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  • Does Apple Really Build What You Want?

    November 3rd, 2009

    When the Cube first came out in 2000, I got one to evaluate for a major online tech site. As I took it out of the box and hooked it up, my wife waxed enthusiastic over the sexy industrial design. When I wrote up my review, I remarked, quoting a line from an Indiana Jones movie, that it “belongs in a museum.”

    While I realize some of you still have a Cube running at your home or office, my opinion at the time was that it was best used for a museum piece, since it wasn’t a terribly practical product. Nowadays, I even wonder if it wasn’t designed largely to satisfy the personal indulgences of Steve Jobs, since it echoed the original NeXT Cube in some respects.

    Certainly it wasn’t a very practical design. If you moved your hands too close to the touch-sensitive switches, you might accidentally put the thing to sleep, as my wife did often during routine cleaning of my office. The expansion slot was a little too small for some peripheral cards, and performance was decidedly lackluster for the price of admission.

    Even after a fairly substantial price cut, Apple realized that they couldn’t sell enough Cubes, so they discontinued that model in 2001, just weeks after Jobs denied any such intention.

    However, such products as the Mac mini, AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule and even the Apple TV are clearly influenced by the Cube, and the form factors are certainly more practical. Well, that is unless you really need to open up your Mac mini and add memory or replace the hard drive.

    The larger question is how much does Apple consider the public when creating a new product. Did they, for example, respond to your demands when they created the iPod? Probably not, but they surely saw a need to build a digital media player that would better fulfill the potential of such a device than anything competitors offered. They were right.

    On the other hand, some of you really wanted Apple to enter the mobile phone business, and it is clear that they resisted for years until they could create the iPhone, a product that most agree set a new standard for style and usability.

    When it comes to Macs, six distinct product lines, half in the desktop and the other half in the note-book category, are far fewer than anything most other PC makers offer. Yes, there are ways to customize individual models with extra RAM, larger drives, and, sometimes, different graphics hardware. But the choices Apple offers are again quite minimalist for anything but a Mac Pro, where there are far more ways to build the computer you want.

    Apple gets criticized for the lack of choice. In large part, I think Steve Jobs is responding to the problems that afflicted the Mac lineup in the mid-1990s, when there were so many models even company executives couldn’t readily distinguish one from the other. That situation, in fact, probably holds true for most PC box makes to this very day. I challenge any Dell executive, of any position within the company, to fully explain the confusing, overlapping and useless variations they offer customers. You almost wonder if they would seriously consider letting customers select the color of the screws used on their desktops if they thought a few customers would want such a choice.

    However, Apple’s overly threadbare product choices can engender its own brand of customer confusion. I mean, when someone tells you they have an iMac, that provides only the barest amount of information as to which model they actually have. After all, iMacs have been around for over 11 years, and they’ve undergone several deep design upgrades that bear no resemblance whatever to their predecessors, except for being all-in-one computers. Compare, for example, a 27-inch iMac with the original Bondi Blue edition and you’ll see what I mean. If you didn’t recognize these machines, would you be able to identify both of them as iMacs.

    My desktop computer is a Mac Pro, and you certainly have a picture of what it looks like. But unless I also identify it as an Early 2008 model, you wouldn’t know which one I was talking about. The same holds true for my Early 2008 17-inch MacBook Pro.

    The car makers have this down pat. Even when the models change only slightly from year to year, certainly you’d understand what I mean when I tell you my son has a 2007 VW Jetta, as opposed to, say, a 2010 model.

    In any case, distinguishing one model variation from another is not a serious issue unless your Mac requires repair or you need technical support. The real issue is whether Apple’s approach can deliver the computer you need. If, for example, you don’t like glossy computer displays, you are obviously not a potential iMac customer. Apple doesn’t give you a non-glossy choice, except on some versions of the MacBook Pro. Even then you have to pay $50 for what I expect you’d interpret as something that offers less and not more.

    Apple’s logic is that they aren’t going to build a product unless they can sell enough copies to make it profitable. That means that you won’t get a non-glossy iMac unless demand is extremely high. There will probably never be a mid-priced expandable desktop without an integrated display simply because the market is moving towards note-books.

    So, yes, Apple will build what you want, but only if the “you” can be counted in tens or hundreds of thousands.

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