The View from the Middle

1998 July 5

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Apple's New Marketing Model:

The Customer is Always Wrong

Many years ago, when I was working as a database consultant, I was invited to attend a training session on CASE tools. It was an interesting discussion but throughout it, something was nagging at me - something was missing in the conversation. It took me a few minutes to realise that at no point had anyone talked about designing the user interface for these database applications. The CASE tool was wizard at designing the layout of the actual data, and designing the SQL code for accessing the database, but not one bit of effort had gone into helping the database designer design and layout the forms the user enters data into.

When I pointed out this seemingly large defect, the rep said (and I quote) 'You can always make the user like the UI.'

How does this relate to Apple? Well, I'm listening to what people are saying about the iMac and I'm hearing some very strange things Apple's marketing spin on the lack of floppies and easily obtained external storage is that people should be willing to rearrange their lives to make it fit the iMac. To do this, anyone who wants an iMac either should have no one with whom they want to exchange files, never want more storage at least not fast storage, or else they should have a lot of fast, cheap Internet access.

Now, hey, I'm all for that last one but at least here in this world, we don't have that yet.

Yet what really scares me is that I hear a lot of die-hard Apple fans preparing to rearrange their lives to match this market model. Not only does Apple think that customers who want removable and compatible storage or even just external storage are wrong, but incredibly, the customers themselves think they're wrong.

Let's look at this calmly and objectively. First, are floppies dead? Mostly, but not completely. However, because floppies are dead doesn't invalidate removable storage. Most people have replaced their use of floppies with Zip or Flyer drives (or for those with more significant volumes, Jaz or SyJet). If Apple had dropped the floppy and replaced it with a Zip, this would probably have been a good move.

Of course, existing users who have a lot of older software (or a Mavica Digital Camera) still need a floppy disk but the iMac isn't intended for that market. Those users will probably buy a desktop PowerMac.

'But wait!,' I hear you say, 'You've forgotten the USB port! There are thousands of things you can hang on that and companies are announcing all sorts of new USB based solutions which will make the iMac complete for any user!' Wrong. Ok, partly right, but only partly.

The point of the iMac is to be the 'consumer' Mac the low end, low cost machine. Apple tells us that US$1300 is low and that sure, if there's missing bits, you either don't need them (floppy) or you didn't want them (according to their focus group). Yet this is making an assumption that Apple works in a vacuum, that there is no competition against which Macs will be measured, or that the 'obvious' advantages of the Mac will outweigh the seeming shortcomings of the iMac. In other words, Apple believes that people will think 'different' and buy the iMac.

But the moment you have to start buying bits and pieces to bring the iMac up to where the PCs already are at a lower price, you blow any comparison. Sure the iMac costs $1300 but add a serial port, a printer port of some sort, an external storage device of some sort and you're up to around $1600 minimum. You can get a LOT of PC for $1600. Heck, you can get a lot of PC for $1300.

I do believe that current Mac users can and will make this adjustment to the way they do things. I don't believe that the average consumer can or will. Even if you can convince them that they don't need a floppy and I don't believe for one moment you can the reality is that the PC competition does include a floppy. They do include serial ports, parallel ports, PCI and ISA bus slots and all the upgradability that one needs to feel that their purchase is safe in the long term. Apple doesn't match this.

So, here's the iMac that I would have designed: it would have the USB ports as this was a very good idea. It would have Firewire. It would have basic SCSI-1. It would have one PCI slot. It would have 10Base-T (or 100Base-T if that didn't cost much more). It would have a DVD-ROM player and the decoder chips so the iMac can play DVD movies. I would ditch the ADB ports.

Too expensive? Well, consider these two facts: you can build a PC for less than $1300 with all of these features (well, except Firewire) and Apple itself built a computer which almost met these specs for $1500 the AIO 'Steve's Tooth' Mac.

The usual complaint to this is that Apple can't afford to compete with the low end PC cloners they can't afford the small margins. Perhaps, they can't. But the consumer doesn't care if Apple survives it's the Mac fanatic who does. Should the average consumer care? Maybe they should, but they mostly don't, and arguing that they should brings us back to where I started this all you can't tell the consumer what they should or should not buy. You have to build what they want.

Because in the long run, the customer is always right, even when you think they're wrong.