Minis and minis by Apple and Others

I’m a fan of automobile-computer analogies, and Kaufman Bros. analyst Shaw Wu came up with a dandy in a research note last week, noting that “sources” in Apple’s distribution channels are seeing a “stronger-than-expected reception” to new Mac desktop computers, especially the Mac minis announced a couple of weeks ago. “To us,” Wu wrote, “the new Mac mini is like a Mini Cooper, a premium small form factor product but with decent horsepower. We believe the Mac mini could turn out to be a surprise dark horse hit.”

The comparison is serendipitous for more than name commonality (although Mini — the car — has always been capitalized). That first commercial product imprinting the Mini name on cultural iconography was sprung on the world 50 years ago this year.

Minis Then and Now

Inspired by economic considerations interestingly analogous to our current contretemps (ie: fuel rationing due to the 1956 Suez Oil Crisis followed by a sharp recession), Turkish-born innovator and British Motors Corporation engineer Alec Issagonis conceived a car design concept never tried before: a transverse-mounted engine driving the front wheels — the prototype of the modern front wheel drive car. The Mini was intended to be the smallest possible car that could accommodate four adults and their luggage, measuring roughly 10 feet long by four feet high and four feet wide.

The original Issagonis Mini was unveiled on August 26, 1959, continuing in production until October 2000. Early Minis (properly known as the Morris Mini-Minor and its badge-engineered sibling, the Austin Seven) were incredibly austere. For example, inside door latch releases were plastic-coated wires strung across the door cavities, which were wide open with no upholstered side panels or roll-up window mechanisms occupying the space. However, the Mini was an instant marketplace hit.

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“Car Of The Century”

Some 5.5 million Minis were sold during a 41-year production run, with the Mini voted European “Car of the Century” by an international panel. The form factor and appearance remained largely unchanged throughout, with some body panels interchangeable between the 1959 Mark I and the final 2000 Mark V models.

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The Mini’s cornering and roadholding could embarrass many purpose-built sports cars of the day, and Mini-owning celebrities included the Beatles (one each), Peter Sellers, David Bowie, Britt Ekland, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Princess Diana, (Princess Anne learned to drive in one, but I don’t think it was her own), Tim Allen, the fictional Mr. Bean, and no less than Enzo Ferrari.

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BMW acquired the Mini brand when it bought Rover Group in 2000, and set about designing a completely new Mini — the one Shaw Wu references in his analogy — owing inspiration but nothing else to the original, bringing a larger form factor and more than twice the weight of the original Mini.

Jaunty Insouciance

Apple’s Mac mini is conceptually and stylistically reminiscent of the original automotive Mini. Its ultra-compact 6.5″ x 6.5″ x 2″ form factor is similarly clean and, well, minimalist. It has the elemental essentials, without unnecessary frills. It is inexpensive (for a Mac), only as big as absolutely necessary to contain the designed contents, and has the same jaunty insouciance that Alex Issagonis’ four-wheeled creation did back in 1959.

Everything Most of Us Really Need in a Computer and More

In a nutshell, the mini, combined with a decent but not necessarily Apple-expensive keyboard, mouse, and monitor, has everything most of us really need in a computer and more at reasonably affordable price, especially this new model with the NVIDIA 9400M integrated graphics and FireWire 400 port. And of course one of the mini’s principal target markets has always been folks that already have a monitor, USB keyboard, and USB mouse connected to an aging PC (or Mac), and who can buy the Mac mini and substitute it for their old CPU module.

This latest Mac mini is unambiguously the best of breed, featuring a 2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor capable of driving a 30-inch Apple Cinema Display at full 2560 x 1600 resolution, up to 4GB of DDR3 1066 MHz memory, up to 320GB Serial ATA hard drive, five USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 800 and a slot-load 8x double-layer SuperDrive, a Mini DisplayPort and mini-DVI video output, 802.11n AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, Gigabit Ethernet, and audio line in/audio line out port s supporting both optical digital and analog. That’s a lot of value and connectivity packed into an amazingly tiny package.

Energy Efficient

Like the automotive Mini, the Mac mini is energy-efficient, using less than 13 watts of power when idling — up to 10 times less than a typical desktop PC draws — making the new Mac mini the most power-miserly desktop computer in the world, according to Apple.

I wish it was easier to open up the mini for RAM upgrades and hard drive swaps, but aside from that it’s pretty much all good — definitely my favorite Mac desktop with the possible exception of the G4 Cube.

The first Macs were marketed as “the computer for the rest of us,” and the original Minis were pitched as inexpensive and economical basic transportation, but the Mac mini and today’s automotive Mini are premium-priced products in their size range, the car ranging from $19,200 for the base model up to $31,450 for a John Cooper Works Clubman wagon. North Americans used to cars being priced somewhat by the pound bridle at paying 20,000 bucks for a tiny hatchback sedan, let alone 30 grand. Similarly, some resist the idea of paying $599 to $799 for a tiny desktop CPU module without even a keyboard, mouse or display when you can get a fairly loaded cheapo desktop PC for under $500. In either case, it’s probably one of those “if I have to explain it to you, you’ll likely never understand” things. Both the Mini and the mini are pitched to demographics with taste and appreciation for more than the bottom line.

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