Minting Money (.Mac Revisited)

Several years ago, I made a trip to Disneyland. I remember wondering how a commercial enterprise such as Walt Disney Co. could print paper money, called "Disney Dollars," on an equal exchange rate for US Dollars and have tourists lining up to buy the "funny money" as souvenirs.

The colorful paper dollars made available to patrons at "The Happiest Place on Earth" in Anaheim, CA, and at its oversized sister park in Orlando, FL, featured Disneyis well-known characters. I wondered on that hot summer California day why a sober human being would stand in a long line in ninety degree heat to trade their hard-earned dollars for scraps of multi-colored paper that cost well under one cent to print.

Many of us may have had the fantasy of landing on a before-then unknown tropical island with unspoiled beaches, happy natives, a 24/7 margarita bar, and buying every square inch of the island and the pristine beach from the unsuspecting inhabitants with Parker Bros. Monopoly money. I figured that was the stuff of daydreams and bad Hollywood "B" movies until I saw the clean cut and uniformed park employees at Disneyland happily exchanging Disney Dollars for paper bills duly signed by the Treasurer of the United States of America.

For years since that hot summer day at the Magic Kingdom, I wondered what would compel people to spend their money on Disney Dollars. After all, the same US Dollars could be spent on a Tinker Bell necklace and a cool Pluto watch for my kids, some kind of real souvenir of a day at the Disneyland theme park.

I wondered about what would compel people to make this exchange until another hot summer day in LA - the day I read about the .Mac announcement. The free iTools account had been changed to a fee-based service. I had come to rely on the free Apple iTools service for the mac.com address and for occasional use of the 10-megabyte remote storage space. After all, it was free and the mac.com address advertised to the world that I was a Mac owner, different from most other Internet users. At first I was a little annoyed that I would have to pay for a before-then free service known as iTools that had now been re-branded as a premium-priced suite of products and services.

Somewhere along the way I picked-up the idea that iTools was supposed to be "free for life." Come to find out, iTools had a very short life indeed! The iTools to .Mac conversion endangered my mac.com persona and endangered the e-mail communication of my kids. In my home we have more Macs than bedrooms and our per capita ownership of Apple laptops is literally one to one. Appleis iTools service was the best way for my kids and I to share one ISP account. I set-up iTools accounts for both of my kids minutes after they unwrapped their iBooks last Christmas.

Not only has my fantasy of owning a tropical island not come true, but with the iTools to .Mac conversion I suddenly felt like one of the tourists at Disneyland forking over my heard-earned US Dollars for little more than the right to display my affection for a large corporate franchise. In return I didnit even receive slips of paper in the shape of currency with images of Steve Jobs or Fred Anderson printed on the face, just the opportunity to continue using my mac.com address.

I thought about all the wonderful services Iid get with the .Mac service, especially the 100 megabytes of storage. Then I remembered I use a dial-up account at home. Iid be collecting Social Security long before 100 megabytes of files successfully transferred over the aging copper wires in my home. Ok, so using the 100 megabytes of storage might seem unrealistic over copper wiring on a dial-up account, but what about the convenience of sharing at least a few megabytes of files between my home and the office? I discovered the next day at work that my office computer sits behind a nasty Windows firewall. Sure, I could open up the firewall to accommodate my .Mac server connection, but how many times will this really be necessary? For small files I can still use e-mail.

What about the backup service? That was my next thought, but then I looked at all the backup hardware Iive acquired over the years such as a CD burner and a Zip drive. I learned long ago to backup my stuff. I donit need .Mac to do that.

"Hey!" I thought to myself, "what about the anti-virus service?" I figured that might come in handy. But then I remembered that I had just upgraded my virus protection software licenses the month before. This service might come in handy…next year!!!

Ok, so I may not get much use of the .Mac services for now, but I was a bit horrified about losing my mac.com identity and my childrenis mac.com accounts. By now the personal rationalization and reality distortion field kicked into high gear. I had read that Apple offered a discount – only $10.00 for additional e-mail only accounts! The first year of service for former iTools members is only $50, $49 off the new subscriber price of $99, and the additional e-mail only account conversions for my kids would only cost $10 each! I figured this was better than Disney Dollars now because I was buying all the services at a discount!

Itis not like Disney offered discounts on their Dollars even if some of the denominations of theme park currency carried the images of lesser known characters. It was now OK to buy the .Mac services for a year. It might be kind of like nothing for something but at least I was buying it at a discount and I didnit have to stand in line at a booth at Disneyland in the hot California summer sun! .Mac, I decreed, was now much better than buying Disney Dollars, and for a short while I was mad at myself for even making the comparison. After all, Disney Dollars are for tourists, .Mac is for me!

I gingerly surfed to the Apple site to sign up for .Mac. Then something said to me "Wait a minute! At least the tourists at Disneyland have something to show for their money, even if it is a slip of paper!" In a panic I stopped and pulled my hand back from the mouse. A moment later I experienced a big sigh of relief. There it was! Mac OS X, 10.2 front and center on the Apple site. The big X in Jaguar stripes! It also comes in a box! Thatis better than Disney Dollar slips of paper! So what if I purchased the OS X public beta and spent more money on the commercial version when it was released. It has over 150 new features according to the Apple site. At least I got Mac OS X, 10.1 last year for free! Plus, the family 5-pack offered on the site for $199 means I get a discount on the upgrades for the iBooks I purchased for my kids for Christmas. Christmas was more than 200 days ago. I canit fault myself for buying an OS upgrade at a discount for computers I bought all the way back then! Not according to my personal rationalization and reality distortion field that was still in effect. Plus, with the additional e-mail only accounts with the .Mac service my children wonit suffer the indignity of using a Yahoo.com e-mail address.

One year of .Mac.com service plus two e-mail only addresses and the family pack of OS X, 10.2 have only cost me $270 plus shipping and the applicable tax on the OS X box. It only dims my fantasy of buying that until-then unknown tropical island because I just spent my savings at the online Apple Store. I canit pay my credit card bill in Parker Bros. Monopoly money; though I bet at least once someone else has tried.

Still, I figure, I bought it all at a discount. Thatis like Disney Dollars being devalued for exchange purposes at the theme park! Plus, with OS X, 10.2, I get the really cool looking box. Thatis better than a Tinker Bell necklace or a Pluto watch… isnit it?

Robert Paul Leitao covers financial issues in the Mac industry for TMO, and is the moderator of the Apple Finance Board.