TV-PGJanuary 27, 2005: Don't look now, but Best Buy is gearing up to sell Macs-- again. Meanwhile, iPod shuffles hit the shelves of Singapore 7-Eleven stores next week, and if the Mac mini catches on, look out: ugly PC design ahead...
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FOURTH Time's The Charm (1/27/05)

Holy feral cats in a hot pink Volkswagen, can it really be possible? Can Apple actually be trying to sell Macs in Best Buy yet again? That's the buzz according to MacMinute, as pointed out by faithful viewer Krishen; analyst Steven Milunovich over at Merrill Lynch cites an unnamed "Best Buy retail manager" as his source for claiming that the Mac mini will be making its way onto the chain's shelves "by the end of February." And since then, if you mosey on over to Best Buy's web site ("Just like shopping in our stores, but less dank, better-lit, and without the 'employees' straight out of Deliverance!") and search for "Mac mini," you will indeed find both models available for preorder with a "4 to 7 weeks" delivery estimate-- and a little note that says "Store Availability Coming Soon."

If you're not up on the history between Apple and Best Buy, you may not realize just how absurd this whole situation really is. See, Best Buy was selling Performas way back in the mid-to-late '90s (actually, to be perfectly accurate, let's say they were "stocking" them; we don't think any actually got sold, per se) until a newly re-Steved Apple pulled the plug because Best Buy's Mac sales and presentation skills were slightly subpar-- meaning, as a matter of store policy, display Performas were set on fire and used to direct shoppers' attention to the asbestos signs hanging above them with the big arrow and the words "WINTELS THATAWAY." A year later Best Buy came crawling back, hoping for a ticket on the iMac Gravy Train; Apple let it onboard, only to discover some months later that not only was Best Buy having trouble selling the hottest computer on the planet, but the chain was also refusing to stock all five fruit flavors. So Best Buy left the Mac fold again.

After that, Apple seemed to have regained its sense for a few years; we got a little concerned when Best Buy signed on to sell iPods in 2002, but luckily even Best Buy hasn't been able to screw that up. But back in the summer of 2003, Apple once again suffered a momentary lapse of reason and launched a "pilot program" to evaluate whether Best Buy might actually be able to sell Macs if Apple put its own full-time sales reps into the stores to keep the Best Buy staff from dousing the merchandise with gasoline and taking a Zippo to them. A year later, Apple announced that the test was over, and no deal to put Macs back in Best Buy was forthcoming. (We're guessing that the financial aspects of continuing the program were untenable once the Apple-badged employees demanded combat pay for constantly having to protect the Macs from torch-toting Best Buy employees with arson on their minds.)

But now suddenly Best Buy is once more an official Mac reseller, soon to be pimping Mac minis in its gazillions of stores all across the country. And don't get us wrong; we're all for the extra exposure and wider availability. Plenty of people who would have to drive two hours to the nearest Apple retail store can spit out their window and hit three Best Buys without trying. We have every hope that this latest deal turns out spiffy for both sides, but it's hard to ignore Best Buy's less-than-stellar history with the whole Mac sales thing, you know?

But there's one fact that really gives us hope that this time, both companies can make it work: the key to the success of this venture may well be the fact that Best Buy will only be selling the Mac mini-- which is so small that it burns up way too quickly to keep the staff amused. Ahhhh... now that's progress!

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Slim Jims, Slurpees, & iPods (1/27/05)

Speaking of Apple products being sold in vaguely inappropriate places, the iPod shuffle has found its way onto a strange set of store shelves, too-- and we're not talking about Wal-Mart stocking 250,000 units (as reported by AppleInsider), although, yes, that is a little loopy, seeing as Wal-Mart's own music download store isn't compatible with the lil' gizmo. No, we're talking about a far loopier retail pairing: faithful viewer Thomas Ferraro pointed us toward a Straits Times article which claims that, starting next week, the iPod shuffle will be sold in "50 7-Eleven outlets located in major residential and commercial areas." iPod shuffles right alongside frozen burritos and the Slurpee machine? What more could you possible ask for in this life?

There is, however, a slight catch: those fifty 7-Elevens selling iPod shuffles are all in Singapore. So unless you happen to live in that particular country, the convenience of buying Apple's latest member of the iPod family while you pick up your customary early-morning cherry Slurpee (the breakfast of champions, ya know) is offset slightly by the necessity of having to visit Singapore to accomplish said task. Still, it's nice to know the option's there.

And think about it: iPods in 7-Eleven! What better indication that the iPod shuffle is priced for impulse purchasing and destined for utter consumer ubiquity? (Okay, fine, the article just happens to mention that 7-Elevens in Singapore sell full-size iPods, too, but just let us riff, okay?) If the 7-Eleven deal is just the start, then pretty soon we'll be seeing iPod shuffles sold everywhere-- at gas stations, in movie theaters, even in men's room vending machines next to that "unbreakable rubber comb." Our only concern is that if they're displayed next to the gum and candy, someone's going to buy one by accident thinking that it's a pack of Juicy Fruit, crack a tooth trying to chew the USB plug, and then sue Apple for the cost of reconstructive dental work (plus, say, an extra $100 mil for pain and suffering).

Incidentally, the article notes that sales of iPods and iPod minis at 7-Elevens in Singapore "during the festive season"-- and, you know, there's no better season around-- were 50 percent higher than originally expected. That warms the parts of our hearts commonly known as the "cockles," because we've always heard that parts of Asia have been pretty harsh to the iPod so far, with flash-based players dominating the market by a staggeringly wide margin. So to hear that the iPod was catching on in Singapore even before the iPod shuffle's release, and then to see the shuffle referred to in the Singapore press as "the most desirable digital gizmo today," well, let's just say that those cockles are getting toasty and golden-brown.

Now. Can we get shuffles into 7-Elevens in Korea? Because that whole "the iPod has 2 percent market share" thing over there still gives us the flying heebie-jeebies...

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The Ugly Parade: Back Again (1/27/05)

Just a quickie, here, folks: remember back when the original iMac was all the rage? Remember how Wintel manufacturers saw all that money being spent on blue-green space eggs and decided to experiment with unusual designs and colors in hopes of cashing in on the trend? Remember how virtually all of the desktop designs the Wintel world came up with were universally abhorrent and abominations upon this very plane of existence? There was a translucent blue one shaped like a Mayan pyramid, another that looked like a clamshell, a third that resembled "a flower vase from an old lady's house"-- basically a whole lot of flailing form that had less than zero to do with function. Gee, we wonder why they never caught on?...

Well, the chronology's a little skewed, but the Mac mini seems to be involved in a similar dynamic. According to a CNET article pointed out by faithful viewer Mike Dominy, "Windows PC makers are closely following consumer interest in Apple's Mac Mini and hoping to piggyback on the product's success if sales soar." Once a vulture, always a vulture-- but there's a difference this time, because there are already plenty of teensy PCs that were on the market before the Mac mini made the scene. In fact, CNET was kind enough to post a brief slideshow; care to see what the mini's design peers look like? Okay, but consider yourself warned...

Touchdown Industries's contribution is a squat-'n'-boxy black thing that sits inside a football helmet. Little PC's LPC-401X looks like the boxiest black rack-mount server Dell ever shipped, only smaller; the lack of style is palpable. And Dell's Dimension 4700C goes for "sleek" and "futuristic," but comes far closer to "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" and "feeble attempt to relate." In short, they're all pretty horrible to look at, and once again we're left to wonder why it is that Apple can come up with this thing, while the rest of the industry is apparently capable only of cranking out stuff like this other thing. Is it genetic?

So be prepared, because if the Mac mini does take off at least to the degree that the iMac did, we're no doubt going to be flooded with an endless parade of small but ugly computer designs slapped together by every PC manufacturer still in business. If you're the cautious type, you might consider signing up for comprehensive eye insurance, just in case any of those designs turn out to be really bad. After all, if you're going to wind up blind, why not make a little cash on the transaction while you're at it?

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