It Never Was The 'Computer For The Rest Of Us'
August 11th, 2000

The day of the ball arrived. Mme. Loisel made a great success. She was prettier than them all, elegant, gracious, smiling, and crazy with joy. All the men looked at her, asked her name, endeavored to be introduced. She danced with intoxication, with passion, in a sort of cloud of happiness composed of all this homage, of all this admiration.

Guy De Maupassant (1850-1893), "The Necklace"

(SOMEWHERE IN MALIBU, SOMETIME LAST MONTH) -- I recently had the opportunity to visit some friends and family in California. While there, I took the time to pay homage to the Apple Cinema Display at MacMall's store and showroom in Santa Monica.

I also got to play with Apple's new Optical Mouse and keyboard, as well as the new iMacs.

While standing there, a husband and wife admired the scenery along with me. I began to talk with the husband and discovered that he shared my addiction to all things Macintosh. We talked for a while. Out of curiosity, I asked him his thoughts on the fact that the Mac is such a "fringe computer."

"Simple," he replied. "Average people can't afford them… never have been able to; never will."

He's right, you know -- about the last part, anyway.

Opulence and squalor; prosperity and poverty

As I write, I am reclining in a sitting room in my uncle's Malibu home, only a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean, enjoying the comfort of what's probably the most tastefully designed- and decorated house in which I've ever had the pleasure to stay.

For the last few hours, I've sat here, admiring my hosts' superb taste in home furnishings, watching the kids play in the swimming pool and Jacuzzi. A writer, researcher, activist and USC prof, my uncle has been gracious enough to allow me to check my e-mail and surf the web via his G4's DSL connection. (A G4? I told you they had superb taste :-) I don't know why, but my being surrounded by American-Dream riches saddened me, reminding me of our two-days-ago trip to Tijuana, a small, Mexican-border town, just south of San Diego. There, I was confronted with a stark contrast to my current surroundings.

Tijuana was a sexy sounding name to me, but the reality turned out to be far from that.

I don't know much about Tijuana, other than the fact that it was one of the scuzziest places I have had the misfortune of visiting. We'd planned a quick drive down the southern California coast to play the tourist bit. We crossed the border, pulled into the parking lot of some shopping center, whereupon my wife announced that she wasn't going to get out of the car. I began to argue, but couldn't help but to agree with her.

In many aspects -- except when it comes to taxes -- I am a bleeding-heart. I hate to see people who can't afford nicer things in life. These guys can't afford even the basics, it seemed. What would they think about the billboard we passed in Los Angeles that has a close-up shot of the $799 iMac's backside with the words "Indigo" and "Think Different" next to it? Would they marvel? Would they even care?

Methinks not…

The truth hurts

In the beginning, Apple touted the Macintosh as the "computer for the rest of us." Many of us totally misinterpreted the message. We failed to remember the commercial about the Lisa computer, showing Kevin Costner playing the business exec (with an exec's salary) firing up that expensive piece of silicon and plastic. I think that, even back then, Apple never meant "computer for those of us with limited funds." Yet, how many of us try to "evangelize" the Mac to relatives and friends, not giving much thought to the BMW aspects of such a purchase.

This may be an epiphany for you, as it was for me, but I feel it needs saying nevertheless: there is a certain amount of elitism involved with owning a Mac, even more so with Cube shapes and other high-gloss trappings becoming standard part and parcel of the Mac motif.

By default, the lower economic strata are ruled out of computer OEM's marketing plans, since the computer is still more of a home luxury than necessity. Couple that with the fact that Apple doesn't make the cheapest box on the shelf, and you can see the problem with this "computer for the rest of us" mantra.

Even "Think Different" can be seen as code-speak for marketing to the Have's instead of the Have-Not's. It's directed towards scientists, artists, and other upper-echelon lifestyles.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is short-sighted, while the other is closer to the truth, methinks.

The short-sighted view is to look at the here and now: The Macintosh line of computers cost, on average, $200 more than their Wintel counterparts. This sticker shock often separates the cheapskates from the pool of potential Apple customers.

If we stop there, we lose sight of what Apple is doing. To see that, we need to go on to the second view…

Expensive… today, but not tomorrow

Apple computers aren't cheap. But, with the advent of the $799 iMac, Apple is answering those shrill complaints about them being too expensive. Apple execs vowed to leave the "Yugo market" to the PC makers. From what I see, they are doing just that.

Apple hasn't lowered its prices; it is allowing the market to rise up to Apple's prices. News report after news report talks about PC prices rises to levels held before the cheap-PC movement took hold of the industry. Having never wavered, Apple is receiving vindication and poetic justice for never giving ground. Yet, we see $799 iMacs.

Apple is doing what no other computer maker can do: Apple is lowering prices on its own terms. Yes, we know we'd like to have cheaper Macs, but we are willing to pay the price. People willing to pay the price are hardly ever the poorer among us. This is where Apple can never be called the maker of the computer for the rest of us.

I hasten to add that Apple makes the OS for the rest of us, showing that, yes, there is a better way. But when it comes to the box wherein the OS dwells, it's the computer for some of us.

The idea expressed in this column will weaken as prices lower on (some) Macs. Until then, the argument stands: the Mac isn't for everyone. That's not elitism. That's facts, Jack.

Yes, the Mac is the computer for the rest of us…. the rest of us who can afford them. Keep this in mind when we evangelize the Mac. Sure, there are cheaper PCs out there. But there is a price to pay when you buy a Mac, both figuratively… and literally (Total Cost of Ownership and Return On Investment arguments notwithstanding). Be sure to remind potential owners of this harsh truth.

But also remind them that it's also true for any product or brand synonymous with quality and style.

Your comments are welcomed.