Mac Musings

Disappointment and Mac Value

Daniel Knight - 2001.07.24

For a few days after the Expo keynote, a lot of Mac sites expressed their disappointment at the lack of anything really new from Apple. There was some impressive software demonstrated by others, but Apple's "breakthroughs" were:

The hardware was completely evolutionary - more speed, some shifts in color, but nothing to get particularly excited about. Value is better than ever, but the 700 MHz iMac is only 17% faster than the 500 MHz one, and the G4/867 is just 18% faster than the old top of the line G4/733. Both offer less of a boost than Moore's Law predicts, which is about 26% more power every six month.

Since the return of Steve Jobs, Apple has blown us away with impressive new hardware on a regular basis: The G3s, the iMac, the drawbridge design of the blue & white G3, the original iBook, the gorgeous Cube, the titanium PowerBook, and the impressive new iBook.

We expect new hardware at Macworld Expo. January 1999 unveiled the fruit flavored iMac and the blue & white G3. In July 1999, Steve Jobs showed us the iBook. July 2000 witnessed the birth of a 500 MHz iMac, new iMac colors, a dual processor Power Mac G4, and a 733 MHz G4 with SuperDrive. This past January we got the TiBook.

We were all disappointed when Apple didn't release new hardware at the January 2000 Expo. And we were all disappointed last week when Apple's "new hardware" was little more than predictable speed bumps.

Disappointment Backlash

But the contrarian voice also made itself heard. We were told that it was not Apple that disappointed us; it was the promises made by rumor sites.

Nonsense. We expect Macs to get faster at about 26% per Expo, 59% per year, 100% every 18 months. Motorola hasn't been able to keep pace with Moore's Law like AMD and Intel have. We're always pleased to see faster Macs, but rarely impressed at how much faster they are.

The last big MHz jump was when the Power Mac G4 went from 500 MHz to 733 MHz this past January. A 46% improvement is very impressive, but a 17-18% improvement isn't very exciting.

The odd thing is that the G4/733 wasn't Apple's most powerful computer - the G4/533 dual had twice the processing power of the old G4/500 due to OS X's support for multiple processors, but we tended to forget that with our focus on MHz. The same goes for the new top of the line G4/800 dual, which has 50% more power than January's dual CPU G4/533. But our MHz myopia blinds us to these truly fast dual processor computers in favor of the one with the higher MHz rating.

If Steve Jobs had unveiled the G4/800 dual as 50% faster than any computer Apple had ever sold, there would have been a lot less disappointment. But we all looked at 867 MHz, compared it with 733 MHz, and were less than impressed. Human nature - the better is the enemy of the best.

The contrarians are wrong in blaming the rumor sites for our disappointment. The inexorable forward march had us anticipating nothing less than a 700 MHz iMac and possibly a 933 MHz G4. That was predictable, so we were disappointed when the insanely great company didn't blow past those MHz marks.

The Big Picture

There are a lot of ways to put the new products in perspective, but I think the key word is evolutionary. We got more speed, more RAM, bigger hard drives, lower prices, and better value. We also have the promise of OS X 10.1 (and classic Mac OS 9.2) in September, along with iDVD 2.0.

Should we have been excited about the new iMacs? On the one hand, and this is the way Apple would spin it, you can now buy an iMac that burns CDs for just $999. It even has FireWire. Still, that's $200 more than the old 350 MHz iMac, and a lower price of entry could help Apple further grow market share, especially in recessionary times. In fact, Apple is keeping the 400 MHz iMac available to schools at $799.

Yes, the new iMacs have more power and represent a better value, but it's odd to see Apple trying to grow itself in a tough economy by price bumping their entry level model $100 per Expo.

Should we have been excited about the new Power Macs? Yes. Even if they didn't blow us away in MHz rating (do we all secretly buy into the MHz myth?), the performance of the dual 800 is awesome, and the value of the $2,499 G4/867 with SuperDrive is stunning. Also, the G4/733 now sells for about half as much as the previous G4/733 without a SuperDrive. Very impressive.

iDVD 2.0 is a remarkable breakthrough, whether or not the buttons and backgrounds are animated. It's a breakthrough because Apple has nearly doubled burning speed and increased movie length to 90 minutes. On the other hand, a lot of us realize what a small niche market Apple is trying to dominate - how many people who have DV camcorders are willing to buy a non-Windows computer?

Who Defines Value?

In the final analysis, we should have been far more impressed at the value. Why weren't we?

My guess: That's not what Steve Jobs was preaching. The gospel from the Stevenote is that OS X 10.1 will blow you away in September, the top end Power Macs can outperform Intel's best, and iDVD 2.0 is remarkably cool.

Yes, Jobs did mention value. The 500 MHz iMac is the first Mac to include CD burning for under $1,000, the G4/867 drops the price of burning a DVD by $1,000, and both the Mac OS X 10.1 and iDVD 2.0 updates will be free. Jobs mentioned that, but he didn't push it strongly.

Our role as journalists, in the broadest sense of the word, is to hear what Steve Jobs says and report it. Our job as advocates is to hear the same keynote, ruminate on it, and make our own reasoned judgements. That may take days as we weigh conflicting thoughts and receive input from others.

We have a right to wade through all the information and be disappointed. I'm disappointed the hardware isn't keeping up with Moore's Law. I'm disappointed that Apple didn't have an insanely great new technology or product. I'm disappointed that I got so caught up with the specifications that I missed out on the value. And I'm disappointed that Apple hasn't found a way to better tap into the value equation.

Still, Apple can't lock itself into the Macworld Expo schedule for product announcements. Sometimes a product just isn't ready on time, and sometimes you want to unleash a new piece of hardware in a different forum. We may be disappointed that the top hasn't gone any higher at this Expo, but we still hope for better things.

Of course, a good part of my analysis - and this may be true for a lot of others in the industry - is a strong foundation in hardware. Like Tim "the Toolman" Taylor, we seem to lust after "more power." (Grunts optional.) It's a strong undercurrent usually tempered only by our limited budgets. And that's why Low End Mac always tries to look at value, the combination of price and capability.

I don't think Steve Jobs approaches value the same way geeks do. After all, Jobs is a visionary, not a geek. When Steve wants silence; the designers give him a fanless iMac. When he wants music; the engineers give him iTunes. When he wants movies; they give him iMovie and iDVD.

This is hard for geeks to understand, but at Apple the focus isn't on hardware. No, that's the focus of those hundreds of companies making hardware to run Windows and Linux. For Apple, hardware is a means to an end, as is the operating system. The goal isn't making the fastest hardware with the most buzzword compliant OS; the goal is making the tool that best enables us to do what we want to do. The goal is solutions. If we get awesome horsepower in the bargain, so much the better.

Think about that while you reflect on Apple's ads over the past year or two. The primary focus of recent ads isn't the brand, the hardware, the OS, or the software. The focus is less wires, easier setup, making your own CD, building your own movie.

Microsoft asks where you want to go, but Apple asks what do you want to do. And Apple wants to provide the best solution for letting you do it easily.

Mac value isn't MIPS or MFLOPS per dollar. Mac value is being able to burn your own CD, edit your own movie, and make your own DVD without taking a class, reading a book, pulling out your hair, or expecting it not to work the first time. Processing power is subservient to that goal.

Think different. Follow the Macintosh way. It really is the computer for the rest of us.