I have seen the future and its name is Mac mini. The mini is one seriously great little computer. I got one last week and have been singing its praises ever since. It is not the fastest computer. It is not the cheapest computer. It is not the smallest computer. But it is certainly the smallest cheap and fast computer out there. And the cheapest small and fast computer out there. And, yes you guessed it, the fastest cheap and small computer out there (my apologies to Apple, which advertises the mini as "Inexpensive, But Never Cheap" -- semantics -- at $500 it is darn cheap). Add the fact that the mini now ships with Tiger, as well as Apple's fantastic iLife software, and you can purchase one heck of a computer for under five hundred bucks.
This week I was visiting the new offices of a startup I recently funded. The company is in the process of pulling together the infrastructure necessary to support their business. After looking at their options, the guys decided to outfit the office with Mac minis. For a little over $600 it is possible to provide each of the company's telesales and customer service agents with all the computing power they need. This is particularly true because the company's sales and support functions are going to be run on web apps like saleforce.com and Five-9's. Thus, the only thing that those folks will really need in a desktop computer is a web browser and a reasonably fast pipe. In that respect the Mac mini is plug and play. All the company will need to do when it ads new reps is run across the street to the Apple store, buy a new mini and super cheap monitor, bring it back, plug it in, launch the browser and they are off to the races.
It strikes me as a bit ironic that Apple has managed to make good on Larry Ellison's network computer vision. Sure, it's more expensive than the couple hundred bucks once envisioned for a true dumb terminal. But it frankly isn't that much more expensive and delivers a whole lot more computing muscle than Ellison envisioned when he launched the New Internet Computer (NIC) Company.
Here's what you got with the NIC 2.0 in 2001:
* VIA Cyrix MII PR266 processor
* 64MB RAM
* 4MB EEPROM
* 24X CD-ROM Drive
* 56K Modem
* 10/100 base T Ethernet
* 2 USB Ports
* Keyboard & Mouse
The NIC 2.0 started at $199.99 and went up to around $700 with a 12 inch LCD. Thanks to Moore's Law, scale, manufacturing efficiencies, etc., here's what you get today with the Mac mini:
* 1.25/1.42GHz PowerPC G4
* 256MB RAM
* 40/80GB Ultra ATA drive
* Slot-lading Combo Drive
* 56K Modem (802.11g optional)
* 10/100 base T Ethernet
* 1 FireWire 400 port, 2 USB 2.0 ports, DVI/VGA output
* Internal speaker and audio line out
All that starting at $499 and going to about the same $700. The mini is such a great little box at a surprisingly low price point, it makes me want to buy more of them. It must run in the family. When my dad saw that the mini had a DVI/VGA out, he pondered buying a mini so that he could use it for his picture in picture while watching TV.
My dad and I are clearly not the only ones who are smitten with the mini. A few weeks ago I was visiting another one of my portfolio companies. They are in the process of rolling out the beta of their enterprise software product. But rather than risk any difficulties with download and installation, the company was shipping its beta as an appliance by simply loading the software onto the Unix shell of a mini and shipping the mini to its beta customers. Configuration of the beta at the customer premises then consisted of simply plugging in the power and the ethernet cable. Couldn't be easier.
Sure, I know that there are cheaper machines to be had running Linux on Intel processors. But the combined power, simplicity and beauty of the Mac mini can not be beat. I suspect we'll be seeing them popping up all over the place -- in the home and in the office -- in the coming months and quarters as people discover that Apple has built a versatile net-connected workhorse/show-pony.