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Steve Jobs: Keeping Apple Small Time? Part 2
Author: Michael Ahlf       Date: June 22nd 2003

A while back, I wrote an article asking why it was that the Mac, for all its luster and Apple's attempts to make it seem like a wonderful, happy, powerful status-symbol machine, almost the muscle car or luxury car of the computer world, can never get beyond having a low-end desktop market share in recent years, even after Steve Jobs came back in 1997.

The original article can be found right here on Glide Underground for those who wish to read it.

So the article has remained up -- and occasionally I get an email from a Mac zealot or two. The sane ones point out to me that the machines I have dealt with are no longer in production, and that somehow my concerns with the Mac are not viable any more. The more Mac Zealot-y they are, the more they write inane rants calling into question my ancestry, intelligence, education level, and many more colorful invectives.

That being said, I still believe I know quite well why it is Apple has some of those problems. Some of it stems from goofups in recent memory, and some from the common ways Apple does business to this day.

Goof #1 -- the "Switch" Campaign

Apple thought it would be a good idea to run a campaign wherein they showcased users who, they claimed, had formerly worked on the PC but moved to Mac and refuse to move back.

Unfortunately, this strategy was a bit over the top, and allowed Apple to get into some problems.

Problem #1 - the PC is not a brand as such. Apple competes with all other desktop makers, server makers, and so on, but Apple wants people to identify with their Apple on almost a cultish level.

Problem #2 - this campaign missed the boat. How do Dell and Gateway sell computers nowadays? It's not by emphasizing their machines' trendiness, or the "cool factor". It's primarily by making the customer feel that, when they buy a Dell or a Gateway, they are taken care of. That they have a great service hotline to call if there is a problem, that the machine is a model that is well-tested, and that they are not overpaying. We can liken this to the car motif once again; the biggest selling points in cars these days are warranty length, safety rating, and price. Apple, by trying to push a machine that has none of these front-and-center, pushes themselves into a niche market.

Problem #3 - they opened themselves to ridicule in terms of parody ads:

Parody ad #1
Parody ad #2
Parody ad #3

If you want more, run a Google search, they're out there in the wild.

Goof #2: Reliance on "Look and Feel"

One of the biggest things Mac zealots will always point to is how rich, or "easy to use", or simple, or a hundred other adjectives, Apple's various OS incarnations are.

They miss the picture. The problematic fact today is that (and this will probably generate tons of flaming emails) Windows and OS X are perceived as approximately the same difficulty, to a person who is new to computers, to learn. Yes, I said it.

But I'm serious. Apple relies on making its interface look cute and inviting. Microsoft has been spending a lot of time on this in recent years, and XP does indeed look warm and inviting. Apple has only one button, while the Windows machine commonly has two plus a scrollwheel. Unfortunately, having one or two buttons isn't that different, and scrollwheels are darned intuitive.

The other trick inside all this is that Apple needs, desperately so, to make its interface perceived as not just "a bit easier" but "so completely easier you can sit down and use it at once" easier. Why? Because of the problems above in Goof #1. People will put up with a few extra hoops, a bit of extra learning time, if they feel they have saved money or gotten a superior product in the long run. Apple, if they are not going to run ads featuring price comparisons to Dell/Gateway, or comparing warranty terms, will need to make their product seem amazing not just on its own but in comparison to their competitors' hype, and they have a hard time doing that right now.

Apple had a great time of it in the Win95 days when people still worried about the DOS command line, but now? Sorry. Apple's problem here is that the PC has caught up, and Dell/Gateway do a really, really good job of making sure that people know it.

Goof #3: Hardware and the MHz Myth

One thing Apple has NEVER, NEVER done in recent memory is manage to successfully push their machines as powerful machines, except to the loyalists. The best they have managed to put forth have been multi-processor machines, which unfortunately works a lot better on people hunting for servers than those buying desktop rigs. 

The bottom line? Apple tied themselves down to PowerPC architecture, and Motorola couldn't deliver. Now we wait on IBM's new chip to see what it can do for the Mac, but the damage has to some extent been done already, and it will take a lot to undo.

And before anyone mentions AMD... lest we forget, AMD's synthetic naming structure is made to LOOK a lot like MHz, and that's by design. They came at the MHz Myth the only way one could logically do it, by making a naming structure that people will subconsciously miss.

Goof #4: Application Compatibility

Apple's approach, has always been with other platforms' software (except for the rare game they can get ported) to say, "But we have one that does it better."

The problem? People LOVE portability. Having MS Office on both platforms, PC and Mac, is great. But pushing for the rest gets harder and harder.

If Apple were serious about expanding in market share, then they would need either to convince 95% of the market to put out concurrent software releases of both PC and Mac ports of programs, or else they need to kick out a mode inside their OS that actually convinces Windows/x86-native apps that they are running inside Windows. 

Till then, they have a problem.

And then the other fun things... 

There are, of course, tons of other fun items that writers-in like to tell me. I can share a few of them, and my responses.

#1 - "But the Hockey Puck mouse is gone." Right; is the "my entire mouse is the button" mouse really that much better? I argue no. Meanwhile, we have the new designs; you can't replace the monitors on the new iMacs with a bigger one later, and they look like desk lamps more than they look like computers.

#2 - "The Mac is about to kick ass in the server market." Last I checked, the Mac servers were up to 1.2% of the market, and that was hailed as a 273% increase. The percentage is a bit misleading. They've barely breached 1% of the market, up from a bit under 0.5%. Wake me when they reach 5% and I'll be impressed.

#3 - "Market share doesn't matter." There is some truth to this in various regards, but it becomes extremely misleading. Automobile manufacturers of specialty items, such as luxury cars or muscle cars, are quite happy with a smaller percentage of the overally car market. BUT, these companies then compare themselves to the other companies in their niche, and jockey for market share within that niche. So sure, Jaguar may not have a massive share of the overall car market, but you'd better believe they might get worried if they were down from 10% one year to 8% the next in the luxury car market. 

Apple's market, like it or not, is largely desktop PCs. You can't really pare it down any farther unless you define it as "Mac-Compatible" PCs, in which case they are at 100% of their niche, but that's just silly. So yes, Apple SHOULD be worried when their worldwide market share is under 3%, and U.S. market share under 4%.

#4 - "But the iPod ROX!" I can but refer you to Penny Arcade's take on the matter. My own perspective as well: I own a CD-based MP3 player, cost me $80 -- about 1/5 of what an iPod would run me. Never known it to skip unless the CD was dirty, and at high headphone-quality audio (suitable for the AOpen Headphones) I can burn in 10 hours of music as MP3s. CD-Rs and RWs are dirt cheap. What do I need an iPod for again?

#5 - "But the Apples look so nifty." Why do you think Gateway and Dell spend time designing nicer-looking cases, with headphone ports and USB ports in the front? People like nifty things, but very few will buy something that is too far from the norm -- for example, very, very few would buy a three-wheeled vehicle made for highway speeds, they would go for either the motorcycle or the automobile or the SUV. Apple's designs are radical and bold, and get great hype from the wierd early adopters, but the rest of the people still want something that looks vaguely computer-ish for the time being. If Dell/Gateway manage to make their boxes not look UGLY, and they have, then the competition comes down to the other arenas where Apple loses (see Goof #1 above).

Conclusion: I need not reach for the salt yet.

Sorry folks. I am not about to eat my words yet -- Apple still has a long ways to go if they are ever to break out of a tiny niche of market share. And I still believe that many of my old points apply as well; you can decide for yourselves if Apple has successfully rectified one or another of them yet.

Though you are perfectly welcome to email me -- I will of course be wonderfully nice and email you back if you are not flaming and insulting about it.

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Keeping Apple Small Time? - Letters!


Added:  Sunday, June 22, 2003
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

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