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  • Make it Elegant or Make it Cheap!

    September 1st, 2010

    You know you can buy a netbook running Windows for less than $300, but the very cheapest Mac, the mini, is now $699. You also know that you can get a smartphone with the Google Android OS on it for next to nothing, but the cheapest iPhone is last year’s 3GS, at $99 with a two-year contract.

    Now it’s also true that the very cheapest smartphone will probably handle the basics reasonably well. You’ll be able to make and receive phone calls on them, and be limited by your carrier’s network in your neighborhood. There will be email, Web browsing and other features you expect from such a device. Input will be done via touchscreen, tiny keyboard, or both in the more powerful models.

    Certainly any plain PC will also be able to handle basic chores without a whole lot of pain, such as Internet access, email, and running some basic productivity apps. And, despite the claims to the contrary in Consumer Reports, you need a fairly powerful PC with a good graphics card for gaming. But CR lives in another universe when the real world is concerned.

    So if your goal is basic functionality without the elegance and frills, you can see why so many people choose tech gear on the basis of price rather than quality. Certainly you can get a perfectly serviceable cell phone for free with a contract, so why bother with an iPhone?

    It all comes down to this: What need should such a gadget — or even a personal computer for that matter — fill? Are you the sort of person who doesn’t mind getting your hands dirty fiddling around with rough interfaces and complicated and convoluted steps to alter settings or just access a basic function? If so, you might not care about the fineries of a great operating system, sexy hardware and predictable performance.

    Yes, I realize some argue that Apple overprices their products, whether for greed or other reasons, and that you can supposedly get equal or better hardware for a lot less money. The fact that Apple also regularly reports high profits cements that impression.

    Now when it comes to Macs, I have done fairly regular price comparisons in recent years. Of course, the comparisons have to be fair, which means both the Mac and the PC must have equivalent hardware and equivalent software, including the extras that include iLife on the former. That means that you can’t have a crippled version of Windows. You need the professional version with all features unlocked, and each and every element, from graphics card, to processor type and clock speed, must be as close as possible.

    When you do this sort of comparison, you may be surprised to find that prices aren’t so different. Sometimes the Mac is actually cheaper. If not, you only pay slightly more. As you move up the ladder to higher-end gear, you’ll find that Macs have an even greater advantage. A Mac Pro, equipped with the latest and greatest Intel Xeons, for example, usually costs hundreds less than similar products from Dell, which would mean a Precision Workstation.

    But even with similarly priced gear, there is something you can’t do on a Mac, which is to downgrade to the basics. Hardware customization is limited, except for the Mac Pro. You can’t eliminate extras that you might not need, such as Wi-Fi or a Web cam in an office where you don’t need either. I suppose that might present a problem in a business setting, where corporate purchasing managers are accustomed to equipping a PC just so, free of options that aren’t necessary.

    I understand that point of view, and why, when a company needs to buy a few thousand similarly equipped PCs, customized in the same way, the Mac may not be on their radar even if it has other advantages. I’m sure Apple knows this. They don’t want to become bottom feeders or compete with the overall PC market in the rush to beat everyone on price and price alone. As Apple says, they won’t build “junk,” and having a heavy share of the premium PC market has been a successful strategy. They won’t earn a heavy market share in the enterprise, but that doesn’t matter.

    When it comes to the iPhone, we’re still talking of a premium-priced device, and it may well be that the unit costs alone will result in lost sales to other smartphone platforms. But every single iPhone sold yields a hefty profit margin. So even if Android OS products ultimately become more popular than the iPhone worldwide — and they’re moving ahead in the U.S. now — that won’t stop Apple from remaining competitive and generating huge profits and sales.

    More to the point, tens of millions of people appreciate an operating system that is smooth and, usually at any rate, just works. That can’t always be said for the Android OS, although it’s getting better, and the problems with Windows are well known, even though Microsoft has improved things.

    Apple has succeeded with elegance; the competition just wants to make it cheap. You get to choose what you prefer.



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