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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 January 2005, 13:13 GMT
Q&A: Apple targets the low-end market
As expected by many observers, computer firm Apple has launched a cheap version of its Macintosh PC, along with a tiny new model of its iPod music player.

iPod shuffle
The iPod shuffle is small, but screenless
Interest in the new products has been intense, and yet - despite its dominance, both in sales and mindshare, of the handheld music market - its computers comprise only a tiny share of the PC world.

Why, then, is the company attracting such attention?

Apple prides itself on leading the way as far as design is concerned.

Although the iPod did not invent the market for personal music players on which users could store their entire music library, it arguably popularised it - and certainly remains the icon by which all its rivals are judged.

Similarly, the company's Macintosh computers are seen as icons in their own right as well as simply tools to get the job done.

As a result, though, despite declarations that the Mac is the "computer for the rest of us", it's long been regarded as something designed for those who want to see themselves as an elite.

Some indeed would argue Apple has deliberately cultivated the image, seeing the mass market as beneath it.

So the introduction of the sub-$500 Mac mini (339 in the UK) and the sub-$100 iPod shuffle (69 in the UK) is big news.

What about that new iPod? It doesn't even have a screen.

No, it doesn't - and that could be a bit of a gamble on Apple's part.

The thinking appears to be that the existing iPods have already captured most of the market for high-end, high-capacity players. And so Apple is now turning its attention towards cheaper, low-capacity machines that use the small-capacity flash memory rather than the larger hard drives.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs
Has Apple CEO Steve Jobs ignored the mass market too long?
The iPod shuffle seems to be designed as an impulse buy. Want an iPod and don't want to pay three figures for it? You may end up going for an iPod shuffle rather than do an in-depth comparison with the other makes on the market.

Even so, the lack of a screen - the idea is that the player will randomly pick music for you or simply play the tunes in the order of being loaded on - may be a deal-breaker for some people.

As might the inability to find that one particular tune that's just popped into your head right when you want to - even though you know it's in there somewhere.

But the Mac mini doesn't have a screen either - or a keyboard or mouse. Does Apple have something against seeing what you're doing?

No - it's just keeping the sticker price down.

The idea in this case is that Windows users switching to the Mac mini will bring the extras from their old PC, or can use a TV instead of a monitor.

The iPod has widely been seen as Apple's "secret weapon" to try to woo PC users away from Microsoft's Windows operating system.

It gives them a taste of what Apple sees as its superior ease of use and design.

Given the hassles that dog many PC users today - viruses, spyware which can render a machine almost unusable, clunky hardware, huge software updates and other aggravations - the hope is that they'll finally give up on the devil they know.

The Mac's operating system has been less of a target to date - but it is also a great deal more secure by design.

So what's been stopping them so far?

Aside from the familiarity issue, there's compatibility - the "everyone else has a PC, so will my Mac talk to them?" worry.

Mac mini
The Mac mini is meant to counter sticker shock

Propaganda aside, for most everyday uses compatibility simply isn't a problem these days, except for gamers and some specialist business and science software packages.

It pretty much comes down to one word: price.

Whatever Mac users may say, Apple's machines are certainly more expensive on an over-the-counter basis. That is, you can always find a cheaper Windows PC, whether desktop or laptop.

Even so, Mac aficionados' arguments that you're paying less for worse equipment carry some weight - as does the suggestion that equivalently-equipped PCs actually cost much the same, if not less.

The Mac mini is intended to take that argument out of the equation.

A rapid calculation by BBC News, based on prices from the websites of the most popular PC firm and an independent Mac supplier, suggests that a roughly equivalent PC could actually be more expensive in the UK than a Mac mini with a flat screen, keyboard and mouse.

I still don't see why everyone's hanging on the words of a small-time outfit like this.

iPod adverts
The iPod has defined the music player market
Look at the iPod.

Where Apple leads, arguably the rest of the industry often follows.

Which is not to say that Apple always gets it right. One predecessor of the Mac mini, the Cube, was a complete flop.

But you can see the attraction. Why have a huge box sitting in your cramped office or apartment when you can - with the mini - have a full-spec, silent machine the size of a small hardback book?

Moreover, Apple's top-dollar reputation has been a staple in the computer market for so long that no-one's quite sure how to cope with a machine that genuinely competes on price.

And it comes at a time when Microsoft and its products are increasingly under attack, both verbally and electronically.

So this could finally be the onset of the so-called "iPod halo effect".

Or it could, in retrospect, be the proof that Apple is stuck, permanently, in a narrowing niche.

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