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Just a Thought: Sniffing Around For The Econo Mac

by - May 26th, 2004

We are doing some redecorating, and one of the chores on my list is to paint the ceiling throughout the house. Luckily, my house isn't all that big so the task only requires a few Saturdays getting stupid on paint fumes.

Last Saturday I was prepping the ceiling in the family room. I had on my safety glasses because it seems that I'm one of those guys who always manages to get something in his eyes. Yet, despite my precaution, or perhaps because of it, I wound up with enough junk in my eyes to hold a yard sale.

So, this Saturday I stopped off at my local Home Depot and bought a new set of goggles, the kind they used to make you wear in wood shop in high school.

Do they still have wood shop in high school?

I've always resisted buying those clear plastic goggles because the smell of the plastic was horrendous; I mean it was skunk-gagging bad. You know that nauseating odor you get when you rip open a package containing something made of new plastic? The funk seems to concentrate while being enclosed in the bag, and when you open it the odor hits your nose like a prize winning knock-out punch.

By comparison, the plastic goggle smell has it beat. You can see, or at least smell, why I've resisted buying plastic goggles, but I picked up a fairly inexpensive pair thinking that I could survive a day or two of foulness. I could always toss them once the job was done. I even bought a fairly expensive respirator in an attempt to minimize the stench.

I got home and prepared to do battle with the ceiling, and the goggle-funk; I put on the respirator -- I didn't want to get funk-punched -- then opened the package containing the goggles. I sniffed through the respirator trying to see if the thing would indeed protect my nose. To my relief, I could smell nothing!

Well, that's not entirely true; I got a whiff of something pleasant and familiar. Thinking that it might be a scented filter in the respirator, I shrugged and put on the goggles. I immediately noticed that the smell was stronger; not overpoweringly so, like people who smell like they've bathed in French perfume, but definitely stronger. I took off the goggles and the mask, and sniffed the goggles again. The pleasant aroma, which reminded me of honeysuckle, was coming from my newly purchased plastic eye protection! Not only did I not mind wearing the goggles, I actually enjoyed using them.

If the makers of the goggles (AOSafety Chemical Splash/Impact Goggles from Aearo Company) had continued producing the nasty smelling ones, I would have still purchased them; funky goggles would have been good enough to protect my eyes, but the experience would have been wholly unpleasant, and it would have stuck in my mind as something I should avoid in the future.

That would lead to me resisting buying goggles in the future, possibly blinding myself with eye-junk, and be changed from a productive member of society into a self-pitying shell of the man I am today. Yeah, that's a stretch, but you get the point. As it is, my experience was so positive -- great smell, no eye-junk -- that I'm going to buying a second pair to keep in the garage, and, as I've just done in the preceding vignette, I'm going to recommend those goggles to everyone.

I drug you through that story to illustrate a point: A great user experience can do a lot for a company's bottom line. It seems that some companies, like Aearo Company, get it, while other companies, like Microsoft, have yet to prove that they get anything beyond the fact that they are the current king of the software hill. Microsoft has talked about improving the user experience before and they came up with an animated paperclip that is both distracting and annoying. Recently, Microsoft has said those words again, and while they sound sincere, I'm left wondering if the company truly understands what it is saying. Will we get another animated paperclip?

Now that I've gotten through my gratuitous Microsoft bashing, I should mention that it's not the Gate's Gang I ultimately want to talk about, it's Apple that's in the spotlight this time.

Mac users don't have to worry as much about the inclusion of a good user experience in products from Big Redmond, and we have the folks at the Mac Business Unit to thank for that. Oddly, it is Apple, itself, who seems to be missing the boat on creating an ideal user experience. I'm not referring to the look and feel of OS X, or any of the apps Apple makes, nor am I citing Apple hardware; I happen to think the only thing easier than setting up and using a Mac is breathing.

Let's see: you have air, you suck it into your lungs, hold it for a second, then push it out again. Yep, breathing is easier. Pretty hard to mess that up, but some people still manage to.

But I digress...

What I'm talking about here has to do with the more general experience of owning a Mac. I just don't believe that what can easily be argued as the best software and hardware user experience on the planet is enough to attract more people to the Mac platform. If you think back to my good smelling goggles, the question that we should ask is: Would I have bought the honeysuckle-scented goggles if they cost twice as much as the stinky ones?

After thinking about it briefly I can safely say that I would likely have stuck with my first thought and ignored the pleasant smelling eye-gear and bought the cheaper, foul smelling goggles with the thought of tossing them after my need was fulfilled. They would have been 'good enough' after all.

And that's the point I think Steve Jobs is missing: It has nothing to do with Fords versus BMWs, it has everything to do with stinky goggles versus honeysuckle scented eyewear. People won't bother to even looking at the nice smelling Mac because it cost far more than what they would pay for 'good enough'.

Further, I contend that while the eMac is a great piece of hardware and is relatively cheap, its form factor is not what many people, folks used to doing things differently, want. I'm not suggesting that Apple should start pumping out crud-ware, I don't think anyone, with the possible exception of Michael Dell, would want that. I would rather that Apple find a way to offer Macs that can be configured in a way that would make them a bit more accessible to those thinking of switching, and while they are at it; make Macs so that they can be used however we what to use them.

This is not a concept that is foreign to Apple, indeed, Apple has insured that many of its products allow you to do what you want, however you want to do it, within reason of course. But that concept does not carry throughout Apple's product line. I have no easy, fairly inexpensive way to put a Mac on my kitchen counter, for instance. The eMac is way too big and the iMac is too pricey. iBooks get close, but even the low end iBook is a few hundred bucks more than I would pay for what should be little more than a smart terminal. Computing should happen where I need it to happen, not where Apple, or Dell, or HP tells me it should happen.

I'm not alone in my belief that Apple needs to figure out a way to offer less expensive Macs. Analysts both famous and infamous, and TMO's own Bryan Chaffin can agree on at least one point; Apple would do well to offer cheaper Macs.

I think Apple is listening. I have no clear indication if this, no insider info to divulge, but several occurrences recently has led me to believe that the cries for cheaper Macs have not fallen on deaf ears.

The most obvious indication that Apple is paying attention is the recent eMac price reduction. The eMac is a great computer made better with a US$799 price tag.

Another, more subtle indication that Apple is not asleep at the wheel is the very recent, and very public creation of a Mac division within Apple. The iPod is currently getting a lot of attention, but Macs are Apple's bread and butter; giving each some breathing room and dedicated attention is a good move. For Mac users and watchers, it means that Apple can now apply dedicated resources towards creating and promoting Mac products.

Finally, there's not been a refresh of the iMac line for quite sometime. While the LCD iMac is a wonderful machine, it has not enjoyed the runaway success of its CRT predecessor, and that's got to have Apple wondering why.

So, somewhere in some dark lab, behind heavily guarded vault doors, in some underground cave, the location of which is known only to a hand-picked few, Apple engineers are likely putting the final touches on the new consumer Mac. Will it be an all-in-one unit, or be sold in pieces? Will it sport a G5, or a pair of G4s? Will it even be called an iMac? Perhaps Mr. Jobs has gotten tired of the "i" and is looking for a new letter or number to slap in front of this new techno-wonder.

Whatever the new Mac is, you know its going to smell great, but its got to excite the masses, too. Right now, the only way I see Apple doing that is to give the people what they want; great smells and better prices.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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