Monday, November 03, 2008

Hello, I'm a Yuppie -- er, a Mac

I am not a Microsoft whore. How's that for an opening? It's important for me to establish my bona fides from the outset on this sensitive topic, so let me say that back in the 90s I was an avid OS/2 user. I spent years tinkering with OS/2 both at home and at work (unilaterally) before my love for the coolness of the operating system finally gave way to my frustration with the lack of applications for it. But I didn't migrate back to Gatesworld out of devotion to Windows.

With that out of the way, let me make this declaration: the Macintosh is a ripoff. Or at least the Mac notebook computers are a ripoff. How do I know this without ever having owned a Mac myself? Well, it's not that Macs don't work well, or don't provide significant benefits. The problem is that Apple's prices for Mac notebooks represent the old Yuppie value paradigm that makes no sense in the contemporary economy.

First, the background for my comparison. Until this past weekend, I was using a Sony VAIO notebook PC from 2001. It's taken a beating over the years, and I've had to adapt. I could put up with a screen that has been attached by only one hinge ever since I dropped the computer in Jan. 2004. I could put up with a touchpad so worn-out that I had to turn off taps every time I booted up, or else the pad would go crazy and read all movements as taps, leading to windows bursting open all over the place. I could put up with a battery that had a life of about 10 to 15 minutes when fully charged.

I could put up with the lack of built-in wireless connectivity, and with a wireless modem PC card that sometimes didn't connect the first time, requiring me to pull it out and re-insert it. I could put up with only 256MB of RAM and slow USB 1.0. I could put up with a severe shortage of storage space, since the 30GB drive is stuffed with iTunes files and I had to save the few GB left over for virtual memory. And I could put up with not being able to write DVDs.

But I could not put up with the complete lack of practical Internet access that resulted when I "upgraded" to Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, which proved (as it had in the past) completely unable to make any connection with the Web from my PC. This time, however, an apparent glitch in the installation process left me unable to back out of the upgrade by uninstalling IE 7 and reverting to IE 6. I could no longer reach the Net or download a solution from anywhere, although I suppose I could have found Firefox on a CD somewhere and installed that. That might have worked.

Eventually, however, every computer must be slapped with a DNR order. It may still boot and run OK, but as an actual tool or toy, it's no longer viable. Such is now my 2001 VAIO, so I've replaced it with a 2008 VAIO with the following specs:
  • 16.4" cinema-style HD widescreen
  • Intel Core2 Duo whateverhz (stopped caring about processor speeds long ago)
  • 320 GB hard drive
  • 4 GB RAM
  • Vista Premium 64-bit edition
  • Webcam
  • Bluetooth (though I have no Bluetooth devices at present)
  • Blu-ray drive! (read-only; writes CDs and DVDs)
This tidy little unit cost me $899 at Best Buy. Originally $1,399, it was marked down to $999 when a slightly newer model arrived, then marked down another 10% because it was the display model.

Try to find a comparably featured MacBook for anything near that price. Try to find one for twice the price. According to Apple's website, a MacBook Pro with similar specs would cost between $2,300 and $2,700, and you cannot get a Blu-ray drive on a Mac at any price.

But isn't the Mac much "better"? Isn't Vista a miserable excuse for an operating system? Aren't the cachet and superior design of the Mac worth whatever premium Apple wishes to charge? (Macs never seem to be discounted, which is a symptom of the problem.)

No. Not at those prices, they aren't. Not when I can buy two or possibly three well-equipped Sony VAIOs (which are attractively designed in their own right) for the price of a single MacBook Pro. The insanely un-great Apple marginal-multiple value proposition must be rejected.

What do I mean by the "marginal-multiple value proposition"? Simply this: that a marginal increase in value can justify a multiplication in price by a factor of two or more. I am willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that Macs may be better than PCs in important ways. But Macs are not twice as good as nice PCs. They are not three times as good.

The marginal-multiple approach to pricing is often applied to relatively low-cost consumer items. Why buy an ordinary grapefruit from the supermarket when you can buy a grapefruit from a club that is slightly tastier but costs five times as much? Yuppies in the 1980s were notorious for pursuing marginal increases in quality at ridiculous markups, and this habit has been institutionalized in some sectors of the economy. But when the value proposition is applied to pricier goods, particularly technology products, it can quickly degenerate into emperor's new clothes lunacy. Haven't Mac enthusiasts ever heard of satisficing?

If you love your Mac, then love it. But don't pretend rationality is on Apple's side. Marginal-multiple snobbery is an 80s disease we really should have shaken by now.

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