Sorry. I can’t resist.

July 21, 2009

I have to start this off with a disclosure: I believe Apple products are good. I do not hate Apple.

With that out of the way, I’m going to point out, probably for that eight billionth time, that I hate the smug, self-righteous, unquestioning, unflinching and undying loyalty fanboys have for Apple products — attitude so well epitomized in the company’s “I’m a Mac” ads (you know, the ones where Macs are for the cool, hip people who zip through worry-free lives while PCs are for dorks and dweebs who either don’t know better or enjoy having useless machines).

Didn’t those ads at least seem effective? Did you ever fire up your PC — even once — and wonder why you hadn’t switched to Apple yet? I did. And the answer turned out to be really simple: I don’t want to be one of those people. The ones from that commercial. No thanks.

Microsoft has finally come back with a series of ads that hit Apple where it lives. They show people (actors) on budgets, challenged to find a computer with particular specs on a budget. Invariably, Apple machines don’t fit the bill. But there’s a PC that will — and the lucky actor usually has money to spare.

Apple is not happy about these ads. Not happy at all.

In fact, Apple dislikes the ads so much, its lawyers have demanded Microsoft pull them immediately.

It’s hard for Apple to make a case that the commercials are untrue — especially when their “I’m a Mac” ads are laden with exaggeration and tall tales. But it certainly appears that the ads are working. BrandIndex says Microsoft’s so-called value perception has risen steadily since the campaign began in March, while Apple’s has fallen.

Some of this value perception may have nothing at all to do with these ads. A year ago, carrying a cup of Starbucks (like owning a MacBook) was a status symbol. Today, it’s just seen as frivolity. If you don’t need to spend the money, don’t do it…

And sales figures aren’t looking any better.

Apple just fell from fourth place to fifth place in US computer sales, overtaken by Toshiba. That’s right, folks: Toshiba.

One would expect HP and Dell to lead that pack. And Acer (No. 3) has made a strong showing in the past couple of years — especially the second quarter of 2009, when its shipments increased 51 percent. Toshiba’s shipments were up nearly 34 percent. Apple’s shipments, by contrast, dropped 12.4 percent. And Apple’s market share? About 7.6 percent in the US. Under 5 percent worldwide.

This is a pretty clear case of Apple getting  exactly wha t it deserves. Its spin machine has created this whole idea that Apple products “just work” (ask me about my iPod Touch someday), that PCs just aren’t capable of artistic work and can’t be fun (uhhh…any Mac users doing much gaming these days?). As I’ve said before, the Apple team sells products based on claimed difficiencies of PCs, instead of on its own strengths. And now, finally, Microsoft has found a way to put forth the value question. And the answer, really, is quite simple.

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How to control the news and save your stock.

June 22, 2009

I woke up Saturday morning to the somewhat troubling news that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had undergone a liver transplant a couple of months ago. Obviously, if Mr. Jobs was ill, it isn’t troubling that he received the transplant, and I wish him well in his recovery. What did trouble me, and will likely trouble the Security and Exchange Commission, is that the public is only hearing about this two months later — post iPhone 3GS release, of course.

As you may be aware, the SEC is already looking into the Jobs health saga — specifically, what other Apple execs and board members have known about his health prior to his taking a leave of absense six months ago, amid speculation that he was indeed very ill. The line at the time from Apple was that Jobs had some health issues that were more complicated than originally believed and that he was going to take some time to recover before a late-June return to work. So they didn’t worry investors, Apple told the world Jobs would keep a watchful eye over the company, even in his absense.

For most companies, a leave of absense by the CEOs is barely worth a blip on the radar screen. But in Apple’s case, it is huge news. Few companies are as reliant on the well-being of their leadership. And, generally, any mention that Jobs is in ill health sends Apple stocks into free fall. Remember the faulty report a few months back that claimed Jobs had a heart attack? That report sent the stocks tumbling, just in time for some folks to scoop them up and make a pretty penny when the world learned it was a hoax.

Clearly Apple played Jobs’ health close to the breast in December, acting as if maybe Steve was just a tad tired and needed an extended vacation. Unfortunately, a liver transplant is not a vacation.

The Apple reality distortion field was working overtime on this story, very clearly in attempt to downplay Jobs’ very real health problems (one doctor said the liver is the next stop for cancer after the pancreas) and keep stock prices up. And when the news finally leaked that Jobs had a transplant, it wasn’t while he was on the table — it was two months later, when he’d had time to recover. It also broke late Friday night, after the markets had been closed and the new iPhone had hit stores, so there was no chance fear of Jobs’ health would deflate the stock prices.

Imagine what would have happened to Apple stock had Jobs announced he was going on leave to have a liver transplant. What if the Wall Street Journal broke the story the day before the transplant? What if the story had run Friday morning? The point is that any scenario other than exactly what did happen would have been awfully bad. Rarely do companies avoid such PR mishaps by mistake.

There’s a degree of deception going on at Apple that should have shareholders concerned. Sure, the PR team could be lauded for its ability to spin, but we aren’t talking about spin here; we’re talking about deception. The refusal to answer direct questions, the pointed accusations that the public is improperly meddling in Jobs’ personal affairs, the assertions that he’s fine and looking forward to resuming his work….all point to sins of ommission and commission. And because the company knows full well how strongly its stock price is tied to Jobs’ health, one must wonder what the company knew about Jobs, and whether it was intentionally misleading stockholders to keep prices up.

My prediction is that the SEC will be looking into this, to determine who knew what and when.

But in the meantime, take this as an example. If you’ve got bad news, hold onto it until it can be spun into a positive. Failing that, make sure it comes out on Friday night. Because nobody reads the news on Saturday. Except me.


A case for Apple netbooks.

June 17, 2009

Whenever someone mentions that Apple should make a netbook, the fanboys come out in droves, fervently defending The Great Jobs and Co.’s failure to enter that space as the smartest way to go. They say Apple doesn’t need a netbook, and that machines like the Macbook Air and really the future. They defend the idea that netbooks aren’t consumer friendly because they’re underpowered, have cramped keyboards and won’t last more than a couple of years. There’s no margin on netbooks, they say, so why would Apple want to offer a product that would steal from the popular Macbook line?

We’ll, I’ve owned my little Acer AspireONE now for well over six months. It set me back all of $350. I opted for the 120g optical drive rather than the 8g flash drive, and chose the Windows XP model over the cheaper Linux model. What I can tell you after living with the AspireONE is I have never been happier with a tech purchase. Ever. And that includes my Garmin GPS and my iPod Touch.

First off, the netbook is not underpowered. In fact, it’s perfectly powered. Would I like more snap? Yes, I would. But I have run Photoshop, Dreamweaver, an FTP client and two browsers at the same time on it when I was throwing up a quick web page. Obviously I wouldn’t use it to do any hard-core coding, and the screen’s a tiny bit small for real photo editing, but I’ve found it handles most software in the Adobe Creative Suite quite well. I’ve also done some light audio editing with Audacity, encoded video clips and made some pretty decent PDFs using InDesign. I’m not saying it’s an ideal production machine, but in a pinch I’ve found that it’s been able to do the work — even if it is a bit bogged down.

Cramped keyboard? No chance. I’m a quick typer. I type a lot. It took all of a day and a half to get used to the Acer’s keyboard, and it’s a heckuva lot better to type on than, say, an iPhone. Hands down.

Will it last more than two years? Probably not. But guess what? I don’t want or need it to. It runs XP. Within a year I’ll want a faster netbook, probably running Windows 7 (or OSX). We’ve got to start thinking about our technology as being somewhat disposable; advancements in technology make any gadget obsolete by the time you get it home. For that, the price of a netbook is perfect. It isn’t the investment a Macbook Air would be. And let’s face it, from a portability standpoint, you can’t beat it. I’d have a hard time carrying an Air around, just based on the fear of breaking it. No such fear with the Acer, though. I through it in my bag, throw it in the car, and it always works.

But I guess the argument that bugs me the most is that Apple wouldn’t make enough profit per unit sold on netbooks. The most galling thing about this argument is that the fanboys are actually admitting they’re paying a high markup on every Apple product they buy. Unbelievable. This leads me into a discussion about the perception of worth, and how that’s worked quite well for Apple…but I won’t go there yet.

As I said in my last post, Apple’s market share in the personal computer market will likely stagnate until it creates more and better gateway products. The iPod was supposed to be that device; there was a time when iTunes wasn’t even available for  PC users. No Mac? No iPod. That scenario didn’t make people want to buy Macs, but iPod sales exploded as soon as iTunes was available for PCs. Now Apple can build a Shuffle for about $25 and sell it for $80, and folks think that’s just fine.

The first iMac was supposed to be a gateway product. It was cute, colorful and inexpensive. Sales were good. But it didn’t make enough people really really want real Macs. And the Mac mini…cheaper than a full-blown G4, certainly, but not enticing enough for the mass market. I say all of this with full knowledge of the fact that up until this year, Apple’s market share was growing. The point is that fanboys love to pretend that Apple doesn’t need gateway products or loss leaders; in fact, they love to claim Apple’s business has been built on customer experience and customer loyalty. To a degree they’re right: the fierce loyalty to Apple products has helped the company grow considerably. But Apple has a history of using gateway products and loss leaders. Heck, most of us (myself included) used Apple IIe labs in elementary school. And what we’ve seen in the last year or two is that although Apple is cleaning up in the mobile space with over 17 million iPhones sold, those sales are not translating into Apple-loyal consumers.

I have no doubt that if Apple put some heads together it could make the best netbook on the market. It would be thinner than that slick Sony Vaio entry and certainly sexier than my Acer. With the flash drive of the Air and all the other bells and whistles Apple’s known for, folks would be chomping at the bit. Does it have to be sub-$500? I don’t think so. But for under $600 you’d sell a whole lot of them. And if you didn’t make bank, at least you’d have introduced a whole lot of folks to OSX. And those people will be a lot easier to convince into buying that $4,000 chunk of hardware you’re trying to sell.