By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
March 3, 2009

Here’s a thrifty marketing strategy tailor-made for these troubled times.

Rather than pay for all the accoutrements of a high-profile product roll-out — promotional media, special events, keynote speeches, etc. — just leak a few spy shots to obscure bloggers and let the Internet rumor mill do the heavy lifting.

Something like that — by design or accident — seems to have happened with the new Apple (AAPL) products announced Tuesday: a new Mac Pro and updated iMacs, Mac minis, Time Capsules and Airport Extremes. See the press releases here and here.

Take, for example, the Mac mini. The most affordable Mac — because you bring your own display, keyboard and mouse (or as Apple puts it, BYODKM) — the mini was so overdue for a new version that many Apple watchers had assumed it was slated to go the way of the Mac Cube.

Starting just about a year ago, however, rumors of a refresh — the first since the summer of 2007 — began circulating, faded for awhile, and then picked up again last fall in advance of January’s Macworld, when many analysts and journalists were certain a new version was coming.

They were wrong. Macworld came and went without a new mini.

Then, on Feb 19, someone named “Monthly,” writing on a MacRumors forum, posted a blurry spy shot of the business end of Mac mini showing 5 USB ports (instead of the usual four) and two display ports (instead of the usual one). The photo triggered a flood of speculation and hundreds of responses, many of them skeptical. One site, 9to5 Mac, published a detailed analysis — including a pixel fragment dispersion scan — proving that the image was a fake.

Not so fast! The next day, Monthly was back with a video clip of the same putative Mac mini being rotated on a hardwood floor — a much more difficult thing to fake. Disbelief gave way to grudging acceptance — although a few holdouts insisted that Monthly would have to turn the machine on before they’d believe it was real.

Meanwhile, interest in a new Mac mini — a product so low-profile Apple is lucky to sell 100,000 units a quarter — continued to grow.

On Sunday, a couple of blogs with spotty track records reported that Apple had scheduled a special event for March 24 to introduce new desktop hardware — including a Mac mini.

On Monday, a new spy shot made the rounds showing a shrink-wrapped Mac mini box with the now-familiar 5-USB port configuration as well as a logo for the NVIDIA graphics chip used in the newest Macs. On some sites, it was accompanied by detailed specs.

Then, overnight, part numbers for the new machines turned up on a French website along with word that they would be released not in three weeks, but the very next day!

Apple bloggers on the West Coast began watching Apple’s online stores put up the We’ll Be Back Soon sign that invariably precedes a product announcement — first in New Zealand and Hong Kong, then in Europe and the U.S.

By Tuesday morning, Techmeme’s news aggregator had gathered more than three dozen stories on the subject.

All that was lacking were the press releases. They landed at 9 a.m. ET.

Did Steve Jobs orchestrate all this? It seems unlikely. Apple has a brilliant PR machine, but coming up with a character like MacRumors’s “Monthly” — complete with wounded feelings and typo-ridden posts — may be beyond their powers of invention.

And even if the rumor mill softened the target for them, the company still has to pay for the promos, print and TV ads that will close the sale.

The fact remains that Apple has an advantage its competitors couldn’t buy if they tried: an obsessively loyal fan base that will track every iteration in a product’s life cycle — even the ones that don’t exist.

Specs for the new Mac minis:

The new 2.0 GHz Mac mini, for a suggested retail price of $599 (US), includes:

  • 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB shared L2 cache;

  • 1GB of 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM expandable up to 4GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
  • 120GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm;
  • a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort and mini-DVI for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
  • Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 BASE-T);
  • five USB 2.0 ports;
  • one FireWire 800 port; and
  • one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog.

The new 2.0 GHz Mac mini, for a suggested retail price of $799 (US), includes:

  • 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB shared L2 cache;
  • 2GB of 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM expandable up to 4GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
  • 320GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm;
  • a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort and mini-DVI for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
  • Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 BASE-T);
  • five USB 2.0 ports;
  • one FireWire 800 port; and
  • one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog.

Specs for the rest of the new Macs below the fold:

The new quad-core Mac Pro, with a suggested retail price of $2,499 (US), includes:

  • one 2.66 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 3500 series processor with 8MB of L3 cache;
  • 3GB of 1066 MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM memory, expandable up to 8GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 graphics with 512MB of GDDR3 memory;
  • 640GB Serial ATA 3Gb/s hard drive running at 7200 rpm;
  • 18x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort and DVI (dual-link) for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • four PCI Express 2.0 slots;
  • five USB 2.0 ports and four FireWire® 800 ports;
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR; and
  • ships with Apple Keyboard with numerical keypad and Mighty Mouse.

The new 8-core Mac Pro, with a suggested retail price of $3,299 (US), includes:

  • two 2.26 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 5500 series processors with 8MB of shared L3 cache;
  • 6GB of 1066 MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM memory, expandable up to 32GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 graphics with 512MB of GDDR3 memory;
  • 640GB Serial ATA 3Gb/s hard drive running at 7200 rpm;
  • 18x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort and DVI (dual-link) for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • four PCI Express 2.0 slots;
  • five USB 2.0 ports and four FireWire 800 ports;
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR; and
  • ships with Apple Keyboard with numerical keypad and Mighty Mouse.

The new 20-inch 2.66 GHz iMac, for a suggested retail price of $1,199 (US), includes:

  • 20-inch widescreen LCD display;
  • 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6MB shared L2 cache;
  • 2GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM expandable to 8GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
  • 320GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 7200 rpm;
  • a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
  • built-in iSight video camera;
  • Gigabit Ethernet port;
  • four USB 2.0 ports;
  • one FireWire 800 port;
  • built-in stereo speakers and microphone; and
  • the Apple Keyboard, Mighty Mouse.

The new 24-inch 2.66 GHz iMac, for a suggested retail price of $1,499 (US), includes:

  • 24-inch widescreen LCD display;
  • 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6MB shared L2 cache;
  • 4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM expandable to 8GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
  • 640GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 7200 rpm;
  • a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
  • built-in iSight video camera;
  • Gigabit Ethernet port;
  • four USB 2.0 ports;
  • one FireWire 800 port;
  • built-in stereo speakers and microphone; and
  • the Apple Keyboard, Mighty Mouse.

The new 24-inch 2.93 GHz iMac, for a suggested retail price of $1,799 (US), includes:

  • 24-inch widescreen LCD display;
  • 2.93 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6MB shared L2 cache;
  • 4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM expandable to 8GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 120; with 256MB GDDR3 SDRAM memory;
  • 640GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 7200 rpm;
  • a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
  • built-in iSight video camera;
  • Gigabit Ethernet port;
  • four USB 2.0 ports;
  • one FireWire 800 port;
  • built-in stereo speakers and microphone; and
  • the Apple Keyboard, Mighty Mouse.

The new 24-inch 3.06 GHz iMac, for a suggested retail price of $2,199 (US), includes:

  • 24-inch widescreen LCD display;
  • 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6MB shared L2 cache;
  • 4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM expandable to 8GB;
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 130; with 512MB GDDR3 memory;
  • 1TB Serial ATA hard drive running at 7200 rpm;
  • a slot-load 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW);
  • Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
  • built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking & Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
  • built-in iSight video camera;
  • Gigabit Ethernet port;
  • four USB 2.0 ports;
  • one FireWire 800 port;
  • built-in stereo speakers and microphone; and
  • the Apple Keyboard, Mighty Mouse.

All specs from Apple’s press releases. See here and here.

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