The iMac Channel

Consolidate or Die?

Dan Knight - 2001.03.12

Some people just don't get it. Take Bear Stearns analyst Andrew Neff, who thinks all PCs are pretty much the same. He's spent months and months trying to prescribe which PC makers should merge with which - and saying Apple needs to move to an Intel processor. Of course, Neff second-guesses every Apple decision: will this expand the base? does it make sense to sell OS X before it ships with computers?

Look at the PC industry: Gateway, Dell, Compaq, H-P, IBM, Micron, and enough other names to fill a page. They all build boxes running Microsoft Windows on processors using Intel's instruction set. They each have about as much personality as a blank CD.

In fact, there may be more local clone shops in your area than PC manufacturers on any Top Ten list. We have plenty here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, each more than happy to throw together your choice of case, power supply, motherboard, CPU, hard drive, sound card, video card, CD-RW drive, memory, and operating system at a reasonable price.

Be Different

Andrew Neff understands that part of the personal computer industry, moving interchangeable boxes. At heart, Dells and Gateways, IBMs and Microns, Compaqs and local clones share almost every component. The big difference is the nameplate and maybe some external plastics.

Apple's not like that. While the entire PC industry has grown up to clone a 1981 standard set by IBM and updated by Microsoft and Intel, Apple uses a different CPU and operating system.

That's part of what's too different for Andrew Neff. He doesn't seem to understand that the PowerPC processor is a very different beast from Pentiums, Celerons, Athlons, and Durons. It's a more efficient CPU, performing at up to twice the performance of a Pentium at the same clock speed. Put that more efficient processor inside a computer, and Steve Jobs consistently demonstrates how Apples "MHz challenged" computers outperform the Wintel powerhouses.

In fact, at Macworld Expo in January, Jobs demonstrated Apple's 733 MHz Power Mac G4 handily outperforming a 1.5 GHz Pentium 4 computer at the very tasks the P4 was optimized for. If Intel had a 2 GHz P4, it would have matched performance with the G4/733 on this set of tasks.

Even more interesting, Bare Feats has been benchmarking the dual processor G4/533 against the single processor G4/733 - and a pair of slower processors beats the single faster processor in five of seven tests. Since a single G4/733 matches a nonexistent 2 GHz Pentium 4, a dual G4/533 would outperform that.

The real irony here is that last year's dual G4/450 would also outperform the fastest P4 system made today.

MHz Doesn't Matter

Rating a computer strictly by MHz makes no more sense than choosing a vehicle based on miles per gallon, horsepower, or acceleration. If you need to haul freight, you need horsepower. If you want to win races, you need acceleration. If you want to save money, you look for a higher MPG rating. And you won't find all three in the same vehicle.

A computer contains a multitude of components that influence performance. Processor speed is one of those, and MHz is only one aspect of it. With the exception of the Pentium 4, each new generation of processors offers improved efficiencies over the previous one, providing more horsepower from the same fuel.

All things being equal, a 1 GHz Pentium III computer will outperform a 733 MHz one, but all things are rarely equal. And even in the Wintel world, buyers have to understand the chip hierarchy: MHz for MHz, Athlon outperforms PIII. If you're after performance, you have to know which CPUs perform best, how much better they are than the competition, and then compare MHz speed.

But that's for the power user - the video producer, CAD worker, graphic designer, and serious gamer. For them, acceleration and horsepower count for everything; miles per gallon are not the issue. For that tech savvy crowd, MHz does matter.

For most users, today's computers are fast enough, whether that's a 400 MHz iMac or a 733 MHz generic Windows box. In fact, Apple goes out of its way not to include MHz ratings in model numbers. There is no "iMac 600" as far as Apple is concerned, just a fastest model.

Apple has some huge advantages in this market, but it needs to learn how to market them.

  • Branding
    • No brand is better known than Apple.
    • No model is better know than iMac.
    • PowerBook is almost a synonym for laptop.
  • Consumer
    • No computer is easier to set up than the iMac.
    • No Wintel box has iMovie and iTunes.
    • No OS is easier to pick up than the Mac OS - and OS X may be even better in that respect.
  • Technical
    • No Celeron or Pentium has the energy efficiency of a PowerPC.
    • No Windows computer has the processor efficiency of a PowerPC.
    • Windows doesn't offer the same level of hardware/OS integration as the Mac OS.
    • Apple has never promoted an OS by telling the world how many tens of thousands of bugs it has. They've never had to.
  • Viruses are practically nonexistent for the Mac OS

Some of these advantages are tied to the PowerPC, so it would be foolish for Apple to adopt the power-hungry, more costly Intel processors for their computers. Of course, such a change would also mean a lot of existing Mac software wouldn't work, giving Apple yet another reason to stick with the PowerPC family.

Apple has all the advantages except for two:

  1. At least nine out of ten computers out there run some form of Windows. Apple is different, which some people find unacceptable.
  2. Performance geeks and computer support staff, the people many neophytes come to for advice, are probably 98-99% Windows users. They are going to recommend what they know, not something different.

Consolidate or Die?

Those two advantages outweigh all the snail and flaming bunny suit ads in the world. They're also the reason it really doesn't matter to the consumer what brand of PC they buy - or whether Gateway merges with another PC maker. Consolidation might slightly improve the economy of scale for a particular brand. That's all it would do.

By remaining different in both OS and hardware, Apple is a clear alternative to boring beige boxes of interchangeable parts and nameplates. And the company has grown its base each year since the iMac.

Apple understands that MHz isn't everything. People want easy Internet access. They want to burn CDs. Some want to make movies. Apple addresses real needs, not our lust for power - although they can provide that when we need it.

Apple's greatest strength is being different. Better integration of hardware and software. More consistency between applications. Higher reliability than the Wintel world. A longer practical life for their computers. An easier to learn operating system.

To top it off, Apple has a small but dedicated band of Mac users willing to take on the performance geeks and computer support staff in explaining why the Mac is a real alternative to Windows and a better choice. Unlike Andrew Neff, we get it.

The PC world can watch brands consolidate and die, but the Mac lives on.

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