UPDATE: The day after I wrote the blog below, Apple announced that it is suing ThinkSecret (the website that claims to have broken the story of Apple’s forthcoming sub-$500 computer) for revealing the technical specs and marketing plans of its forthcoming product. According to Apple, the leaked news of the forthcoming computer causes it financial injury. By launching the suit Apple has indirectly confirmed that the rumour about a low cost computer being launched at its forthcoming Macworld event on January 11, is true.
Rumour has it that Apple is to launch a new low-cost computer at its Macworld exhibition in San Francisco on January 11. The Apple enthusiasts’ rumour mill – surely the most active around – has it that Steve Jobs will announce a computer code-named ‘Q88’ that will come in at around $500 (about £260), far less than the current eMac which costs around £550. Apple news and gossip website ThinkSecret claims it was the first to break the news.
The Independent Online said that if Apple launches the low-cost computer at £260 it will, "mark a technology and price breakthrough to rank with the launch of the first iPod itself in 2001 (followed by the Windows version in 2002), and other milestones in the computer age – such as the release of the Sinclair Spectrum in 1982, which inspired a generation of British children to write computer games (many of whom are still doing it, but for money) or the launch of Microsoft’s Windows 95 in August 1995, when home computer and internet use took off."
I’m usually a big fan of The Independent in both online and safe-to-read-in-the-bath formats, but that statement is, quite frankly, utter nonsense.
Let’s assume there is more to this alleged product launch than just hot air. First off, it is not guaranteed that if it costs $500 in the US then it will come in at £260 or thereabouts in the UK. Simple conversions based on exchange rates are not always accurate in the technology industry. US companies often blame EU regulations, taxes and so on for the relatively high price of computer equipment in the UK compared to the US. Note Apple has form here, too: the Consumers’ Association (CA) recently said it was to investigate Apple for allegedly unfair pricing over the fact that iTunes prices in the UK are more expensive than those on the continent (in this case Apple’s defence is that the economic models in each EU country has an impact on pricing of iTunes downloads).
Secondly, you can currently buy a Dell Dimension desktop, direct from Dell with free shipping, for £301. It sports a 2.6GHz Intel chip, 512MB of memory, Windows XP Home Edition and even a good, chunky, old-fashioned monitor. So a £260 computer from Apple may or may not even work out to be very good value.
I won’t get too deep into the generic Mac vs PC debate here, because we don’t know what features this Q88 is likely to have. It seems unlikely though that the spec will be anywhere near as good as it is on the current eMacs. Also, £260 may seem cheap for a PC but it depends what comes as standard and what you need to buy as optional extras. The devil may be in the details.
The Independent’s argument seems to be that the current eMac is not price-competitive with Windows PCs, whereas the Q88 will be. What they miss is that the current eMac, at around £550, is actually very competitive with £500 PCs if you do a sensible feature comparison. Competing with PCs on price is not a new thing for Apple.
A new, far cheaper computer from Apple may indeed win more converts than the current eMac, but unless Apple can perform magic tricks it won’t be much higher spec than a similarly-priced PC, so it won’t suddenly win millions of would-be PC buyers’ hearts and minds. In fact it is unlikely that Apple will ever be able to compete with the plethora of PC manufacturers on price, because it simply doesn’t have the volume to get the economies of scale they can.
Perhaps what is most likely is another of the current rumours: that the Q88 is not a low-cost computer so much as a media server for the home that means that iPod users have somewhere to back-up their tunes if they do not have a PC. These may be people who currently download their music to their iPod on their work PC, but do not want to rely on their work PC as their backup device (some companies already prohibit the storage of media files on work computers). They may also want to be able to copy songs from CD to their iPod via a Q88 (if this is one of its capabilities) or download songs from the Net via iTunes to the iPod (again, if this is a capability of the Q88).
The biggest advantage of a Q88 over a PC is actually not likely to be its ability to do this, nor its price, but the speed with which it boots up and switches off, and its integration with the iPod. Apple could make the Q88 more like an appliance that turns on and off in a second rather than a minute, and this would be attractive to some users who want to begin to use their iPod more like a home hi-fi. Plug your iPod and a decent set of speakers into your Q88 and you might just have a nifty hi-fi alternative. One that can store thousands of songs. One that also enables you to download songs from the Internet. What you won’t have is an event in the computing industry as profound as the launch of Windows in 1995, as The Independent would have you believe.