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Article: Brother, Can You Spare $200?

by on April 1, 2002

A few months back, someone on the message boards over at Low End Mac made the following comment:

The real question everyone must ask isn’t, “Which is the best computer?” but rather, “Which is the best computer FOR ME?”

I mulled it over in my mind for a while, got started on a column about it, and then sort of lost the muse, so I shelved it. With the recent iMac price increase, my original point I had intended to make has again become relevant. Here’s what I had originally written:

Buying a computer is, at this point in time, a matter of what works best for the buyer. For most people, computers serve only to do word processing, check e-mail, browse the WWW, and use programs like AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. Others may occasionally use personal finance software or spreadsheets. Only a very small – but not unimportant – minority uses specialised software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Maya, Digidesign’s Pro Tools, or the like.

There is only one compelling reason why the new LCD iMac does not fit the above needs for most of the population: up-front cost.

The Macintosh is no longer the luxury item it was in the 1980s, when the only people privileged enough to use a IIfx were those working in the graphics industry (and whose companies had purchased them with company funds) or those with disposable income. However, merely because computers are now within the financial grasp of nearly everyone doesn’t mean the iMac is the ideal low-end Macintosh computer for the masses.

My mother is fond of saying something like, “Just because it’s a bargain doesn’t mean you should [or can] buy it.” I remember asking my parents recently if they would buy a Mercedes C-class instead of a new Honda Accord if they could get one for about $30,000 or less. Their response, as I had anticipated, was a resounding “no.” The analogy isn’t perfect, but Apple is going to have a very hard time convincing the low-end computer buyers that the new iMac is a compelling purchase when it costs $300-800 more than a comparable Dell, Gateway, or eMachines.

Sure, Microsoft wants to be the master of all your personal data (think .NET here), and sure, Windows XP isn’t an OS X, or even a Win2K. But the average consumer doesn’t know that. The average consumer blithely goes about his or her business on the ‘net, browsing and e-mailing away without thinking twice about cookies. If “the Internet” works on a $600 eMachines tower, Joe Consumer doesn’t care that Microsoft is a monopoly, that total cost of ownership for a PC is higher, or that a 600MHz G4 is about as fast as a 1 GHz Pentium 4. Give Joe a choice between two near-equals in price, however, and you might *convince* him that those things matter. My parents freely acknowledge that BMWs and Mercedes Benzes are quieter, smoother, more comfortable cars, and they’d probably buy one if they could get one for the same price as (or reasonably close to) an Accord or Camry. But they can’t, so they don’t.

I’m quite aware that Dell, NEC, and Fujitsu, among others, have recently announced (or not announced) price increases, and I’m quite aware of all the arguments in favour of the Macintosh, and even that there really isn’t a PC that is “comparable” to a Mac. That’s not the point here. The point here is that when people go to the store to spend $1000 on a computer, they may only have $1000 to spend on a computer, not $1400 or $1900. Yes, I know Apple still sells the CRT-based iMac, but they certainly don’t make it as obvious as they could.

I appreciate the reasons behind the iMac price increase. In fact, I fully support it, for many of the same reasons Charles W. Moore outlines in his “Are Macs Getting Too Cheap?” and “Thoughts on the iMac Price Increase” columns. However, it doesn’t matter if the iMac is still a great value. A $50,000 Porsche 911 GT2 would be a great value too, but that doesn’t magically give me $50,000 to buy one. (Incidentally, if anyone happens to be selling one with less than 5,000 miles on it for this price, please e-mail me. Given that bargain, I think I might call in some favours…)

Apple exists for one reason, and one reason only: to create value for its shareholders, of which I am one. Yes, it’s a cynic’s view, but it’s the way business works. Apple has a responsibility to help its bottom line as much as possible. Attracting the low end of the market, the people who fall somewhere between impulse shopper and informed consumer, is one of the only ways to do this with the world economy the way it is right now. I have full faith that Apple can easily sell to the informed consumer, and I doubt Apple will ever cater to the impulse shopper. It’s the middle ground that matters, and it’s this middle ground that Apple may well lose by not having a perceived-equal computer in the sub-$1000 price range.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t pretend to have an answer for the problem. I’m just pointing out that it is a problem, and something needs to be done about it. Figuring out solutions is your responsibility as a reader. Got a particularly good solution?

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