The Apple Tax: Fact or Fiction?

Recently, we’ve seen Microsoft move to respond to Apple’s “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” ads, fearing the company’s rapid growth. There was the Seinfeld debacle, which drew plenty of attention. It didn’t seem to be quite the attention Microsoft was looking for, so they turned to the “I’m a PC” campaign. Yes, Pharrell is pretty cool, but the buzz quickly turned embarrassing for Redmond: the campaign was made on Macs. Google “I’m a pc campaign” and you’ll see just how much this contradiction stole Microsoft’s thunder.

They didn’t fare so well with their “Mojave” experiment, either. Microsoft rebranded Vista as Mojave, and had a focus group test it as if it were a completely new product. The reactions were filmed and made into commercials, during which participants rave about their (5 minute?) experience with the “new” OS, and then look foolish when their interviewer reveals that they were actually using the company’s much-criticized Vista.

So maybe making people who actually liked your product look dumb wasn’t the greatest idea ever. Microsoft’s PR department must have figured out what went wrong. They’re now trying a less backward approach: make fans of the competition look stupid. Hence the so-called “Apple Tax.” While the term itself is not new, Microsoft VP Brad Brooks would like to expand its meaning.┬áIn general use, it refers to the perceived premium Apple fanboys are willing to pay for their Mac fix over and above similarly spec’d PC hardware.

In a recent interview with CNET News, Brooks outlined the multi-part Apple Tax Microsoft sees users paying upon deciding to go the Mac route. The overall Apple Tax he describes is divided into three sub-categories: the Application Tax, the Technology Tax, and the Upgrade Tax.

The Application Tax comes in to play because

[I]f you want the same type of application experience on your Mac versus Windows, you’re going to be purchasing a lot of software. And even at that you’re not going to get the same experience.

Which makes a little sense, especially if you, like me, are one of many Mac users frustrated with Office 2008 and the lack of resemblance between it and its Windows counterpart. But there is a very basic problem with Brooks’ whole proposition: “[I]f you want the same […] application experience” (emphasis added). Why would I be switching to Mac if I wanted the same application experience I was getting on my PC? Isn’t the reason for seeking an alternative, actually, well, to seek an alternative? I don’t want Windows applications on my Mac, I want Mac applications, and there are plenty of free and affordable apps designed for the platform.

The Technology Tax occurs due to hardware limitations stemming from Apple’s exclusion of things like Blu-ray, HDMI, and e-SATA. While it is true that non of these new and emerging techs have been made available on stock Macs, it’s also true that they have (for now), limited appeal to many consumers. Still, the exclusion of HDMI and Blu-ray have obviously been somewhat motivated by Apple trying to boost sales in other lines of business, such as Apple TV and iTunes, so it’s hard to make an outright denial of tech tax claims. It’s worth noting, however, that many analysts predict Blu-ray, at least, will have a very short shelf life, and e-SATA could soon be replaced by newer tech like USB 3.0, so Apple may just be waiting for a sure bet.

Finally, the Upgrade Tax is what people pay when they have to buy entirely new machines becauses Macs (for the most part) are not very customizable. Now I’ve felt the sting of this “tax” before. I took my old eMac as far as it would go, having a third-party shop open it up and install an external SATA cable so I could swap out internal drives easily on the fly, and upgrading the DVD drive. The process was costly and risky, compared to doing the same sort of thing with a PC tower. And now, with my new iMac, I’m already picturing a time soon when the HD is insufficient for my needs, and swapping them out involves removing the screen, something I don’t trust myself to do at the moment.

Even if the Upgrade Tax does exist (and recent all-in-ones from PC manufacturers show it’s not really Apple-specific), it’s easily offset by the Frustration Tax of owning a PC. If I add up the hours saved on tech support since I and those around me have switched to Macs, the amount of time saved far outweighs the cost of buying a new computer every couple of years. Yes, after two years with my eMac I felt the need for something more current and bought a MacBook, but for those two years, I had no complaints and no issues with that computer, either software or hardware related. My Toshiba laptop didn’t even make it two full years before developing fatal heat dissipation issues. The eMac, on the other hand, is still the main computer of a friend I sold it to. He’s never had a problem with it, and as a light user, no reason to upgrade, either.

The remainder of Brooks’ argument seems to rest around the cost of putting Windows on an Apple machine. Meaning that if you take Windows out of the equation, the argument falls apart. And taking it out of the equation is just what thousands of developers and consumers are currently in the process of doing.

When your strongest argument is that people have to pay more money to run your heavily criticized product if they want better hardware, guess what the logical conclusion is. The real “Apple Tax”, by Brooks’ own admission, is the cost of putting Windows on a Mac, which is no longer really necessary. I see an easy way to not pay that tax, Mr. Brooks, don’t you?

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