Somebody had be the first to cut off someone's head and stick it on a pole by the gates of a city, as a way of giving people Something To Think About as they went about their daily business. Whoever it was – I'm going to go ahead and guess that it was a rich, white male – my hat's off.
No, seriously, if you really want to provoke deep thought you can choose no more compelling medium. The populace rides past the thing every morning and every evening on their daily commute, and every time they look up into those dry, sunken eyes and taut lips, shrunken back on the victim's skull in an obscene mockery of a smile, they gradually start to think about the taxes and the tribute they're forced to pay. “Maybe it's not such a raw deal after all,” is the ultimate consensus.
We have a modern equivalent to that sort of thing: a spot on top of the TV. Stick something up there and you're bound to develop some genuine insights, accumulated gradually during the long months you spend waiting for the networks to live up to the implied warranty that comes with the second half of the term ‘situation comedy'.
As is happens, on top of the TV is where I keep my Mac mini. It's provoked many questions and ponderings over the past several months. Why is it there? What's it doing? And where is it going?
It is there to stream music from my iTunes library and videos from my QuickTime library, both of which happen to be on a server upstairs, and pump them into my home theatre set-up. What it's doing, at the moment, is rolling through a slideshow of online photos from friends and family members who use Flickr.com. As to where it's going… well, here we get to the Heads On Spikes part of the competition.
I love the Mac mini. I love it because of the kind of computer it is: namely, something quite unlike what Apple, or any other computer maker, has done before. You start with the basic Apple approach, which is to make sure the average consumer will only correctly guess what this thing is on their second or third try. “A CD case” is a good start, with the close second being, “A sort of rubbishy-sized box of chocolates you buy at the corner shop when you're on your way to a Christmas party and only just now remember that your host included a gift certificate along with his usual card.”
Then you move on to the courage involved in its design goals: to be the first Mac sold for less than $500, come hell or high water. Apple has always been hung with this Bang & Olufsen sort of reputation, where their customers are expected to pay 50 to a 100 per cent more as a tariff on the fundamental coolness of the product and the tremendous honour of having an Apple on your desktop.
Never mind that Macs had the slight advantage of actually being far, far better than anything else on the market. Price was price, and when consumers saw the smooth lines and thoughtful physical interface of Macintosh hardware, they assumed that they were paying a Flash Tax. Well, Apple answered this by designing a computer that looks like (third best guess) a hotplate, at a price so low you're amazed the case isn't somehow water soluble.
Finally, there's the Mac mini's most important goal: to become a stealth bomb that opens cracks in Windows' market share. To be so inexpensive as to dive below the average consumer's ‘why the hell not?' level. To infiltrate homes and offices with a cheap little Mac that could plug straight into all the cables and connectors tied into a slutty PC, and make such a manifest improvement over its predecessor that a purchase order for a top-of-the-range tower Mac would be inevitable.
Now it's a year later and it has to be noted that Mac minis do not exactly litter the landscape. It's been selling decently, let's acknowledge that. But not so well that it's entered the lexicon, not even the daily lexicon of Mac users. Apple itself seems to have run out of enthusiasm for the little dear. While the company can't freshen its iMacs, Power Macs, and portables quickly enough (“The New PowerBook! We moved the CPU eight millimetres closer to the memory modules, boosting its speed by 0.00003 of a GHz!”), the Mac mini has remained in stasis.
And yet, there my mini sits, atop my TV, doing something that no other Mac in my menagerie can sensibly do. I've hooked up Macs to my TV before, but none have ever stayed hooked up. This is largely due to the fact that the screeching fan of a tower is not conducive to watching a subtle period drama, but it's also for the same reasons that an elephant should never be given a unicycle. But my mini fits in. It doesn't look like a computer. It could be anything, really. In that sense, it's similar to the iPod; very little about the iPod's outward appearance – not even its name – insists it's a music player. As a result, it's free to create its own identity.
Maybe that's what's missing from the Mac mini. The mini has Bluetooth and WiFi built in (well, mine does). What if Apple added a bit of code that gave it a different means of operation that activates when there's no monitor attached?
I disconnect my mini and take it into my office. I plug it into the power strip. It wakes up, realises it's headless and through the magic of Bonjour networking, discovers the iMac G5 sitting five feet away. It automatically starts behaving as a file server, mounting its hard drive on the iMac's Desktop, making its files and media libraries available and allowing me access to my calendar, address book, bookmarks, and keychain passwords. Or better yet, it simply uses the iMac's screen and keyboard as its own screen and keyboard.
I take it to a friend's house and plug it into his stereo. Bang, it reconfigures itself as a music player. No screen? No problem! It has Bluetooth, so I can control every aspect of playback from my Bluetooth phone or PDA. What if I can buy a battery plate that mounts invisibly underneath? What if the Mac mini could be transformed into a Silent Server, mobile and invisible, ‘broadcasting'information, media, and computing services to any device or machine within its wireless reach?
You'd have to stop calling it a Mac. Even ‘computer' wouldn't do. What you'd have is an iBox. But that's not what today's Apple would do. Every truly revolutionary product Apple has ever made has been done when backs were up against the wall and there was nothing to lose. The original Mac, last standard-bearer for a failing 32-bit line. The iMac, Mac OS X, and the iPod, released when Apple was at its nadir.
I wonder if the Mac mini is long for this world. Unless it can carve its own identity it'll go the way of the G4 cube. Its sole saviour is the sort of brave, devil-may-care thinking that put those heads on those spikes to begin with. MW