21 July 2002

When Apple Stumbles

Anyone who knows me or has read this blog for more than a couple of minutes may be able to detect that I am an ardent Apple evangelist. Yes, you can hand-build a computer and get it to run some form of Windows (or preferably Linux) for far less than even an entry-level Mac (or even those PoS name-brand PCs). You could also build your own home for far less than a professional builder would charge, and you could also throw together your own car based on a go-kart frame for a fraction of the sticker price at the dealership. Come to that, making your own clothes is a lot cheaper as well. And while you're at it, why don't you start making your own cheese, Jebediah?

As with those other endeavours, most hand-built computers tend to look (and perform) like an amateur effort. Nonwithstanding the occasional bored PC tech who can slap together something reasonably good, the bottom line is that 90 percent of the time, if you'd paid yourself $5/hour for your lost time, productivity and general frustration, you could have bought yourself a dual-processor Mac (and an iPod, digital camera and digital video camera) with your earnings, and you'd have a lot more to show for it besides.

So for most people, I could personally guarantee that a Macintosh would provide you with more efficiency, enjoyment and enlightenment than any other brand of computer, even if they were half the price. The Mac difference is, for the average person, really and truly that much better. It is a vastly more pleasant experience, so much so that I am dumbfounded that only 25 million people in this country (maybe 10 percent of the computer-using population) have figured this out. On the other hand, McDonald's sells more hamburgers every day that all the gourmet restaurants in the world do every year, so maybe it's really not that much of a mystery. Mediocrity rules this planet.

For me, Apple represents more or less my ideal model of what a large capitalistic company should be like. They try to make a profit, sure, but they're really not interested in running the entire world the way some companies (coughRedmondcough) are. They really do try to raise the bar of the computing experience, and enable people who otherwise would never try to attempt new things. This has always been their goal, even when they were financially mismanaged or made some bonehead managerial moves. By and large, they've been successful -- not many people realise it, but Apple is actually a larger company than McDonalds, larger than FedEx -- it does around $8 billion a year in business, and has more than $4 billion in cash on hand (and almost $0 in long-term debt). They continue to make profits even in this poor economy, while most of their competitors (Dell, Gateway, HP) are either handing out pink slips, or in serious danger of disappearing, or are losing tons of money, or have actually already gone (hello, Compaq owners!).

That's why I'm always very pained when Apple does something I consider dumb. Apple has, for at least the last 10 years, been dancing in a minefield (largely of their own making, though MS's evil tactics sure didn't help any). Any misstep, particularly a large one, puts them at enormous risk. They don't have the luxury, as say Microsoft or Intel would, of deliberately pissing off a sizable portion of the userbase to further their own ends. Apple must always walk an incredibly tight line between moving forward and leaving anyone behind. Their market share (around 5% these days) is just too small to spare any developers, distributors, resellers or (most importantly) users. They don't fuck up as often as, say, Microsoft, but when they do it's a doozy, and to its credit the company's harshest critics are usually their most ardent fans.

Those passionate "Mac zealots" you read about in the press can easily turn their enormous energies towards Cupertino in a most unpleasant way when angered. In short, it doesn't take much to turn a huge fan base into a huge lynch mob.

And so we have the angry crowd demanding Steve's head on a spiked pole for the many "Mac surcharges" unveiled during last week's Macworld keynote address. For those of you who didn't catch it, basically Apple has been forced to start charging $100/year for their "iTools" service, now idiotically re-branded ".Mac" (a play on words from a title from Microsoft? Pathetic!) and they've (very foolishly, in my view) decided against offering an upgrade discount on the next version of OS X, dubbed "Jaguar" (and it's pronounced Jag-U-ar, by the way Steve ... not "Jagwire"). Oh, and Quicktime 6 is out and requires another update fee (not really part of the mass complaint, though ... more on that in a bit).

I'm very torn about this. On the one hand, I know I'm going to hear from some of the many people I've converted to the Mac platform, complaining that they may have to abandon their beloved "@mac.com" email address. While the $100 package, taken as a whole, is actually quite a good value, the problem is that not everybody needs all the services offered (here's a page describing the package. I think most people will agree it's worth the money). I'd estimate that about half of all mac.com customers use little more than just the current 5MB email box, and that's all they want to continue using.

Rather than force everyone to sign up for a deluxe $100/year ($50 the first year) package, Apple really should offer these folks a $10/year per account email-only deal. It would keep retention high (Apple has actually admitted they only expect 20% retention from this new plan, and I doubt they'll get even half that), it would soothe a lot of ruffled feathers, and it would at least give Apple some money from these people (as opposed to the $0 and a big raspberry they'll currently get from the vast majority of mac.com subscribers, if the current online sentiment holds true).

Personally, after mulling it over a bit, I've decided to sign up, at least for the first $50 year. I love my mac.com email address, I could really use 100MB of homepage space, I've never bought an anti-virus program (haven't needed one since 1995, but who knows what the future will bring?) and the Backup program is mighty attractive (and that's only part of what you get -- and more is promised, sez Steve). So for me it's easily worth $50-100 a year. But I am definitely in the camp of those that can't afford that (I wish Apple would at least offer a monthly autobill plan -- $8.33 a month is a lot easier to take), or who want the company to offer a free or low-cost email-only option. Somebody really didn't do their marketing homework on this one.

And speaking of marketing boners, pissing off your early adopters has got to be Pointy-Haired Boss' Marketing Idea #1. I am quite frankly shocked that Apple wouldn't offer 10.0 or at a dead minimum 10.1 owners a reasonable discount on OS X 10.2. Yes, I know it's a major feature release, as significant as a .5 release in the Mac days of yore or a complete year-change release from MS. I don't expect it to be free like the last such major release was, but surely the people who made the jump to OS X already (which is what Apple desperately wants as many of us to do as possible) deserve some reward compared to someone just now thinking of moving on up?

Admittedly the new features of Jaguar -- again, assuming you can use most or all of them -- look incredibly appealing and are probably quite well worth $129. That's half what MS charges for a similar type update. But there are a number of problems with the assumption that anyone who sees Jaguar will think $129 is a bargain:

1. Not all the features are that big a deal to me. Automatic IP discovery and configuration is nothing short of a miracle, but how will that benefit the typical home user? Handwriting recognition? Cool, but what do I actually do with it? Et cetera.

2. Benchmarks. I'm told this release will be wicked fast compared to 10.1. Great, but I'll believe it when I see it. Not everyone has a dual-processor G4 with a 32MB video card, ya know.

3. Various models and the interaction. Will older machines have a problem with 10.2? How about the Mac clones and other "unsupported" machines? Will my apps break? Will I have to get a bunch of upgrades to really take advantage of 10.2? Or a new machine even?

When you add up the sudden surcharges ($50 this year for .mac, $129 for Jaguar, $30 for QT Pro -- and that's in addition to the normal software upgrades one expects over the next six months or so), late August starts to look like a great time to buy a new Macintosh, but if you already own one it feels like the company is nickel-and-diming (and dollar-billing) you to death. I'm Apple's biggest fan, but I'm frankly not going to pay top dollar for 10.2. I'll wait till Apple sees the light or I can find a sale copy somewhere.

I put off writing this article because I had hoped that Apple would swiftly modify their plans a bit, and they might still do so ... give em a couple of weeks. Or give em feedback hell in their comments e-box. I predict that ultimately they'll cave, at least on the email business ... but this can't be helping when you're right in the middle of an expensive ad campaign to convince PC people to switch. Yes, what MS plans to do to you PC users in a year or so is actually a lot worse and much more expensive ... but it's not here yet, and Apple looks bad by comparison.

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