Mac Bloggers Muse on a Macworld Without a Mac Maker
After this January, Apple's involvement with Macworld is no more. Is the company cutting itself loose from an institution that annually holds it back? Or is it selfishly hurting smaller companies that depend more deeply on a high-profile, Apple-focused trade show? Other commentary centered on what exactly Apple will offer up for its final Macworld product release -- could a new Mac mini be on the way?
12/19/08 4:00 AM PT
It's been a wild ride this week in the Apple-focused blogging world, thanks to Apple's bombshell statement that CEO Steve Jobs would not be giving his usual wildly anticipated keynote address at Macworld in January. In addition, after 2009's show, Apple itself will make no more appearances. All Apple did was put out a dinky little press release, and boom, the blog traffic erupted in a hot rain of speculation.
But that's hardly all the news of interest this week. Windows PCs boasted a better sales rate than Macs, a new Mac mini may be on the way, and the iPhone Dev Team plans to unlock the iPhone 3G on Dec. 31.
Doom and Gloom for Macworld
After Apple announced its impending split with Macworld and Jobs' planned absence, the dominant blog traffic kicked off with questions concerning Jobs' health -- he's a pancreatic cancer survivor, and any time he looks at all unwell in a public appearance, people start wondering. Plus, those who own Apple stock also tend to see him as the primary reason for Apple's success, so they might get a little jumpy when he flies under the radar for too long.
In any event, the blog traffic eventually shifted to more interesting questions, like whether Apple really needs Macworld at all. The definitive answer is probably not, but it raises the issue of Apple's partners and third-party Apple software and accessory manufacturers: do they need Apple at Macworld?
Peter Burrrows, posting on The Tech Beat for BusinessWeek, brought up the issue of other businesses that try to survive in the Apple ecosystem. "At Macworld, a small ISV (independent software vendor) might have a chance to drum up some business on the show floor to the throngs of Jobs-watchers," he wrote. "Is Apple being self-centered or even short-sighted in its decision to neuter Macworld's usefulness to the larger Apple ecosystem? Or is it being smart to put a fork in the most famous Apple-related tradeshow, and should ISVs follow its lead and stop investing in tradeshows, as well?"
Commenter Barry Smart noted, "Apple made a good business decision to forgo trade shows, nothing more. Mac fans created a situation whereby Apple had to release a new hit product and Mr. Jobs had to perform for an audience or otherwise be hit with bad reviews from so-called Wall Street analysts that might drive the stock price into the pits. To make matters worse, caving in to the trade show baron's schedule meant releasing products at the worst possible time of the marketing year."
Not everyone believes trade shows are dying, however. "I do think this decision is shortsighted. In the days when the Mac was a fringe product, the product and company had fans and followers who were evangelists for the brand the product and even the company. Apple developed loyalty that most brands can only dream of achieving. Macworld is that key event that strengthened that bond between corporation and consumer. ... It seemed to elevate those in attendance and who followed to more than just a consumer, but to the people that Apple was developing for and seemed to show that Apple appreciated that loyalty," commented David Castro on The Tech Beat post.
But what about the those other vendors?
"The problem with Macworld was that Apple's big announcements drowned out most of the stuff that was launched at the show anyway. So the exposure thing was a bit of a double-edged sword," noted reader Rattyuk.
Jobs or no Jobs, Macworld is scheduled to hit Jan. 5-9, with the keynote on January 6. Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, will deliver the opening keynote. There's been speculation over what exactly he will announce, and the most talked-about rumors and speculation seem to focus on a refreshed Mac mini. OK, so maybe the mini isn't going to take center stage, but by Apple's standards, the thing is incredibly long overdue for a refresh, so something new is on the way. Maybe. Most likely.
Wired's Brian X. Chen, writing for the Gadget Lab blog, stepped out on a very thick and very strong limb when he reported a "rumor" that Apple will launch an upgrade to the mini desktop. He cited an anonymous source.
The speculation turned to specifications rather quickly, though some hoped-for new form factors.
"I think you could safely look at the specs on the unibody Macbook and simply cram them into a Mac Mini housing. Probably a refresh on the looks -- glass and aluminum. I'm secretly hoping Apple will launch a mini tower between the pro and the mini. It'd be nice to have a machine with multiple drives and upgradeable video cards, especially since I can run Widows native on a partition (or even a whole drive if the above machine launches)," commented Aidan.
Then commenter Brizmo brought it back to the reality of cost. "When I look into my crystal ball, all I see are dollar signs for the Mini update -- if it costs, it's out. I don't think having a $1K lowest-price offering is hurting them right now, but they have to know it will hurt them soon. And if they want to meet that $500 price point predicted by Wired, they have to drop the aluminum enclosure," Brizmo wrote.
This is all well and good, but what does a Mac mini expert -- who happens to stake his business model on the mini -- have to say? Is it a lock that we'll see new Mac minis in January?
"We're 100 percent sure there is going to be a new Mac mini at Macworld. We're preparing plenty of space in our data center, as we know there is a lot of pent-up demand for this new mini," Brian Stucki, owner of Macminicolo.net, a Mac mini-based hosting facility.
"We'll see ability for more RAM, a new video card, and a change to all SATA inside which will help with speed. The Mac mini already makes a great server, and we feel like this next version will make it even better," he added.
Meanwhile, the iMac Is Faltering
Market research firm NPD stirred up a bit of concern when it announced a report that found Apple's sales were relatively flat in the month of November while system sales (with Windows) were up 7 percent. Desktop sales were down 20 percent overall -- Windows desktops fell 15 percent while Macs dove 38 percent. Of course, a few news outlets led with headlines saying that the sale of Windows-based PCs grew faster during the month of November than Macs.
The likely culprit? Aging iMacs in need of a product refresh, NPD said. Of course, Mac minis are in dire need of a refresh, and the spendy Mac Pros are less affected by the buying habits of everyday consumers.
Readers on the AppleInsider.com post on the subject covered the topic from most angles.
"The racoon iMac needs a makeover not a refresh. It looks too Dell-like -- not Apple-worthy compared to previous models -- IMHO," noted teckstud.
"Perhaps Mac desktop sales were also down 38 percent due to increased interest in laptops overall, which isn't really a negative when Mac laptop sales jumped 22 percent. Subtracting the former from the latter, that's a 16 percent decline in Mac desktop sales," calculated wobegon.
However, it didn't take long for price to enter the picture. "A lot of retail chains in the US (BB) that carry Apple do not have any minis on display ever. When people see cheap PCs and don't care as much about PC v. Mac, they don't seem likely to pay the iMac premium. Don't get me wrong; it's not about the value of the iMac; it's about the absolute price," noted hodgkin.
And price, it turns out, leads us back to Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group, who told MacNewsWorld that Apple's higher prices may very well be a problem.
"My viewpoint is that iMacs are aging and increasingly expensive compared to a Windows desktop -- and compared to MacBooks as well," Baker said.
"I think iMacs are not competitive with falling PC prices, nor do I think they represent a good value compared to MacBooks. This is the same phenomenon we see in Windows, where desktop sales are declining because consumers see the alternative, notebooks, as more attractive and more usable for their needs," he explained.
What about the idea that Apple is refreshing its line with LED backlighting, and if a consumer knew that Macworld was coming up, might that be a likely reason for an iMac sales slowdown -- a simple product refresh cycle? Baker didn't think so.
"While we may see a one-month, semi-freeze on buying as Mac buyers wait for the new products, we are now in our fourth month of weak sales and our second month of double digit year-over-year declines -- people aren't that prescient, nor are they that patient," he explained.
Baker also noted that there has been very little public speculation or discussion about the next revision of the iMac line -- certainly it's been nowhere near the level of MacBook speculation.
"Everyone knew MacBooks were going to be refreshed, but we didn't see this level of slowdown there," Baker added.
Last Gift of 2008
The iPhone Dev Team is promising a software unlock for the iPhone 3G by the end of 2008, which is different from the already provided jailbreak. The software unlock will let iPhone 3G owners use the device on the mobile network of their choice.
"There are ways to manipulate the SIM card that comes with the iPhone 3G to use it on the network of your choice, but that's not something the average person should try at home," reported Tom Krazit on Cnet.
Reacting to the news, reader pu2006 asked, "Correct me if I'm wrong. But for U.S. users, isn't this kind of a non-event? Is there any other nationwide GSM provider that offers 3G in the bands that the iPhone 3G supports?"
"Yeah, it's basically a non-event except for those U.S. users who might want to travel internationally with their iphone and use local SIMs. Or those U.S. users who might want to get an iphone without being locked into an automatic data plan from AT&T and instead use the cheaper data plan they were using with their 'old' 3g phones. Lots of reasons ... none particularly earth-shattering for the average person but just having the choice is a Good Thing (tm)," texaslabrat explained.