Microsoft's 'Apple Tax' Needs a Refund

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Some people look at numbers and think "Ah, thank goodness: cold hard facts." Me, I've been a bit distrustful of numbers ever since that whole "7 ate 9" business. You see, numbers purport to be all objective and straightforward, but just like words, their meanings can be twisted and turned, interpreted to suit the agenda of whoever's holding their leash.

Take, for example, this recent report (PDF link) by frequently-quoted analyst Roger L. Kay, the President of Endpoint Technologies Associates. "What Price Cool?" sets out to discover the "hidden costs" of owning Macs versus owning Windows PCs--but you don't need to flip to the end of the 10-page report to tell how it's going to end. Spoiler: Windows PCs are cheaper! It's right there on page one, where it reads "Sponsor: Microsoft."

The Redmond-based software giant has recently gone to great lengths to point out Windows machines' inherent superiority, attempting to dispell the perceived "coolness" of Macs and denigrate their performance. So it's hardly shocking to find that this report retreads the same ground whilst applying a thin patina of carefully selected "facts."

The meat of the piece is the last three pages which feature the "realistic point of view" of a hypothetical family of four, including two charts that line up the prices of building what are supposedly comparable Windows PC and Mac systems. The hypothetical dad's spreadsheet examines the differences in cost over five years and--amazingly--concludes that buying Macs will be a mind-boggling US$3,330 more expensive.

There are a few flaws here--okay, there are several flaws here, and to pick them apart one-by-one would only be redundant, repetitive, and redundant, but let's take a look at just a few of them to get the idea.

For one thing, the report repeats the age-old fallacy that once you buy into a Mac you have to buy into the whole Apple ecosystem, despite the fact that we largely left that world behind around the time that people were wondering who precisely had let the dogs out.

For example, Kay budgets $150 per year for Apple's MobileMe service--that being the price of the MobileMe family pack, which supports up to five users. But you don't need MobileMe--Kay says it's for backup and file sync, both of which can be accomplished with free technologies provided by Apple and others. Heck, the Windows Live Mesh that Kay touts even runs on a Mac. But similar third-party syncing services like Dropbox work well too. And, for backup, every Mac comes with Time Machine built-in. Look, I just saved the hypothetical family a hypothetical $750--hypothetically, of course. Kay also insists, for some reason, that the family buy an AirPort Extreme router for $180 instead of the $150 Linksys Wireless N router that he budgeted for the PCs, despite the fact that the Mac and Linksys routers are interoperable. You could save another $30 (or--and I know this is going out on a limb--you could spend the extra $30 to buy the AirPort Extreme for the PC side because it's a better product. Hey, it's an option).

Here's another wacky choice: Kay suggests the family will want add Blu-ray capability (which, it's true, is not currently supported by OS X) to the desktop system in year four. He budgets $95 for a Lite-On internal drive for the PC and $300 for an external Sony Blu-ray drive for the Mac. Never mind that, as they've chosen the extremely expandable Mac Pro, they could easily upgrade the computer with that same internal Blu-ray drive (presuming, of course, that four years from now, Apple's added Blu-ray support to OS X--if not, that Sony player won't be much more useful anyway). Knock off another $205.

But let's look at this from the other side for a moment: what's been left out of the costs of owning a PC? Well, how about security? Malware is a pretty common sight on Windows PCs and you won't find any expert recommending you run your machine without virus protection. But most virus protection costs a certain amount per year: HP, for example, includes 15 months of Norton Internet Security for free, but that'll leave the family out in the cold just over a year in--they'll have to spend another $60 to $80 to cover them for the whole five year period. And that's just for one of the two computers. Not much, but it adds up.

The report also makes a big deal out of having to re-buy existing Windows software for OS X, but it barely touches upon the immense value of all the software included with every Mac. iLife is referred to only by the cost of upgrading it, and Kay doesn't bother to enumerate what similar capabilities--music creation, video editing, DVD authoring--would cost on Windows.

And then there's Windows itself. Kay says in his report how great Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 7 will be: "This gap [in user experience] will likely close up when Microsoft introduces Windows 7 late this year." And yet, mysteriously, no mention is made anywhere of the price it'll cost this family to upgrade to Windows 7, if it doesn't ship by the time they want to buy their new computers. In truth, that's because nobody knows, but Vista's cheapest software costs $200 a pop, suggesting our hypothetical family will have to shell out around $400 if they want to get all the improvements to help close that "user experience gap." Apple's forthcoming Snow Leopard update, by comparison, will run $200 for the whole family, if the company sticks to the pricing scheme they've been using for years.

Add up all those tweaks and you'll find the price different has almost been halved--and that's just with the no-brainer changes. But it's like I said up top: despite looking all serious and factual, numbers can be massaged and carefully selected to tell any story. And as much as figures and charts might tell you about cost, they speak very little to the idea of what you get for that money--of value beyond specifications and technologies. What about the time saved not dealing with viruses and annoying security software? What about those hard-to-quantify benefits of what Kay admits is a superior user experience?

Kay would have you believe that everything can be reduced to quantitative measurements, and that's emblematic of the way Microsoft operates. But there are plenty of important qualitative differences as well. The report bandies about the term "cool" like a four-letter word, but it mistakes the trappings of "cool" for its substance. True coolness is never really about appearance and only those who just don't get it claim that it is. Apple's computers are fantastically designed and aesthetically attractive, but that's not what makes them cool--what makes them cool is what they allow their users to do. And for many, that's worth a few extra bucks.

This story, "Microsoft's 'Apple Tax' Needs a Refund" was originally published by Macworld.

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