I love my Mac and I’m 95% sure that in 2013 or 2014 my next notebook will run MacOS and not the another OS that’s currently about nine times more popular. You can call it “lock in” if you want, but as a tech writer who gets to try out everything on the market, I’m still 100% sure that I couldn’t do what I do nearly as well if I weren’t working with a Mac laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone.
Let’s not shy away from the most obvious and annoying downside, though. When you choose MacOS, you know that you aren’t going to get the hardware you want. You’re going to settle for the hardware that comes closest, selected from a very narrow range.
Buying Apple hardware is often like shopping at a mall.
Good Lord, what a project it was to buy a new pair of eyeglass frames a couple of years ago. It started off as a casual errand and turned into a multi-city investigation. Every store I entered stocked one and only one basic style: the kind where the frames are slightly squashed. There was some variation. You could get the slightly squashed frames in metal, or colored plastic. But if you’re convinced that tiny skinny frames make your big stupid head look bigger and stupider, no mall optical store wants to take your money.
And what a late-life revelation it was to learn that I’d been buying the wrong-sized sneakers all my life! I’d always shopped in big stores — usually mall sporting goods stores — and I was always forced to choose between shoes that were Too Snug But They’ll Stretch With Wear or Too Big But I’ll Add A Thick Insole So They’ll Fit Better. One year, I happened to shop at a New Balance outlet store, which stocked every width in between those two sizes. Whoosh! Perfect fit, and now my $100 shoes wear out through the soles after two or three years instead of bursting from the sides after one..
The eyeglass shop doesn’t care if I walk in and point excitedly at a pair of frames and shout “Those are perfect! Exactly what I came in for!” Just as the shoe store knows that if I need sneaks, I need sneaks, and if I don’t find a pair that fit perfectly I’ll probably still buy something that’s almost right. Every square foot of a mall store is expensive and it has to earn, earn, earn. They can’t afford to stock every version or variation of a product if they think they can get a customer to settle. Good business involves figuring out what 80% of all customers nationwide are willing to settle for. It’s not good customer service, but whatever.
I didn’t feel like the other shoe stores had ripped me off, mind you. I just wasn’t even aware that there were other options. And when I did, that was the last time I ever shopped at a big chain store. My eyeglasses, too, are special-orders via Amazon or eBay. What makes the 80% happy is a perfectly fine product; it just isn’t for me.
It isn’t often that I strongly disagree with Mr. Gruber. It’s rarer still when I disagree and I feel like I can say something more interesting than “What he said, only not.” Yeah, I don’t really understand his negative reaction to the concept of a modern Windows notebook with a standard VGA port on it.
From a followup post:
If PC makers wait until there are no VGA projectors in use before they stop putting VGA ports on laptops, they’ve waited too long. Just copy Apple: get rid of the antiquated port, make thinner computers, and sell $20 adaptors for those who need them.
My stumbling points:
1) Everybody loves a standard. That’s why they’re called “standards” (cf Mickey Bergman, “Heist”).
I give lots and lots of talks all over the world every year. With only one exception, when I’ve arrived in the room to test my equipment I’ve found a VGA cable gaffer-taped to the podium. That sure doesn’t sound like an “antiquated” standard to me.
VGA isn’t modern by any stretch. It does, however, have the one feature that makes a standard valuable: it’s everywhere and it works. If a conference or a university tells me that the hall is set up for VGA, my problems are solved. If they say “It’s HDMI” then I have to ask what kind of a connector it is, and then I might have to go out and buy it, and then I have to make sure I don’t forget to bring this extra cable with me.
And God help me if they say “We’re using a wireless video device. You just have to install a piece of software to make it work. You’re running Windows 7 on your MacBook, right?” Wireless projection is very much of the 21st-century but that’s cold comfort when I’m walking through an hourlong presentation with makeshift shadow puppets.
2) It’s cheesy to keep soaking a customer for added accessories.
It’s just bad. Particularly on a laptop that the consumer’s already spending $1500-$2000 on. A MacBook is hardly a budget-priced item. If a basic feature isn’t onboard, just give the customer the damned dongle instead of making them race back to the store 30 minutes before closing and then charging them $30.
3) Dongles stink.
Sometimes they’re necessary evils, as when a device is too slim to accommodate the right plug and when slimness is important to the product you’re making.
But they’re never, ever, ever a good idea. They exist to trip people up. In an ideal world, I’d always remember to pack a video dongle in that Little Bag Of Cables And Chargers when I leave the house to go and give a talk. I would never walk out of the hotel and head to the speaking venue without making sure the dongle was in my laptop bag.
This is a world in which $200,000,000 was spent to make a movie based on the board game “Battleship.” Does this look like a perfect world?
A case in point: during my trip to Ireland, my iPad was my sole computer. I packed my Airport Express, just in case the only Internet access in my room was Ethernet. I sure didn’t consider that a hassle: I wouldn’t have expected a device like the iPad to have Ethernet.
Fortunately, the WiFi in my hotel room was great. I didn’t need the Airport. This was also fortunate for another speaker, whose MacBook Air couldn’t find the hotel WiFi for love or whiskey. I lent him the Airport and saved him the loss of a whole work night and the hassle of scouring the streets of Dublin for a USB Ethernet dongle the next day.
4) “Ideologically Sound” is not a feature.
“We decided not to include that in the product.”
“Because in our vision of the future, that feature will one day be unnecessary.”
No, no, no.
When you’re trying to sell me something and I ask you why your expensive product can’t do something that I (and most people, I think) would expect it to do, don’t sigh and tent your fingers and start spouting design philosophy. That’s just arrogance. Tell me why this decision makes your product better. Tell me how it adds value. Tell me how this decision makes my life better.
If you can’t do any of those things, then you admit that you have no answer.
The MacBook Air is a special case, of course. It’s too thin to accept a standard VGA or Ethernet connector. Fine. Tell me “We wanted to make the Air as easy to carry around as possible. It’s too thin for a standard connector.” That’s a perfectly acceptable response. Just don’t even try to convince me that I’m silly for seeing “onboard VGA and Ethernet” as desirable features. Hundreds of podiums and Ethernet-only hotel rooms beg to differ with you.
5) The advantage of the PC marketplace is its diversity.
Here we finally get back to the “Mall store” frustration. Apple’s lack of options isn’t arrogance. Mostly, it’s simple, sensible business math. They’re one company and they have to manufacture every computer that runs MacOS. They sure can’t afford to build dozens of different models that cater to every need, and keep them all in inventory.
But the PC marketplace is different. Write up a list of every feature you’d like your new notebook to have. Chances are excellent that you’ll be able to find a computer that fits almost that entire description…and maybe even at the price you can afford to pay.
Is the wide variety of options and prices confusing to consumers? Maybe, sure. It’s their money, though. Isn’t it better that they can spend it on the notebook that best matches their needs? Larger screen, smaller screen. Dirt-cheap with a weak AMD CPU, mid-priced with Ivy Bridge. I’m checking out Samsung’s latest Series 5 notebooks and these are all options just within that one model. The one I have here is built quite solidly, and while it’s not as thin as an 11″ MacBook Air, it does feature a larger screen plus twice as much SSD storage at the same price. As well as onboard HDMI out and Gigabit Ethernet. Yes, it’s a dongle-free zone.
PCs offer choices. Want to pay extra for an ultra-slim, metal-clad notebook? You’re covered. Want to spend less money on something that’s slightly less sexy but is still thin and well-made? Covered. Don’t want to travel with a bag full of accessory connectors? Covered. Want something more akin to “a transportable desktop PC” than a sleek notebook? Take your pick.
PC makers are following the lead of consumers — not Apple — by making thinner notebooks. It’s actually not that easy to find a popular Windows notebook with onboard VGA. But for those customers who like that, the hardware is out there. They can get the laptop they want, not the laptop that they have to settle for.
That’s a good thing. I don’t think I’d take that as a sign that any Windows manufacturer is stubbornly holding on to the past.
Last year, my 2008-design MacBook Pro reached end-of-life and I bought myself a new 15″ MacBook Pro. Lord, how I was tempted by the Air. I had an Apple loaner for a month or two and that’s all the convincing that you need if you spend only part of your work time at a desk. After lots of deep breaths — and conversations in my head in which the “con” side of the argument was voiced by my father — I felt that the 13″ screen, the limited SSD storage, and the lack of onboard Ethernet would drive me nuts in day-to-day use. I get way more bang for my buck with the more conventional Pro.
I was little worried about what Apple was going to announce at WWDC. Would they make the MacBook Pro slightly thinner? Would it be just thin enough that they’ll say “Oh, well, we dropped Ethernet. It’s a wireless world out there. If you really need it, just buy a dongle”?
This is another thing that kind of gets me going. “Thin” is definitely a feature in notebooks, and not least because it usually means “light.” The difference between traveling with a 13″ MacBook Pro and a 13″ Air is like night and day, whether you’re popping out to Panera for a few hours or off to a conference on another continent for a whole week.
While “thin” is a feature, “thinner” isn’t. Not always. When you’re comparing a conventional notebook to an Air, yes, that’s absolutely a great feature. But I’ve been examining my MacBook Pro since the announcement of the next-gen MacBook and (while my review unit makes its way here) I’m wondering just how much more convenient this marginally-thinner new model would be. I’ve never once been in a position where I’m about to leave for the airport and I still need to slide a copy of People Magazine in my laptop bag but…rgh…mmph…this darn old-fashioned MacBook Pro is just too darn thick…
So I was pretty relieved to learn that Apple’s new thinner design would expand the MacBook Pro line instead of replacing it. It’s just not worth it to drop an Ethernet port solely on the ideological principle that notebooks should always, always, always be made thinner.
[Added, based on early comments: I’m not saying that all notebooks should have VGA and Ethernet. My point is that the presence of those features shouldn’t be taken as a sign that a company isn’t thinking. There are people out there willing to pay money for a notebook with onboard VGA. Sony is willing to take their money. Simple. “We included this feature because it’s useful and people want it” isn’t something that any company should be ashamed of, or criticized for.
What I admire most about the Windows ecosystem is that if feature (x) is important to you, you can usually find hardware that supports it. You don’t need to settle quite as often as you do as a Mac user.]