The Microsoft Discount

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Microsoft has really been pushing its "Apple Tax" marketing message. First we had the latest round of "I'm a PC" ads. Then we had Steve Ballmer claiming that, in the current economic climate, it makes no sense to pay a premium for an Apple logo. And now we've got a marketing brief disguised as a whitepaper from analyst Roger Kay, entitled "What Price Cool?" (which you can read in PDF form).

The gist of this marketing push: "Apple computers are more expensive than Windows machines because, well, hey, wait a minute--why should you pay more for a Mac?"

The numbers game

Kay provides several tables in which he compares laptops and desktops feature by feature--processor, amount of RAM, hard drive capacity, graphics chips, etc. Looking at those tables, the conclusion seems inescapable: Macs cost more.

Kay isn't alone in that assessment. There have been plenty of Macs-to- Windows-PCs comparisons lately. Typical of the genre: The recent story on our sister site,, comparing $1,000 laptops. Writer James Martin's "goal was to see what you'd get, in terms of features and specs, if you spent $1,000 on a MacBook versus the same amount spent on a Windows machine." (He did the same for the $2,000 price-point.)

James is a pro, and his story is well-documented and thorough. His conclusion: "If you've got $1,000 to spend, there's no question: Your dollar will go farther, in terms of specs and features, with the Dell or HP notebooks." Most other reports, like Kay's, come to the same conclusion.

Macworld's Dan Frakes and Dan Moren have already posted their well- considered responses to the Mac-Windows comparisons and to Kay's report, respectively. (Yes, we have a cabal of Dans here.) My reaction is somewhat less refined: Whenever I read about the supposed advantages of Windows PCs over Macs, I find myself muttering: "Yeah, but then you've got to use Windows."

Missing the point

These comparisons deliberately leave the operating system out of their considerations. The reasoning: The choice of operating system is too subjective to be included in such objective, numbers-based studies. Kay even trots out the old De gustibus non disputandem est chestnut.

True, there may be no debating taste. But that doesn't mean it's irrelevant to the buying decision. In fact, I think it's pretty much the whole decision.

Hardware specs are fine, but they reflect a relatively minor part of the computing experience. For example, I spend maybe five minutes a month dealing with the ports on my Macbook (primarily to plug and unplug things when I take it home or on the road). Otherwise, I don't touch them, and they work just fine. If I need more USB ports, I can buy a hub. If I need Firewire 800, I can get an adapter cable. When I need to read a flash-card from my camera, I use my multifunction printer.

But I spend 8+ hours a day dealing with the operating system. OS X is, to me, pretty much the entire reason to use a Mac.

I could spell out the reasons why I prefer OS X to Windows. There are the negative ones (no viruses, no Registry, etc.), but the positive ones matter more. The superior fit-and-finish of OS X isn't just a matter of aesthetics (though those don't hurt). As the Apple mantra puts it, design is about the way things work. OS X is a really well- designed tool. It makes it easier for me to do virtually everything I do on a computer. By comparison, I find Windows clunky: Configuring and troubleshooting it are painful, the security thing is a pain, and it's crashy. To me, it just doesn't work as well as OS X.

And I say this as someone who, until five years ago, had spent his entire computing career using DOS and then Windows. I worked at PC World for nine years. I wrote about Windows 3.0 when it first came out.

And I still use Windows occasionally. I've been testing a pre-release version of HP's MediaSmart server, which requires Windows to set up. (HP thoughtfully sent along a Windows Vista laptop.) And I use VMWare Fusion (with Windows XP) to access some Web sites that won't work properly on my Mac. In both cases, under VMWare and on the laptop, my Windows experience has been less than stellar. To be honest, it gave me some not very pleasant flashbacks.

It's not that I don't know Windows. I just don't like it.

Stay cool, boys

That's why comparisons like Kay's get under my skin. They're lots of hand-waving about stuff that, ultimately, doesn't matter that much. And it ignores the stuff that does.

But Kay's Microsoft-sponsored report goes beyond that pseudo-objective fallacy and heads straight to the land of the loony. In explaining why Apple's products cost more than Windows PCs, he comes up with a pretty jaw-dropping premise: Apple has survived as a company only because Steve Jobs is a "bully" who's coerced us cowering Mac users into using his products lest we not be deemed, um, cool.

No, really, that's what he says:

All during this time, even in the darkest of ages, when Apple hung onto a 2% share with its fingernails, the Mac community held vigil. Their inner belief was sheltered against the cold wind of market sentiment by secret thoughts that they were, well, better. Fewer crashes, less clutter, and, as time wore on, fewer viruses. But it was more than that, the Mac was just more elegantly done, nay, cooler.

And this belief only grew with the high-wire performance of the resurrected Steve Jobs, back from his stint at Next to rescue Apple, who, master prestidigitator, pulled one rabbit after another out of his hat. Every product more amazing than the last. It was hypnotic. Bullying as a form of marketing.

OK, Kay, you've got us: I mean, haven't we all seen those gangs of Mac users, wearing their cool varsity jackets, roaming around town, laughing derisively at anyone they see using a Windows PC?

But for the benefit of my Windows-using friends, I will say for the record: I don't use a Mac because it's cool. I use it because it works better for me. I use it because it doesn't stink.

It's not that I pay an "Apple Tax." I think Windows buyers get a "Microsoft Discount." The deal: We'll charge you less for this computer, but you've got to put up with Windows. To me, Windows is like the People Express of operating systems. Preferring the computer equivalent to Jet Blue or Virgin America isn't about being cool; it's about getting where I need to go efficiently and with a modicum of comfort.

But, look, this is your choice. If Windows doesn't bug you, by all means, buy a Windows PC and count whatever savings that affords you. Honest, I won't think you're uncool. I'll just disagree with you and go back to work.

This story, "The Microsoft Discount" was originally published by Macworld.

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