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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Macintosh: The BMW Of Computers? No, It's A VolksWagen!
May 9th, 2000

We've heard it often; the Macintosh is the BMW of computers. The analogy of the car with the computer is more popular today than ever, and it is understandable. Both reflect their industry's technological position and both generate a lot of interest among their users.

Everybody who has a nice car likes to boast about its features, cost, looks... etc. The same applies to the computer. People with a G4 sure like to look at earlier machines and puff their chests.

What puzzles me is that when comparing the Macintosh to a car, we go for the BMW. Why? Because the BMW is a quality symbol at a higher price? In part, the argument has been right. On the other hand, I find this analogy a little simplistic today since the market offers more comparison options and - when you think about it - the BMW is a nice choice, but not the best. Mostly because the comparison is far from complete. It has one big flaw: style.

Think VolksWagen

Just like BMW, VolksWagen is a German company, but I do not have the impression that technology comparisons have anything to do with nationality. We will look at the usual arguments.

  • Price: The Macintosh is more expensive. Even the low-end machine, namely the iMac, is more expensive than the cheapest PC. A quick look at VolksWagen cars tells you that they are a little more expensive than the industry average. Same thing with BMW.
  • Quality: You get what you pay for. Those cars do not break as often as their North American competitors, which reduces the total cost of ownership. This is an aspect that people neglect when buying a computer or a car. They look at the price tag but they do not go beyond it to wonder which will cost more over several years of use. The comparison stands for VW and BMW.
  • Durability: Quality and durability are close mates. We all know that those 68K Macs still run flawlessly with new roles or for the same uses as before. For cars, I stopped counting the number of times when I entered an acquaintance's VolksWagen and noticed a curiously high mileage count, like several hundred thousands of kilometers. Every time, I ask the owner if the cars ever went down. An overwhelming proportion of the answers is negative. Quite a few of these folks told me that they went on long trips - some from Montreal to Vancouver! - without visiting a mechanic for a checkup. This certainly stands for BMW.
  • Looks: Ah, this is where BMW fails and VolksWagen scores additional points! No BMW looks as good as today's Macs. I am not talking about translucent plastics here, but about innovative design. BMW has its style, but it is a little more classic. It does not go beyond the whole industry's norms when it comes up with a new machine. VolksWagen did with the New Beetle.
  • The cool factor: Beyond the looks, it is cool to own a VolksWagen. It is no coincidence if VW identifies itself to younger car owners. It is no coincidence if VW shows a very dynamic image in its commercials, giving up on the traditional family concepts and babe magnet clichés while adding some serious humor. From what I have seen the in the last few years, VW has been more aggressive than other companies when flirting with university students to encourage them to go for a Jetta or a Golf. I imagine this is the case in other North American markets.

iMac and New Beetle

Nothing - no, NOTHING - in the car industry compares to the iMac, except the New Beetle. The reasons for such a comparison are very simple. Take the last two arguments I gave above (looks and the cool factor) and look at both machines.

The iMac is cool, and everybody who knows about computers knows about Apple's flagship machine. Its notoriety is so huge that common PC folks know what an iMac is, no matter if they sympathize with the platform or not. I even heard stories about women who have to touch the iMac when they see it for the first time. The same applies to the New Beetle. No matter what your car preference is, the New Beetle always catches your eye when it goes past you.

The iMac is cool enough to be a prize of choice for contest organizers. Whether it is on the Web, on the radio or at a shopping mall, it seems that there is a free iMac for everyone. Same thing for the New Beetle. When VolksWagen launched it a few years ago, everybody seemed to give one away and it continues.

The iMac's industrial design is daring, colorful and curvy. Enough to get a few companies copying it :-) I would not know about any car company that copied the New Beetle, but I do know that its design stands out of the pack for its originality, its colors and its curves.

The iMac and the New Beetle share yet another asset. The iMac is great computer technology. The New Beetle is great automobile technology. Because of this, buying an iMac or a New Beetle will force you to take more money out of your piggy bank than for another computer or car of its class. In both cases, you get what you pay for.

There is a visible flaw in my comparison. The iMac is for low-end consumers while the New Beetle offers a little more than the average car. Based on the prices I noticed in Montreal, the New Beetle is close to luxury than the iMac. Both remain slightly more expensive than the average competitors in their fields, though.

That said, the best car analogy for the Mac is VolksWagen. For reasons of style and looks, VW cars share more with the Macintosh than BMW or other car models do.

P.S. Pop quiz: I will publish the names of the first three Observers who tell me how, when and why VolksWagen started manufacturing cars. Send me your answers. Sorry, I am not giving a New Beetle away :-)

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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