2005 January 24

Mac Daddy

If my years at the Big Y! have taught me anything, it's that UNIX -- speficially FreeBSD -- rocks. It's incredibly reliable (there are busy production servers at work answering more than 50 requests/second that haven't been rebooted for three years), and extremely efficient.

Shortly after starting my job, I installed FreeBSD on a machine at home, and have been reliably serving this web site from it ever since.

Imagine my curiousity when Apple revealed a few years ago that its new operating system, "OS X", would be built using FreeBSD as a basis. Very interesting -- Apple, known for building high quality equipment with an emphasis on user interface was going to release a UNIX based operating system. This could be cool.

Time passed. The OS was released. Folks that I work with and regard very highly started to show up to work with Macs. They are uber-nerds, and they were using Macs. I thought Macs were for kids in school. "No Way!", they said, "there is a very powerful kernel lurking under this awesome looking interface".

But alas, Macs were expensive. The price of entry was a couple thousand dollars for a machine that would work for me. More time passed.

Earlier this month at the MacWorld show in San Francisco, Steve Jobs unveiled two products that would blow the bottom out of Apple's pricing structure. The iPod "Shuffle" -- a $100 MP3 player the size of a pack of gum, and the Mac Mini -- a 72 cubic inch hot rod starting at $500. (The computers in my house occupy an average of 2,000 cubic inches each.)

There was my chance -- $2000 was always too much money to "try" this technology. But $500, now that's a different story altogether! The Mac Mini has no keyboard, mouse, or monitor. You have to supply those parts. But that's fine -- the target consumer already has one or more PC's, so they already have these components. I guess I fit their target customer profile pretty well.

I went to Apple's online store site several times after the product was announced and configured a new system. That's the great thing about online shopping -- you can roam around a store, dropping items in your shopping cart, but then walk out empty-handed leaving the cart at the door, and nobody gives you funny looks. Fantasy-shopping.

Last week, I read an article that indicated that Apple's retail locations would begin selling Mac Minis on Saturday January 22 at 9AM, opening an hour earlier than normal. This really got me thinking -- I could replace the computer in the living room that was running Windows XP and the computer in my office that runs FreeBSD with this one tiny machine. No more big, clunky, noisy machines. Just a slick little silver box.

It only took a little bit of spousal marketing to get Arti excited about the Mini too. She has always been awesome at supporting my hobbies -- camera equipment, new power tools, stuff for the car, etc -- but this seemed a little extravagant. After all, the computers we had were working flawlessly. But she actually got excited about the tiny little computer.

I told her about how they were going to go on sale Saturday early AM, and I wanted to be one of the first people to get one. My plan was to get to the Valley Fair store an hour before the store opened. She was down with the plan -- she even wanted to wait in line with me. Alright! Budgetary committe approval!

We arrived at the Apple Store at 8AM. There were already 20 or so people waiting in front of the store. That was good news for us -- most of the people wanted to get the $100 iPod Shuffle, so I was confident there would be enough Minis to go around.

When the stoore opened at 9AM there were about 300 people waiting. The woman who was first in line entered, then soon exited with a long face -- she wanted to get a Shuffle, but there were none to be had! This caused a bit of an uproar in the crowd. You would think that the Apple Store employees would have made an announcement to the crowd prior to the store opening. Suprisingly bad customer experience there.

As we approached the door, we were greeted at the door by a friendly employee who asked us if we were getting a Mini. I smiled and said "oh yes.. the one with the faster CPU and bigger hard drive." "I'll be right back with it" he said.

A couple minutes later, we were on our way back home with the lunchbox-sized package. It took only a minute to set it up in the living room, hooking it up to the TV. I turned it on, and was pleasantly suprised that everything worked -- even my Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse.

The setup process was fantastic, and over the next two days, I set up all my photo and music apps (Live 4, Albino, Reason, CaptureOne, etc -- they are all cross-platform applications), as well as setting up apache, PHP, and MySQL.

I got an external firewire hard drive enclosure and pulled one of the drives from the FreeBSD machine so that I could run daily backups of the Mini's internal disk. I also picked up a 512MB PC2700 DDR DIMM from Central Computer to bump up the Mini's internal RAM from its stock 256MB. Derek and I had fun getting the case opened to upgrade the memory. Closing the case took some figuring, but we managed to do the upgrade without breaking or scratching anything. The performace of the system improved quite a bit with the additional RAM installed -- well worth the low price of the memory.

So far, so good. The OS X interface is fantastic. It does take some getting used to the different keyboard shortcuts (the "windows" key on my keyboard gets the most use now).

All the applications I use are set up, and it's now the official Nobot Chatterbox web server. It's awesome that so much performance and usability can come from such a small box. Consider me switched!

If anyone from the Mac Mini product team is reading this -- nice work!!! This is the start of something huge for Apple.