The End of the Elite Generation

November 5th, 2008

Those of us who embraced the Mac as the ideal personal computer solution early on might have been thought of as elitists at one time. That’s because we all paid substantially extra for the privilege, and that’s where the concept of the “Apple Tax” began.

More to the point, for so many years, the Mac user existed in a tiny niche where artists and other content creators resided. If you wanted software, local stores would rarely be able to accommodate you. If they had any Mac products for you at all, they largely consisted of a few dusty boxes consigned to a rear, seldom-visited shelf. So you ordered mail order catalogs to find the titles you wanted. That was, of course, before the Internet and convenient online ordering spread to the masses.

Certainly the success of Microsoft’s Windows 95 made it awfully hard for some to remain faithful to the poor, beleaguered Mac platform. This isn’t to say that Apple didn’t do its share to make you feel abandoned. Sure there were regular model updates; in fact, so many sometimes that you didn’t know the differences.

Of course, part of that failed model proliferation scheme was an attempt to make Macs cater to the masses, in the same fashion as the generic PC. So the consumers were expected to buy a Performa, whereas the traditional Mac user would go for the Quadra and later the Power Mac. And don’t ask me how the name Centris came to be, although our David Biedny tells me that he was responsible for the name “Power Mac.”

In any case, Apple’s renewal began a decade ago with the introduction of the original pear-shaped iMac. Indeed, they sold millions of them. The strangely-shaped successor, with the articulated arm, didn’t do quite so well, although it was a fascinating bit of engineering.

More to the point, though, by making Macs more mainstream in terms of pricing and user appeal, the potential audience crew incredibly. While I haven’t polled my readers recently about this, except for the special listener surveys we do on the radio show sites, I bet a large number of you never heard of a Performa or a Quadra, and perhaps regard both as alien terms.

Well, perhaps, but as millions of you buy new Macs, I am willing to suggest that the conventional wisdom that we’re all part of an elite class has certainly gone out the window. Indeed, Apple has to be pleased over this state of affairs, and you can well believe that some of their design decisions have followed this marketing initiative.

Let’s look, for example, at the new MacBook with that terrific aluminum unibody. I know some of you are disappointed that it no longer has a FireWire port. But consider that most of the people who used FireWire on a consumer-grade note-book probably required it for an external hard drive or a camcorder.

Well, as Steve Jobs has said, most of the camcorders you buy today, except for professional-grade products, have USB 2.0 ports. What’s more, there is a plentiful selection of USB drives. Sure there are undeniable advantages to FireWire from a technological point of view, but for most of you, I bet USB is good enough. Even the iPod no longer requires FireWire. Indeed, it probably saves Apple a few dollars on each unit, the better to pay for that glass trackpad with the embedded button.

I would also think that the move to glossy screens on new Macs, however controversial, has a larger purpose in mind. We ran a tiny survey, and found that roughly 56% of you like glossy (this figure will change slightly from day to day), although many of you still object and prefer matte. Certainly my friend Rob Griffiths, a Macworld Senior Editor, abhors glossy because he cannot tolerate the reflections under many lighting conditions.

There is also the larger question of how well a glossy screen fares when you try to calibrate for more accurate color reproduction. Certainly Macs are still preeminent in the graphic arts industry where accurate color is a prerequisite, So does that present a potential obstacle? Does Apple expect content creators to just use external displays when they cannot, for whatever reason, tolerate glossy?

In a practical sense, glossy does have its undeniable advantages. Pictures seem brighter, blacks richer, and from a mass-marketing point of view, I can see where they might be preferred. While Apple doesn’t break out the actual figures, it’s also possible that, when both glossy and matte displays were offered on the MacBook Pro, the vast majority of users preferred the former. So Apple made an appropriate decision.

Then again, Apple quite often finds itself ahead of the curve when adding and removing features. They got plenty of flack with those first iMacs, because they didn’t have floppy drives, nor the traditional peripheral ports, such as LocalTalk and SCSI. Instead, it was all Ethernet and USB, but the rest of the PC industry finally caught up.

Today, being a Mac user no longer puts you into an elite class, unless you feel that people who prefer elegant design, relative ease-of-use and reliability ought to feel special. Apple happens to think that most everybody would prefer their solutions if they gave them gave half a chance, and I happen to agree.

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9 Responses to “The End of the Elite Generation”

  1. Adam says:

    Just a few quick comments:

    If you google (should that be capitalized even when used as a verb?) for MacBook take apart, or something similar, you will find that there are several sites with photos of the 2008 unibody macbook being stripped down. There’s no room on that logic board for another port. Nor is there room around the other components to enlarge the board. Personally, looking at the components, I think it’s because Apple chose to address the constant complaints about battery life by using a slightly larger battery. Anyway, something had to give. With the plethora of USB devices in use by consumers it seems to me that the consumer notebook needs 2 USB ports. At the Genius Bar I found that 90% or so of the consumer market that this machine is aimed at had no idea what firewire was or how to use it. Pros may want it on the smaller notebook, but targeted design is targeted design and they are not Apple’s target for this machine.

    Watch the video from the announcement and count the number of times the phrase “highly recyclable” is uttered. Again, as a former Apple employee I can assure you that the environment is (both corporately and culturally) extremely important to Apple. This was the “Greenpeace announcement”. Highly recyclable pushes towards glass over plastic. Glass = glossy. There are various matte screen overlays that are available and are apparently well rated by the users.

    We may not agree with or appreciate the choices they make at 1 Infinite Loop, but they never ever make these choices lightly or capriciously. Sometimes they reverse them, but I doubt that will be the case here.


  2. hmurchison says:

    While I’m happy to see that the alu Macbook is highly durable with a dearth of connectivity the laptop simply isn’t going to last as long as it’s tough body. The design of the laptop took precedence over the functionality which has always been a hallmark of Jobsian design “form often trumps function” in his world. Though that doesn’t mean that I must kowtow to this ideology. The Macbook is a weak computer with regards to functionality. 2 USB ports and Ethernet/Wireless/audio is substandard for a $1300 laptop. No Firewire, no Expresscard no eSATA means it’s already behind its peers. I love the form but function must reign supreme in my world. Most camcorders sold today are still MiniDV which requires FW. Most standout audio interfaces use FW today (Apogee Duet and Ensemble). An with regards to Jobs’ HD cameras use USB. Can he guarantee that the USB works flawlessly on a Mac? Brian Chen from Macworld finds this year that 3 out of 5 USB laptops failed to function to full potential on Macs. This is a %60 failure rate and seems antithetical to the “It just works” mantra for Macintosh.

    Matte vs Glossy is another issue. Expecting Color Accuracy in a $1300 laptop is a bit foolhardy when artists are paying thousands of dollars for color accurate LCD. Though I feel that the Macbook Pro models should give people the choice.

    The new Macbook line is solid (no pun intended) but rather unremarkable other than their casing. Since moving to Intel innards Apple’s hardware has been IMO less than stellar. It is OS X and the iPod/iPhone which is carrying the company and delivering innovation.

  3. Sean says:

    I just priced out a Dell XPS M1330 against the $1299 MacBook. Both have 2 USB ports, the Dell has Firewire (cleverly designated IEEE 1394a to avoid paying Apple for use of its trademark) but no gigabit ethernet. The MacBook has an LED display standard, 265mbNVIDIA 9400M gpu, while the Dell offers an LED display and 128mb NVIDIA 8400M only as add on options. If you choose the NVIDIA gpu from Dell, you have to shell out an additional $30 for a higher watt hour battery on top of the price of the display and card. Dell even charges you $10 extra for 802.11n, included in the price of the MacBook. Perhaps you don’t have a need for a gpu, fast ethernet, fast wireless network connection, or an LED display, but those are all ‘functional elements missing from a ~$1300 Dell Laptop. The Dell does have a spiffy fingerprint reader though.

  4. So much for overpriced Macs. 🙂


  5. hmurchison says:

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news fellas.

    $1195 2.26 Ghz C2D GMA 4500 Intel graphics 14.1 screen

    4 USB 2.0
    1 1394a
    1 microphone in
    1 headphone/line-out
    1 AC power
    1 docking connector
    1 battery connector
    1 external VGA monitor; 1 RJ-11; 1 RJ-45; 1 S-video

    1 6-in-1 media reader
    1 Express Card/54

    Again the Macbook is gorgeous but where it excels in looks it equally lacks in featues. I wish it were otherwise.

  6. Add to that price the cost of Windows Vista Ultimate and a consumer-level suite to match the functionality of iLife, and you’ll see the Mac isn’t so expensive after all. This is where the price comparisons fall down.


  7. adam says:


    That laptop is also a third of an inch thicker, over half an inch deeper, and about a half an inch wider. Like I said, given the size of the MacBook, there’s not the room for another port. I have inspected the MLB, I am something of an expert here, and I am telling you that the form factor does not allow for it. Sean’s comment about the Dell requiring a bigger battery for the better graphics may explain why there is no room, though I don’t know (yet). Let’s not forget that size and portability are designed features, too. That’s why so many are still bitching that Apple doesn’t make a 12inch MacBook Pro. That’s why people pay a premium for the Air.

    Also you conveniently missed the fact that this product is on sale right now and the original price is $1409 Copy and paste from the link you provided:

    Leasing As low as $34/mo.**
    Originally: $1,409.00*
    » Find a reseller

    Special offers:
    See all notebook offers

    Come on now, I see your point, but Gene is right in that when you get this computer it will not be as fully functional out of the box as a Mac unless you add in the cost of extra software. Not only that, but you are comparing the MSRP of the MacBook to a sale price with a total discount of $214 which means, hold on now, the MSRP is $110.00 more than the MSRP of the MacBook. Why is it on sale? Will it be on sale next week? Will it be replaced by a newer model next week? I don’t know, because I don’t care to take the time right now, but to me this seems not to be a fair comparison. BTW: If you are willing to have a plastic enclosure (like the HP) and you want FW, go to the special deals section at the Apple Store and pick up a (current until 2 weeks ago) MacBook with a faster processor than your HP for $999 while they last. I just looked and they are availabe at this time. I can play this game all month if you like.

    Look, I don’t work for Apple any more and if you prefer the specs on another PC (that’s Personal Computer, marketing definitions aside) and if your criteria for purchase is cost/specs, the gosh darn it Jethro, buy the thing and go forth into the world. Heck, I used to tell that to people in the Apple Store with my boss 20 feet away. Some people just do better with Windows and guess what? I’m OK with that! Don’t forget $50.00 to $100.00 for security software, though. That alone brings you within spitting distance of the MacBooks price.

    My criteria is a computer that works out of the box. One that functions generally well with little upkeep from me. Last Friday I installed “critical security updates” for Windows Vista on my machine at work and since then I have had half a dozen hard crashes either at boot up or login, the only solution for which is to roll back the update or constantly boot into “Last Known Good” configuration which is extra work every day unless I want to leave the computer on and pulling power all night. That “necessary” update has rendered the OS nearly unusable and cost my employer a half a day’s worth of my productivity so far. Not a virus, an update from Microsoft. I also want a PC that will not be obsolete in 2 or 3 years. My average life cycle for a Mac is currently holding strong at 5 to 8 years – your mileage will vary. Finally I want my preferred user interface, one that makes me (again this is me, not necessarily everyone) more productive. That is OSX, and I am willing to pay a trivial difference on a leveled pricing field to get it.

    Do you really think that Apple, or the MacBook, is going to suffer significantly for the lack of firewire on a notebook that is targeted to an audience where 90% of them don’t even know what it is or what it’s used for? Seriously, spend a day at a Genius Bar and ask everyone who comes in if they use that port on their Macs, you’ll be amazed. Do you think that someone who wants to work in OSX is going to jump to Windows for $200.00 before security software and maintenance costs? I respectfully, and vehemently, disagree.


  8. hmurchison says:


    Yes there’s no room for FW because the design goals were to make a very thin laptop. Form trumped functionality. The HP notebook is going to fit in a bag just as well or an airplane tray just as well. The Macbooks design is thin because Steve Jobs loves thin even if it means that former laptops had underclocked GPU to prevent overheating.

    There are people who cherish the small size and those who cheris having a functional computer. I believe the latter to be the numeric superior.

    The HP laptop that I linked was a 2.26 Ghz laptop. I could easily go down to parity with the 2 Ghz Macbook and again beat the price. It’s a more well appointed’s likely worth the additional money regardless of metal vs plastic casing and LED screens.

    Regarding price ..let’s not forget the HP comes with a 3yr parts/labor warranty standard to Apple’s 1 yr. Once you add Apple Care @ $249 the 2Ghz Macbook is more expensive. With the HP I have the money savings to buy Vista Ultimate or buy iLife like applications yet I maintain my connectivity for the future. Also the new Macbooks screen is encased within the glass protective covering which means a crack anywhere means the whole LED display needs to be replaced. Do not buy one without Apple Care is my suggestion.

    The $999 Macbook does have Firewirew but GMA x3100 graphics which is a generation behind the HP’s GMA 4500 graphics and the Macbook still doesn’t have the expansion.

    You are correct, people will choose what’s best for them and me personally I would not buy a Macbook. It does not represent a product of value and while the sales will boom initially I expect them to tail off later in the lifecycle as ugraders with capable machines skip the Macbook. I’ve already seen angry people who don’t see why FW was jettisoned. They’re not going to spend their money on a product that doesn’t support their current hardware. Jobs can afford to buy a new HD cam ever hour if he wanted to but the rest of us that aren’t in the Top %1 of earners have a bit of a problem getting rid of our hardware.

    In Summation.

    Before someone tells you how great the Macbook is you must look at the whole picture people. You know think about what products you may want to connect to your laptop. If you don’t have an extended warranty you need to think about worst case scenarios “what if my USB or Ethernet port dies?” Software can be added or removed at will but it will be hardware that you struggle with if you are not given the necessary avenues for expansion. We all love OS X and it’s the draw to this platform but we musn’t think that Microsoft will flub up future versions of their OS. You deserve to have a laptop with some connectivity. Do you really want to carry around USB card readers and other external devices that could be replicated with internal expansion hardware?

    The Macbook , when compared to its peers, does not represent a good value. It’s a solid performer but “form over function” has left quite feeble in many other areas.

  9. Bo says:

    In comparing the pricing of Macs to more or less generic PC’s I find it is lacking in not taking the OS into account. The prime reason for me to use a Mac isn’t the enclosure, glossy or not, it isn’t the number of ports, media card reader or lack thereof or much of anything else of the hardware (as long as it is reasonably current). I buy a Mac because I want to use OS X. I am very savvy in using Windows at work, I can also make my way in Linux, but when I get home I chose to use Mac OS X, because it fits my personal needs a whole lot better than Windows or Linux. I am sure that there are fine laptops from other computer makers – if you want to run Vista. I don’t. If I pay a premium to be able to use my OS of choice, so be it.

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