Over at Nic’s page, there was some hub-bub about the headless iMac, and why it will never happen. The headless iMac is a constant bone of contention in the Apple world, and for good reason. It exposes all of Apple’s open sores.

Business vs. Consumers: Apple has always been a consumer computer company. “A computer for the rest of us”. They have also tried to be an education computer company. Both with limited success. They have a terrible sense for selling to business whether enterprise or small office.

Hardware vs. Software: Apple does software better than anyone. No doubt about it. But they really want to be a hardware company. This has been a huge issue for as long as the company has been around, and is largely attributed to Steve Jobs, although it was the same with both Gil and John Scully. Apple is not the best when it comes to Hardware, and has traditionally been at the mercy of it suppliers, most notably Motorola. Apple, for a brief shining moment, was the best, and could justify their prices. But that time was short. While all of Apple’s hardware is generally of excellent quality, it is is far too overpriced to compete reasonably in the market (with some notable exceptions), and generally lags behind in features.

The Headless iMac lies at the center of what most people find wrong with Apple: The lack of a truly cheap Mac. Sure you can get an e-Mac for $800 and it’s an impressive machine for the money, but you’re stuck with a 17in monitor that you may or may not want. You’re also stuck with a 70lb machine that’s hard to deal with from a logistics stand point. People want something that they can drive their own monitors with, but are cheap and fairly competitive to the $600 PC crowd.

Who wants them: Cheapskates: don’t want to spend money because they either don’t feel a computer should be expensive, or simply don’t want to spend a lot to check their e-mail or browse the web.

Second computer owners: Already have a mac, just need another machine for the wife or kids or a file server, or a streaming box.

Businesses: Need cheap, reasonably upgradable (ram, hd, optical), deployable machines to integrate into existing infrastructure or for creating a new lab.

So, who should Apple target out of these users? And can they make a box that does it all? I think so. Apple does not lack the engineering ability to make a product like this. They have some of the best engineers and programmers working today. So what’s wrong?

Maybe they don’t care? Apple does want to raise their marketshare. It was one of the goals of the Apple Stores. But perhaps it’s at odds with some of their core values. What am I talking about? Apple has some unwritten values that all Mac users know.

  1. Make it easy to use.
  2. Provide beautiful high quality hardware with unbelievable fit and finish.
  3. Provide innovative software unlike anything out there.
  4. Own the experience.
  5. Make money off of hardware, software sells hardware.

It is very hard to meet these values and make something cheap. And this is what has always prevented Apple from making cheap machines. They are unwilling to use cheap components in their machines. Allow 3rd parties to build machines or offer components, and you no longer own the experience. You cannot guarantee the “Mac Experience” any more. If customers start getting crashes, you end up in the finger pointing match between software and hardware vendor, and you start loosing differentiation between you and PCs.

Add to all of this simple market demand: Will a user who wants to have a headless imac be willing to spend $500 more for a low end tower with more power and upgradability if there is nowhere else they can go?

Ultimately I think I know what most people would want. Let other people sling the hardware while Apple writes the software. Make licensing dependent on customer satisfaction and reliability ratings. Certify drivers for 3rd party products. Moving to x86 is an easy way to do this, with a lot of manufacturers who would immediately jump on board, but it’s not necessary. How would this work differently from before? Apple wouldn’t make computers at all. Back when we tried this before, licensees ate Apples lunch. Apple figured they would sell to the high end market as before, and the licensees would bring in new mac users at a lower price point. Win-win. But instead, Apples sales on hardware tanked. If Apple had re-organized to make money off of software instead of trying to compete with it’s licensees, I think it would have been a different story.

All told this is what apple needs for a headless iMac:

Small and light One HD (sata), one full sized standard optical drive. Reasonably fast g4 (more than enough for the uses it would get). One AGP slot with cheap DVI and AGP card. USB 2, FW, audio in and out, gigabit ethernet.

Something with these specs in a shuttle type case would be ideal.

Will Apple ever do this? Probably not any time soon. They have some serious product lust going on with the G5 towers, and want to capitalize on it. Anyone they can push up to the G5 and it’s higher profit margins is a win for them. For Apple to make a product of this kind, they would have to accept the far lower margins of the PC world. Which I don’t think they will do in the near future.