The Wrong Checklist

I was listening to some Hypercritical backlog today (“The Wrong Guy” through “Star Wars is not a Blog Post) and John Siracusa talked briefly about how everyone was wrong about how successful the iPod Mini would be. I’d like to follow up on that with two things: first, my 10 years later hindsight report on why it succeeded as well as it did, then what we can learn from it.

When the third generation iPod with 15GB minimum storage, my home 500MHz Indigo iMac had a 20GB HDD. The also-from-2001 Pentium 4 based PC I was doing post production on at school had two 40GB drives. The PowerBook G4 I bought in May 2004 (which was actually last generation when I bought it because I was poor) had a 40GB. So, my just purchased 20GB 4th generation iPod (I was waiting for the click wheel to come back – I’m glad the buttons died) was literally half of my HDD. Yes I had a 120GB external LaCie (which also still works, btw) but that thing was huge. Hard Drive space was exploding back then, but PCs were still thousands of dollars (our at-home Dell was over $2000 when configured to be an actual machine, and that didn’t include a display or optical mouse). So even though it was 2004, your machine could realistically be from 2001.

Of course, I already had over 20GB of music. And no, it wasn’t taking up half of my PowerBook’s HDD, it was on the LaCie on my desk at home. Of course, I’m not typical. Maybe I sound exactly like you, but you’re not typical either. We’re geeks. Real people saw the iPod mini as smaller, colorful (having something in pink was a huge deal, and I personally lusted after the grey/black/graphite one because I hated the Classic’s pearl white), and “5000 songs” sounded big enough for “15000” songs on the “real” iPod to be meaningless.

The mini succeeded beyond all reason and logic because the important metric wasn’t capacity, it was pocketable size/weight, and possibly even color. When they killed it with the Nano, it got even less space (early Nano’s were 1, 2, 4 and 8GB) but could fit in your change pocket, and were effectively weightless. Apple was also smart enough to start offering things in black.

SSDs prove spec guys can see the light

If you just look at numbers like storage size or clock speed it sure looks like we’re repeating history doesn’t it? My original iPad has the same clockspeed and RAM my 12″ PowerBook shipped with and way less storage. My retina MacBook Pro “only” has 256GB of storage. I had my first 250GB external in 2006 or so. What the hell is going on? You’d never stick a 4TB 3.5″ desktop drive in a laptop just for the space. It wouldn’t be a worthwhile tradeoff. Similarly, I’m never going back to spinning disks now that I’m used to the speed of a solid state drive, even if I could get several times the storage. Once storage hits certain minimums (which I think 256GB is. This Air with only 128GB is only usable as a satellite machine) its better to improve other areas instead of making the number you’re already proud of bigger.

That’s the lesson we can learn from the iPod mini today. You only need to chase the spec so far, then you need to recognize the finish line and start chasing other ones. The iPad 2 is now three generations old but its guts are still deemed powerful enough for “new” products. The iPad mini, iPod Touch and 1080p AppleTV are all die shrunk improvements on the original A5 system on a chip debuted with the iPad 2. The iPad 4 is basically too powerful for developers to exploit. We’ve hit our magical spec goal. Wasting time boasting quad core chips and 2GHz CPUs are pointless if they come at the cost of size/weight, heat, or battery life. The new finish line is thinner, lighter, battery life.

The new finish line doesn’t just apply to iOS devices. The 11″ Air is probably already at an ideal size (you want to be careful reducing a physical keyboard further) so it only has to chase performance per watt (i.e., battery life). The retina MacBook Pros could use a little slimming though.

I would like to say though, that on the desktop, Apple ought to be chasing the spec or price. I think the new crop of iMacs are unnecessary eye candy and wouldn’t be surprised if they have audible fan noise problems due to insufficient cooling while rendering or playing a game at 2560×1440. I also think the Mac mini ought to be chasing a $499 price point, even if that’s the Core i3 5400rpm 250GB HDD model with 4GB of RAM and no dGPU.

My lesson remains though. Competitors: you will always beat Apple on performance per dollar, but the more mobile the device needs to be, the less this matters. People understand that miniaturization is a premium. Stick to non ultra books and non all-in-one desktops.