A Surprising Slant on the Expensive Mac Myth

October 21st, 2016

I’ve been involved in more than a few discussions about alleged expensive Macs over the years. Although that was no doubt true in the early years, my contention more recently is that a Mac and PC are in roughly the same price category with comparable specs and bundled software. Sometimes the PC is cheaper, sometimes the Mac.

Well, you can bet that pronouncement, uncontroversial as it seems to me, received plenty of blowback. I’ve seen loads of comparisons, but most of the hardware specified by the opposition actually wasn’t comparable at all. So the next argument was that Apple should offer Macs that do compete in the lower price ranges. That’s something you can actually argue, although Apple has picked its fights carefully. So the cheapest Mac is the $499 Mac mini, and the cheapest Mac notebook is the $899 MacBook Air.

It’s also true that it’s hard to make money from cheap gear, but most companies believe that they can somehow make up the difference in volume, which is rarely true. How many PC companies are even reporting profits anymore — other than Apple?

In any case, these price comparisons are limited. They only cover what it costs to buy one of these devices, not the cost of operation, and that’s where things really get interesting.

Now having worked on both Macs and PCs over the years, I’ve long maintained that it costs less to use a Mac. Some surveys show the same thing, and there’s now confirmation from a company that used to be Apple’s rival, and that’s IBM.

So back in 2015, IBM began to give employees the choice to pick a Mac or a PC. As of today, there are 90,000 Macs deployed throughout the company, but only five admins are needed to offer support.

According to a report published in Re/code, which quotes Fletcher Previn, IBM’s VP of Workplace as a Service, “Every Mac we buy is, in fact, continuing to make and save IBM money.” How much? Well, IBM’s survey lists the savings as ranging from $265 to $535 over a four-year period of ownership. That’s more than enough money to account for any theoretical PC price advantage. Indeed, IBM is reportedly Apple’s largest corporate customer now, and plans to have 100,000 Macs deployed by the end of 2016.

What’s more, 73% of IBM employees want a Mac when they request a new computer. This is the sort of argument that ought to convince many companies to make the same move, so long as the apps they need are available in macOS versions.

The timing of this announcement is curious, since Apple has been criticized lately for not upgrading Macs as often as it should. A media event is scheduled for Thursday, October 27th, ostensibly to introduce some new Macs — maybe upgrade all of them. At the very least, there will probably be a new MacBook Pro that’s thinner and lighter, and incorporates an OLED control strip to replace the function keypad. In addition to the usual speed improvements, Apple may move to USB-C and add support for Touch ID.

The improvements for other Macs are less certain in the rumor mills. Maybe faster graphics and the usual processor refreshes for the iMac. The MacBook Air? Hard to know. It’s not that Apple has lavished much attention on the cheapest Mac notebook for a few years, so enhancements have been relatively minor. A curious rumor specifies that the 13-inch MacBook Air is due for a refresh, but nothing is said about the 11-inch model, which is strange. That’s the entry-level notebook that not only attracts a lot of Mac users who want something small and light, but serves as a relatively inexpensive way to go Mac.

While the MacBook is thought of us a potential replacement for the MacBook Air, it’s entirely too expensive. Unless the price goes down by at least $300, which isn’t something I’m expecting, it should not be sold in place of the cheaper model. But isn’t it time for the MacBook Air to gain a Retina display? There are still two versions of the 21.5-inch iMac that sport standard definition displays, and I suspect that’s also due for a change.

It’s possible some of the MacBook Airs will stick with a regular display, but the move to Retina is inevitable and it may begin this year.

In the meantime, you can bet that lots of people will continue to attack Apple for selling overpriced luxury gear. The comparisons will continue to be made, and they will almost always be deceptive. Still, Apple has figured out how to build quality gear, charge a reasonable price, and make high profits. It’s a trick most tech companies haven’t quite mastered. Well, Samsung didn’t do so badly, but the failure of the Galaxy Note 7 phablet will take its toll to the tunes of billions of dollars of lost profits. It will also do damage to the company’s reputation that has yet to be estimated, unless Samsung’s management can do proper damage control, and it doesn’t appear they have a clue of what that is.

Even though I’m not really planning on buying a new Mac this year, I’ll eagerly await the announcements at the October 27th event.

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2 Responses to “A Surprising Slant on the Expensive Mac Myth”

  1. Kumud says:

    Initial cost is a (poor) metric that has been used for decades by the ‘majority’ to berate the ‘minority’. It is an easy metric to use, but still remains a poor one. Total cost is a better metric, but it is ‘nebulous’ to compute in the absence of trustworthy ‘long-term’ data.

    This new data from IBM is perhaps as close as it gets to a ‘double-blind placebo controlled’ study. And yet, the ones who suffer from confirmation bias will undoubtedly ignore it. There is a conflict of interest at play for the large IT departments – imagine the hundreds of IT jobs that may be eliminated if Macs were to replace PCs! 🙂

  2. Stephen Keese says:

    IBM’s announcement was dejá vu. From 1981 to ’87 I was with John Hancock’s Office of the Future. We bought a few Lisas and Macs for the graphics people when a Lisa cost $10k, a monochrome Mac cost $2k, and a Laserwriter cost $7k. After a couple of years experience with them we did that same cost benefit, TCO, and user satisfaction analysis that IBM did and came to the same conclusion. Since Hancock was an “IBM shop”, the analysis made no difference.

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