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Biting Apple

In Wired magazine’s Cult of Mac blog, Leander Kahney takes a swipe at a Business Week article that does the unthinkable: it criticises Apple and in particular, suggests that Macs are too expensive. Kahney writes:

Really, it’s the same old bollocks and clearly demonstrates Salkever [the BW writer] has no understanding of Apple whatsoever.

To be fair, some of the article is misguided: when Salkever suggests that Apple should emphasise the relatively virus-free world of the Mac, he’s forgetting that such marketing would be a giant red rag to the virus writing community. However, Kahney’s ire is aroused by the suggestion that Macs are too expensive compared to PCs, and it’s clear that Kahney doesn’t want to see “trashy cheapo machines”. I don’t either, but anyone who thinks Macs are competitively priced is perhaps a little too close to Steve Jobs’ legendary Reality Distortion Field.

When it was released in 1998, the original iMac cost USD $1,299 (roughly the same as a mid-range PC) and it quickly became America’s best-selling computer. Apple dropped the price in early 1999 (to $1,199) and started increasing the specification and dropping prices further; by 2000, the 350MHz iMac was $799 and the following year, the same money would get you a 600MHz iMac – which was anything but a “trashy, cheapo machine”.

Then in 2002, Apple introduced the flat panel iMac – and the cost of an entry-level iMac soared from $799 to $1,299, while PC prices continued to plummet. In one fell swoop the iMac went from being a computer for everybody to a fetish object for the polo-neck brigade, and it stayed that way; when it was finally canned this summer, the cheapest iMac was still $1,299.

Compare that to the iPod: in 2001, the cheapest iPod was $399, while today’s entry level model is $299 (and the iPod Mini is cheaper still at $249). With the iPod Apple hasn’t just boosted the specification (although of course it has: the original iPod range started with just 5GB of storage) but it has also cut its prices by 25%, and introduced an even cheaper model to tempt more people into the iPod family.

There are strong similarities between the original iMac and the iPod; both are/were great products with brilliant marketing, gorgeous design and that all-important “cool factor” that makes Apple kit so compelling. However, both the original iMac and the iPod also fell in price as their specifications improved, whereas the anglepoise iMac didn’t. The first iMac was the best-selling computer in America, whereas its successor wasn’t even the best-selling xMac in the Apple Store. That honour goes to the ageing, education-oriented eMac which, if rumour sites can be believed, was outselling the anglepoise iMac by four to one at the beginning of this year.

Kahney writes:

Though not the cheapest, Apple’s machines are cheap. Seven years ago, a stick of laptop RAM cost $1,300. You can get a fabulous iBook for less these days.

Indeed. Four years ago, a basic iBook was $1,599 and a basic iMac $799; today, the iBook is 30% cheaper while the price of the iMac has nearly doubled. What’s wrong with that picture?

update: 24 august

Behold the power of MacSurfer! Within about 12 hours of posting this entry, MacSurfer had referred around 700 people to this page; as you’ll see from the comments, most of them disagree with me.

The two points that are coming up again and again are that I’m not comparing like for like, so a entry level PC is a much poorer proposition than an entry level Mac; and that I’m being unfair on the eMac. To take the second point first, I think it’s a fair point but I still disagree: to my mind the eMac sits outside the main Apple product lines, which are iBook/iMac for consumers, and PowerBook/Power Mac for professionals. The eMac was never intended to be part of that range, and when it initially launched it wasn’t available to ordinary customers at all; after about a month of howls from the Mac community, the eMac was made available to everyone and it became a big success. However, from the perspective of potential switchers I speak to, the eMac doesn’t appear on their radar at all (and it’s a rare sight outside Apple Centres; in most computer shops round these parts you’ll see iBooks and iMacs, but not eMacs); when they’re considering switching to a Mac it’s the iMac they think of before buying another Dell instead. As I’ve said in the comments section that’s entirely anecdotal evidence, but that’s good enough for me :-)

The other point, like for like comparison, is perfectly fair: as one poster has pointed out, if you compare the specs of various PCs against various eMacs and iMacs, you do get more Mac for your money. Again, though, I’ll play devil’s advocate: firewire, general component quality, zero latency on soundcards etc etc etc are important to more experienced computer users, but do they matter to the mum and dad who are looking for a decent machine for their kid who’s off to university, or someone who wants a cool computer for getting on the internet, doesn’t really know much about the technical stuff and doesn’t want to spend too much?

It’s been an interesting debate so far and I’m sure it’ll continue; I’m on deadline for the next few days so I’ll probably be pretty quiet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the feedback…