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The Microsoft “Lauren” ads are right

Joe Wilcox is right: The Microsoft “I’m not cool enough for a Mac” campaign has really struck a nerve. The Mac sites are abuzz with rebuttals, cries of foul, and general wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The reason for the attention is probably because there’s a grain of truth in what Microsoft is saying. The argument is pretty simple: the limited range of Mac models means that you can end up paying way over your budget to get a single feature. If you want a 17in machine and don’t want to pay an eye-watering £1,949, you’re out of luck. Yes, you get a lot of machine for that £1,949 – but some people just don’t require all the features that you get with a Mac.

This is exactly the argument that I made in my post on why I switched from Mac to Linux, and it’s one that the more fervant Mac promoters either don’t comprehend or willfully ignore.

I needed a 15in screen. However, I didn’t need two graphics cards, a 1GHz system bus, or the absolute top-end performance that I could have got from a MacBook Pro.

That meant that paying £1800 for one would have been bad value for me, giving me features that I just don’t need or want. In the end, I paid £900 for a Dell XPS 1530 which gives me all the features I needed at half the price. As I put it in my swtiching post:

“This, incidentally, is one of the often-forgotten twists to the whole ‘are Macs value for money?’ question. Compared to an identical-specced PC, they sometimes are. But often, users don’t need the features or power one of the Macs delivers. It’s not ‘value for money’ to pay for a machine with features you don’t need, unless they’re free or very cheap. In my case, for example, paying £1400 [the price has since risen] simply so I could have a 15in screen, when I don’t need a 1GHz system bus or two graphics cards can’t be considered good ‘value for money’.”

But does this mean Apple is doing something wrong? Not necessarily. Apple’s strategy since Jobs’ return has been to limit the number of different models deliberately, refusing to be driven into the “niche” market strategy of a Dell or HP where there’s a large (and often confusing) range of machines. This makes sense when you’re a small player, as it makes buying decisions easy for the customer and reduces the company’s overheads (lower stock, lower marketing costs, etc).

However, it also means – and Mac fans might not like to accept this – that there are plenty of people for whom buying a Mac makes no sense. I was one of those cases, and “Lauren” is another one. The key question is whether, in a tight economy, this kind of definition of value becomes more important – whether getting “the best machine for your needs and budget” triumphs over “the best machine, period”.

There is, though, one cloud on the horizon which makes me wonder if Apple’s strategy is sustainable. For the past month or so, I’ve temporarily put Linux to one side to do some serious testing of Windows 7, and there’s no doubt in my mind that as a consumer operating system it significantly closes the gap between Windows and Mac.

With Windows Vista, the difference was obvious. Vista was a pain in the behind to use, thanks largely to an over-zealous implementation of User Account Control and performance issues on slower machines. Win7 fixes those, adds in some nice features of its own, and generally looks like a serious contender.

This leaves the Mac with two key advantages: security, and applications. Apple and its advocates have done a great job of beating Microsoft over the head about security, but it’s really a non-issue day-to-day as long as you have up to date anti-virus software. And Microsoft has seriously raised its game with regard to writing more secure code.

Where Apple’s advantage still lies is in applications – quality, rather than quantity. Much as I loathe its stupid use of a non-open default formats, iWork really rocks. Despite silly quirks, iLife is lovely, and Final Cut Express is a great piece of software. Third parties keep churning out exceptionally cool applications, from Omni Group’s brilliant OmniGraffle, OmniPlan and OmniFocus through to the delicious Bento.

Mac applications beat the crap out of their Windows equivalents. Despite the fact that Windows has many times the number of applications, I can think of no occasion when, given a free choice, I’d use any Window app rather than the Mac alternative. Even Microsoft’s own Mac applications are better than their Windows counterparts.

I still have lots of issues which Apple’s failure to use and encourage open formats, which will keep me off the platform. But I think that Apple needs to recognise that, as with the iPhone, applications are a strength on the Mac – and promote the platform accordingly.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://cimota.com/blog mj

    Do people really buy laptops like that? Weird.

    I receive my buying instructions straight from the Mothership – which would kinda explain why I went into a store looking for a 17″ MacBookPro and came out with a MacBook Air….

    I do think DELL is the antithesis of Apple. No R&D, an eye-drying variety of machines and specifications, blithering idiot sales guys* and a build quality that borders on the “creaky” and occasionally “functional”. Which is why my ostensibly faster DELL Latitiude sits in the office collecting email and my slower-but-infinitely-nicer Air goes with me everywhere.

    *to be fair, Apple has it's fair share here.

    Apple got “expensive” this year as the exchange rates changed and I note we didn't get the same breaks when the exchange rate was vastly in our favour. That's a small annoyance – a micro-annoyance compared to other firstworldproblems.

  • http://mostlythis.com Mac Morrison

    I've always gone Bottom of the ranger, rather than top
    i Paid £515 for my last iBook, which i still use. despite endless lusting over air's and macbooks – the price puts me right off.

  • cj

    Great post Ian.

    I'd agree with all of it, except for the part about “Microsoft's own software for Mac…” For all the cursing it can cause, Outlook is *infinitely* better than Entourage and when it comes to many corporate environments using Exchange, they are the only two options.

    The Mac Office versions all feel like a big compromise over their Windows counterparts. With the exception of Keynote, nothing I've tried persuades me to move away from Office 2007 on Windows, especially since the pricing has become so keen.

  • paul

    They should have done the cost/value/price thing ages ago, but I'm still surprised they have. Whenever I've worked with MS over the years, either in some consultant setting or in an ad agency setting, they had disliked being seen as the cheaper option. They work extremely hard to fight on the higher ground of features, technology, quality, etc and actively construct (sometimes quite weak) positions to avoid talking about the cost as the main event. This is a pretty big change of strategy in my opinion.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    Sensible people do have a budget, yes :)

    One thing that I didn't mention is that they're very clever choosing screen size as a focus, because it's an area where Apple is at its weakest. There's lots of people who want a low-cost laptop, but don't want a small screen. I use my laptop all the time, it's my main machine at home, and there's no way I'd want to use a 13in all the time. I've done it in the past, and it's painful for me.

    For Apple, low cost = small screen. And I think that might just be too simplistic an equation now.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    But that's because you spend all your money on phones :)

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    I generally prefer Entourage over Outlook, unless I'm using Exchange. But yes, it's the weakest of the bunch. On the other hand, I adore Word 2008 – it's a million times nicer than the Windows version.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    I think it's a (sensible) recognition of the times. And it's interesting that they're playing it not as “get more for your money” but “get the right machine for your budget”.

  • http://nicksweeney.com nick s

    If MS had really wanted to sting, “Lauren” would have been saying “you know, I can't write this off as a business expense.”

  • http://mostlythis.com Mac Morrison

    the genius is getting a everyday cool person to say 'I guess I'm not cool enough to be a mac person' subliminal translation being I'm not a past the curve geek or victim in teh nathansphere. That said you do 'almost' buy a macbook air on an bi-daily basis.

  • Stu

    It's a bit disturbing how unhinged some Mac people have become over the ad. I feel bad for the girl in the commercial, apparently people have already gone over her career with a fine-toothed comb, I imagine it's only a matter of time before they start digging into her personal life as well.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    The worst thing about the internet is how it allows the tiny percentage of people who get obsessional over anything to shout very very loudly about it.

  • sam