The “Macs Are Too Expensive” Debate: It’s Ultimately Futile

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer set the proverbial cat among the pigeons last week with his contention at the McGraw-Hill Companies’ Media Summit in New York that Mac buyers pay a $500 price premium for merely a designer logo.

“Apple gained about one point, but now I think the tide has really turned back the other direction,” Ballmer declaimed. “The economy is helpful. Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment — same piece of hardware — paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that’s a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be.”

Perhaps Mr. Ballmer actually believes the only substantive distinctions between Macs and Windows PCs are the logo and the price. It would be politically incorrect for him to say otherwise, since the Mac’s most profound superiority is that it runs Mac OS X instead of Microsoft’s Windows OS.

In that very important respect, the never-ending controversy over whether Macs are gratuitously more expensive than PCs is futile, being an Apples and, well, PCs comparison. It is true there’s great commonality on the hardware component side between Mac and PC CPUs these day, which of course begs the question: “What’s so special about a Mac anyway?”

There’s the cachet of the Apple brand of course, and I suppose that’s important to some, but not especially to this longtime Mac aficionado. I would rank Apple’s sublimely elegant aluminum chassis designs far higher than the logo, but for me the key to Mac desirability and superiority is the operating system. The Mac is not just another PC. Only Macs can (legally) run the Mac OS (plus Windows as well), and that is huge, because the OS is the main course of the Mac feast for many of us, who would and do pay an admittedly substantial price premium — if not happily, at least resignedly — in order to benefit from the manifold superiorities of the Mac OS.

PC World’s David Coursey observed this week that “Many people will happily pay $300 to not be subjected to Windows Vista…” As long as Apple continues (sensibly, in their interest) refusing to license the Mac OS, the argument is moot as far as many of us are concerned.

That doesn’t make us mindless “fanboys,” but rather connoisseurs of a more elegant and hassle-free computing experience with a low tolerance for aggravation, who just want to get our work done with a higher degree of enjoyability and efficiency. PC World’s Coursey, a cross-platform user himself, observes, as many others have, that Mac users tend to be more productive than Windows users “because they spend less time ‘messing’ with the computer and solving (or not) various Windows hassles,” adding that “In a business environment, this saving of staff time can offset the Mac premium so quickly it will make your head spin. Ease-of-use saves money,”

There are many ways to parse “expensive,” with up-front capital outlay being a rather simplistic one. The real value arbiters are TCO, total cost of ownership, combined with the quality of user-experience, and in those more-complex contexts, the Mac is the big winner.

For example, I’m typing this screed on an 9-year-old PowerBook Pismo running what was Apple’s current Mac OS version a year and a half ago (ie: OS 10.4.11 Tiger), and enjoying still satisfactory performance for the things I do with this computer. Try running Vista (which was the current Windows version when OS 10.4.11 was released) on a PC laptop built in early 2000.

I do have an up-to-date Mac laptop, a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo unibody MacBook with Nvidia GeForce 9400 graphics, and it’s great. I could have bought a similar-sized and powered Dell or Acer with a lot more RAM and hard drive capacity for a lot less, but I’m not complaining. The MacBook has a look and feel reminiscent of a fine Swiss watch, and runs the Mac OS, which are attributes that are difficult to monetize in a pricing abstract, but they do represent substantial value added, in my opinion.

In this economy, I can’t fault anyone for deciding a Windows PC is a better fit for their budget in straitened circumstances, but as long as I can manage to scrape together the up-front cost, I’ll be using Macs, satisfied that I’m receiving value for the deeper wallet-siphoning.

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