Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Real Psystar Story: Mac Users Caught Looking ... or Apple != Hardware

Apple believes that they are a hardware company, even though their fabulous software and consistently broken, mediocre, (tech-and-policy-)crippled, and overpriced hardware make it clear that's not the case.

These folks have enablers, too: fans who think about the hardware like they think about tables at Design Within Reach ... who get a warm fuzzy knowing they have the authentic overpriced article. And other fans who don't think at all, but love a glowy apple logo because it makes them fit in with the crowd they want to imitate, er, um, that came out wrong, the crowd who all want to, uh, think different with. Identically. Or something.

Truth is, aside from the hardcore enablers, all the other Mac users don't give a damn about the hardware (until it breaks). They sit at the their glass desks from Ikea or Target (not DWR), they boot up their who-cares-I-just-like-Mac-OS machines, and they work.

The real Psystar story is not about a vaporware company, or unenforceable EULAs. It's a story about the story. The real Psystar story is this: it's a big deal because most Mac lovers don't love, worship, or want to pay for Apple's charade of being about hardware. So they would consider buying a Mac clone.

Think of it this way:

  • PC users who don't want a Mac don't care about Psystar
  • PC users who are technophiles and would like to play with Mac stuff without a real Mac don't care much, because they can build their own Hackintosh for very cheap
  • Mac users who believe there is critical value in the Apple hardware don't care either, because they (and, they figure, those in the know) would not be interested in a Mac clone to save a couple hundred bucks.

Who's left? Why is everyone so spun up? (Google shows 220,000 results for Psystar right now, and only a few are itself)

Because when the mere possibility of a Mac clone gets so many people feverishly looking, writing, and thinking, it puts the lie to the Apple-is-really-a-hardware-company positioning. And that realization ... if it were to take hold ... would have implications for Apple's strategy, product line, and stock price.

At some level, the Macosphere has always known, that the software was 98% of the experience. And a big part of them viscerally responded to the proposition that all they need is a software subscription to really nice OS.


Jamie said...

Tech media reviewers give the hardware a lot of love, so I'm not sure I agree with your assertion that the hardware is bad and the fan base is indifferent to it.

More important is the rift between consumers' desire for clones that work just like Apple hardware, vs. Apple's interest in preventing that. The last thing in the world that Apple wants to do is to go head to head with Dell and Microsoft on those companies' home turf. (The trail of corpses on that road is proof that it's not exactly a brilliant strategy.)

Apple pulled off an amazing transformation over the past 10 years, wherein the objection from folks not buying them changed. It used to be "inferior garbage that runs slow and costs too much, which no one should buy", and now it's mostly "I really want one but they're too expensive". Same CPU, same hard disk, same everything; at this point Apple makes pretty cases and fancy motherboards, and OEMs everything else.

So what are Mac buyers paying for then? Well, partly the OS, but partly the polish factor, and that's not all bling bling. My downstairs neighbor had a Toshiba laptop featuring several buttons that did nothing, even with the restore-from-CD vendor tweaked copy of Windows on it. Stupid things like switching the video out setting commonly doesn't work on crappy computers.

You can assemble a PC that works well and costs less for parts than a Mac, but there is a huge time investment involved, and anti-enthusiasts need a vendor that will build computers that just work. To the extent that Apple delivers on that, they deserve to survive and keep their customers, because that's what people expect. They would not succeed in the space where Dell, Microsoft, Walmart, Newegg, and Gentoo live now, so it's foolish to expect them to go there.

Adam said...

I'm not suggesting that Apple doesn't deserve to survive and thrive, only that they are really selling an OS, beloved by many, while their hardware has been plagued by flaws, from screens to hinges to power supplies to fragile cases to the "it was supposed to crack" cubes. Many Macs lead their category in perf, but as you say the internals are mostly standard parts.

What I am saying is that making hardware is hard. And the quick, make-it-pretty-in-time-for-Macworld then forget working the kinks out b/c there'll be a whole new one next year makes it very hard to achieve controlled quality in production.

At the end of the day, the software creates the experience (even the broken Toshiba laptop you talk about could presumably work right with the right drivers and OS).

I'm just saying Apple's true nature, and ultimate future, is software that is high-margin and where you can sell infinite copies.

Hardware is lower margin, especially when, as you mention, the bulk of the product is commodity parts (driving margin toward zero).

Regarding Microsoft, Dell, et al, I would argue "now is the time" for Apple, as their brand awareness is sky high and Microsoft is stuck deep in the Vista debacle for at least 2-3 more years.