mini was enough computer for 90% of the people he lied, the number is closer 99%). The teeth gnashing and the complaints about the mini had less to do with the computers power than the perception of the Mac users. People buy Macs because they want that feeling of superiority, buying the cheapest Mac available, even though it will do everything you want, leaves you with the feeling that every time the machine bogs down that you bought a substandard machine. Surely Tower owners zip along at and amazing clip right? Not quite. If you use a Mac mini along side a Mac Pro you'll note the Mac Pro is faster but if you're honest with yourself you'll also note (unless you're into heavy video production or the like) that it worth the price premium.


There is also a good chance that Apple has already experimented with a cheapish expandable tower. Consider the single 1.8 GHz G5 PowerMac. Introduced in 2004 this machine retailed for $1499. If you bought one you got the chance to replace the video card, PCI slots and plenty of room for extra drives. The computer was more than adequate for the time and still useful even today. Word has it that The Big Book of Apple Hacks was written almost exclusively on 1.8 GHz G5! If there was really market for a mid powered, expandable Mac the 1.8 G5 should have been flying off the shelves but the reality is that that particular G5 proved to be about as popular as chewing on little balls of tin foil when you have lots of fillings in your mouth.


What Folks Really Want


The argument about the lack of a cheapish expandable server, that so called glaring whole in the Mac lineup, is fallacious an example of self fulfilling prophecy. People want a more powerful Mac for their hard earned money so they look at the Apple line up and say "Crikey, they should have something more powerful. I know a mid range tower!" The situation is like an archaeologist hunting for Atlantis, after a few years of reading side scanning sonar everything starts to look like the lost continent. So once you accept the current price structure of Macs every hole looks like the ideal place for the fabled mid priced tower, even when there is no gap at all. 





  • I am sure that Apple has done extensive market research and discovered that their customers don’t want a consumer computer that they can change the video card. I would bet that 98% of people use their Macs to surf the web, send/receive e-mail, and use the iLife suite for their digital lifestyle. Some of them may load up Office. My three year old G5 iMac., with one gig of RAM, does everything I need and will probably work for the next several years with the standard video card.

    Then by this tortured “here’s why they won’t do it” logic, they’d have never made anything beyond the old G5 iMac, which you argue is more than adequate for 98% of their users.  So why did they continue to make more powerful computers if, as you argue, Apple never does anything that their extensive market research shows them customers don’t want?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • “mikepass, no business in their right minds walk the ropes blindfolded, OK? SJ can say whatever he wants on TV for marketing glitz but no doubt, Apple does extensive researches to position its next strategies. Sometimes, do not believe what you hear from SJ. He has lied many times in the past only to swallow his own words. “We do no market research” right! The MB Air and the TV Take 2 sure needs more market research.”

    Your right, I should have qualified the the quote with “make up your own mind.”  Mind you, the original TV smacks of a lack of market research. It just didn’t fill any niche at all. The only research needed to say it had to be improved was in the balance sheets.  That said, I do believe some research is done, but even a million people said they liked something one way and SJ liked it the, I do wonder what he would do. Sometimes arrogance can overshadow good business decisions.

    “No, I mean a decent configuration the size of 2-3 stacked minis with upgradeable GPU card, HD or two, RAM capability to 4-8 GB, and a replaceable CPU daughterboard for future-proofing your investment.”

    As I said, I doubt SJ wants people to future proof their investment.  That just doesn’t sell enough machines.

    I agree that the “one size fits all” is not a good argument for the iMac, but for the average business and user it’s not a bad choice.  I use one at work in an elementary school and have done some whiz bang Keynote displays for the kids and teachers and also some great little video projects using iMovie ‘06. There is plenty of power for that.  And, you would be surprised how many people say what great design, or where’s the computer or I want one or just WOW.  Both teachers and students. So I just don’t agree that the iMac is aimed at a teen crowd. I’m no teen (no offence taken)  That said, I do believe Apple should make a machine that fits in with that semi/pro crowd.  But they won’t for the reason below.

    I’m in a country (South Korea) where 99% of computer users use Windows.  To break through in a country like this Apple needs to be visible.  I am seeing many Apple notebooks and iMac’s in TV advertisements and programs.  This sort of visibility can’t be achieved when your product is under a desk or doesn’t look remarkably different.  I definitely believe the iMac is sacred (for better or worse) and I doubt SJ will risk it, no matter what market research may tell him.

    There again, I have been very wrong before and Apple will probably release one of these mythical machines next Tuesday.

    mikepass had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 5
  • We do no market research. We don’t hire consultants. ... We just want to make great products. - Steve Jobs

    Maybe I’m the classic victim of Steve’s “reality distortion field”—but I think I could actually believe him when he says things like this.  Think about it this way:  Why on earth would he bother spending money to have someone else try to figure out what the Mac community wants, when all he really has to do is recline on his couch with his MacBook Air, and read a few of the many articles written by other people… who are effectively already doing that research for him?

    Likewise, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if he reads these comments too… (Hi Steve!  How’s it going?) and chuckles every time someone actually gets something right.

    Let’s hope that this can be one of those moments… I just did a few minutes of reading on, and found myself rather amused to note that there have indeed been different examples of “mid-sized” and “mid-priced” models over the years—though, not always as a single device.  Here are just a few examples:

    * The beige G3 came in two different cases, one of which was decidedly “mid-sized”,
    * The Blue and White G3 was a full sized tower with mostly only minor changes from its immediate predecessor, and started at $1599,
    * The Mirrored Drive Doors G4 was available in a single-processor model for awhile for a mere $1299,
    * The PowerMac G5 was available for awhile at $1599, (as mentioned by others in this discussion)
    * And of course, who could possibly forget the overpriced G4 Cube.

    I think what we’re looking at here folks is mostly just a product life cycle kind of thing.  Apple hasn’t always specifically targeted the mid-sized/mid-priced units, but as their more expensive models have been replaced by the latest-and-greatest, they have often offered a model based on the older chassis at a reduced price.  This makes perfect sense to me, as they’ve already recouped their development costs for that system, so the profit margin can be justifiably reduced.  I would suggest that this cycle has historically appeased the demographics which we’ve been discussing—but as has been noted by others, that demographic may well have grown significantly with the transition to Intel.

    So given that we’re currently seeing a great deal of customer angst over this issue, and given that the Mac Pro has been around in its current form for over a-year-and-a-half now, (which I’m pretty sure is a-really-long-time for any given Mac model) I’d have to speculate that we can expect a product refresh in their tower line-up in the very near future.  With that, we will more-likely-then-not finally see a reduced price version of the Mac Pro in its current chassis… and maybe… just maybe we’ll get to meet the love-child of the G4 Cube and the Mac Pro.

    Here’s hoping, eh?

    (Of course… this is all academic for me and my wonderful 24” iMac—but it’s always fun to talk about!)

    Zarmanto had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 4
  • What’s needed here is a PROSUMER Mac. We have the MAc for the average consumer who doesn’t have any desire to touch the insides of the machine - the Mac Mini. We have the Mac Pro. Why not a WIDER Mac Mini, the size of a cable box, with easy to access/upgrade RAM, video card and hard drive? Charge $999 for it and watch them sell (or more likely $1199-1299). This offering wouldn’t harm sales of Mac Pro because you really need maximum processing power to run video and graphics apps as efficiently as you want to and the prosumer Mac’s processor cannot be upgraded.

    leesmith had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 8
  • I doubt SJ wants people to future proof their investment.  That just doesn’t sell enough machines.-mikepass

    Although there is some truth in this by such evidences as: lack of GPU selections for MP and iMacs - if accessible at all, the use of a carpenter’s tool to pry open a Mac mini, or the quick runs to the nearest E=MC^2 (Genius) Bar just to open up my damn Macbooks.

    Yet I feel this sort of negative view of Apple based on their choices of form-over-functions is not necessarily true.

    Case in point, look at the iPods. Apple sealed the battery compartment not hoping to sell more iPods to the same customer who bought the last generation but, in practicality, it allowed that same customer longer usefulness of his/her iPod investment. Therefore, sealing the battery compartment “future-proofed” this investment and sold far less iPods in return.

    Another, the G5 towers (like I said, I have the dual & quad for work stuff) was a striking examples of “I am not disposable. I do not need annual upgrades. I will be dependable for years to come”. So far I am happy to report those two machines are happily running Leopard/Server crunching my encoding/decoding requests.

    For Apple’s part, the G5’s “cheese grater” design was so practical and well-designed, it “future-proofed” their industrial design and gave Jon Ive some needed rest. I agree with Zarmanto that a redesign is in the cards for the Mac Pro, though. But I doubt it is too radical a change.

    As for the iMacs and the minis, they are being sold to a more simplified audiences and not techies like this forum. These audiences doesn’t bother with the nuances of upgrading everytime a new XXXGT or RadeonX comes along. These audiences more expects their computers to be like kitchen appliances - they work well enough when you need it.

    So, “closed” iMacs and minis are not necessarily to sacrifice your investment or to increase Apple’s future sales. Being a “closed” system actually extends their life utility, well beyond any ordinary PC’s life expectancy by virtue of that techonology obsolescense.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 846
  • I think what we’re looking at here folks is mostly just a product life cycle kind of thing-Zarmanto.

    You may be onto something there, Z. All good points and thanks for the creative inputs.

    What’s needed here is a PROSUMER Macleesmith

    Lee, please read all the comments since we have been discussing this very thing. Thks!

    Kudos to both!

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Robo, a little credit please. Of course I know that’s the topic of discussion, but what has been missing is the word I capitalized - PROSUMER. Cameras have prosumer versions, so do other consumer electronics, software and yes, other computer brands. So why not the Mac?

    leesmith had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 8
  • First of all welcome back, Chris! All you readers may not know this but Chris just finished writing a book for O’Reilly, Apple Hacks, which you are hereby ordered to buy now, enjoy and rate appropriately on Amazon, Book here.

    Now onto the issue. Regardless of the busy savvy of making a move I too would like to see a so-called sub-Mac-Pro. I want a machine that I can open up, add some hard-drives too and tinker with. But I do think Apple is not going to create this type of machine. I think Steve’s view is either you are a Pro who needs the fastest hard drive connections, video cards, expandability, etc or you are a just a consumer user who needs something that works. The notion of a prosumer machine is interesting but my guess is Apple doesn’t care to understand that market.

    In the spirit of Mac users who like to Hack it is getting tougher and tougher these days. The Mac Pros are just too expensive and opening up a Mac mini requires a freakin’ putty knife!

    Hadley Stern had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 114
  • Hadley, just an off-topic here but you might want to suggest to Chris S. that it is worth letting your potential book readers to see some excerpts via Amazon. I buy many books this way and, guess what, if I can’t see some examples - say, chapter 1 or any chapter, then it isn’t worth my time or money to buy the book. Just my kindling. wink

    As to the proverbial “glaring hole” Mac box, I still bet you’re wrong and Apple will surprise us once more next Macworld. Cheers!-Robo

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 846
  • I concur Robo, but I’m not in charge of that stuff. I expect samples will show up on Amazon fairly soon.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Apr 20, 2008 Posts: 354
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