Commoditisation

I like to think that I am generally quite kind to Apple. Despite five logic board failures over two iBooks and a few too many bad experiences at the Genius Bar in Regent Street, I still use Macs and enthusiastically recommend them to others. But unquestioning fanboy I am not, and whilst I think the Intel transition is a good thing in principle, I am slightly perturbed by the current course it seems to be taking. It started with the MacBook Pro1 PowerBook Core and at first I thought it might just be something of a temporary aberration. But on looking through the specifications for the new Mac mini announced today, I realise that this is, alas, the shape of things to come.2


My beef with Apple can be summed up in one word: commoditisation.3 This is not a new thing for Apple – over the years, one thing after another – NuBus, internal SCSI4, ADB, to name but three – has given way to a generally cheaper alternative. The switch to IDE hard disks is perhaps the best example of this, sacrificing performance and reliability for the low-cost option that has been the mainstay of IBM-compatible PCs almost since the beginning.

Now, though, there is a new contender. Rather than designing the whole logic board itself, and the chipset to go with that – as it has done until the Intel switch – Apple seems to have handed that whole task to Intel. They simply slap an Intel motherboard in a PowerBook enclosure and the hardware magic ends there. Whither “Think Different”.

And with the Mac mini the situation appears to be even worse – rather than a decent (or at least semi-decent) ATI or NVIDIA chip, the Mac mini sports “integrated graphics” in the form of the Intel GMA950. My initial reaction was not positive, as I have an almost innate aversion to Intel’s onboard graphics chips – to put it bluntly, they really suck. But before mouthing off about it here, I thought that I ought to do a little research into this…this thing, at the very least for the sake of some kind of journalistic integrity.

My conclusion – after reading this ExtremeTech review – is that it does indeed really suck, which leaves me feeling rather pleased as it is always nice to have one’s prejudices validated. I mean, it uses shared memory, synonymous for so long with budget PCs running spyware-laden installs of Windows XP Home Edition. *sigh*

To be fair, it is clear that even Apple don’t think much of it – they describe it, in that diminutive side panel, as “an incredible value proposition“, which is perhaps the scariest bit. Once Apple start talking about incredible value propositions, you know something is seriously wrong with the universe. This is the marketing talk of the Dells of this world, certainly not of a premier brand like Apple. What on earth is going on?

I must confess that I am confused. As suggested above, I had hoped that the initial PowerBook Core configuration, lacking as it did a FireWire 800 port, was simply something of an aberration, that Apple wished to get a machine out as quickly as possible and was therefore content to leave the hardware to Intel. This of course made no sense, because there is no reason why they could not have waited a little longer to launch the first Intel-based PowerBook and make something which didn’t seem so half-arsed, but I was desperate to rationalise the move and try and find the cloud’s silver lining. As far as I can tell, there is none.

In the Mac mini we see the confirmation of a trend, confirmation of the emergence of a new era of Apple hardware, made by Intel and packaged up by Apple. It works, and it may mean that we have fewer iBook-logic-board-failure-like issues, because Intel’s hardware is generally pretty good, if not adventurous. But we are left with the realisation that there is now so little that differentiates the Mac from a soulless black box from the likes of Dell, and – for me at least – that leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth. All in all I can’t help but feel that yet another little bit of the Apple difference has died this week.

A sad day indeed.

Footnotes
1. Over my dead body. See this article on c|net for more. Go Back
2. And perhaps in light of today’s announcement, the rumour sites will give up the idea that Jobs is going to turn the Mac mini into a DVR. It isn’t going to happen. Go Back
3. I realise that I may be playing a little fast and loose with English here, but the meaning of the term should become clear from what follows. Go Back
4. I stress the internal, as External SCSI is still with us, in the form of FireWire, although of course even that may now be under attack. Go Back

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