Consumers have good reasons to purchase Macs

despite bad press on Apple's corporate finances Mar 25 1997

There's been a bunch of bad news about Apple, all somewhat gleefully reported by the media. They are thirsty for corporate blood -- quarterly losses, executive resignations, declining market share and more.

In this very column last week we looked at a letter from a longtime Macintosh user, who had concluded that the future lay with the enemy and purchased a 'Wintel' system (a computer running Microsoft Windows on an Intel processor).

Well, not so fast! Don't count Apple out just yet. Despite the hard times at Apple, their products retain many of the qualities that have gained them an important segment of the market:

* Ease of use: While in many ways, Microsoft's newer Windows 95 and NT interface has caught up with Apple's Macintosh, the Mac remains the classic user-friendly system. Basic actions like copying files and installing software are generally still easier on Macs. Plug and Play on your Windows 95 machine makes adding hardware easy -- if it works at all. On the Mac, it's almost always easier.

* Devoted user base: 24 million Mac users are a fraction of the hundreds of millions working on the majority platform. Their loyalty to their computing choice, however, makes them both an important potential market and a source of help for new Mac users.

* Continued technical progress: Macs have pioneered many hardware and software advances that we now take for granted, regardless of computer platform. Today's high-end Macs are, for the first time in a decade, faster and more powerful than the equivalent Intel processor machines. And while there's still a price gap between more affordable Macs and low-end Intel clones, it's smaller than it used to be, with Macs from both Apple and several Mac-clone manufacturers dropping in price.

* Strength in important market segments: Last year, Apple's overall market share dropped to around six per cent. That figure misses the fact that Apple remains strong in a number of areas, such as graphics and page layout, Web page design, multimedia creation, and education and home use, to name a few.

* Cash in the bank: Despite disappointing profit/loss statements lately, and even after paying over US$400 million to purchase Steve Jobs' NeXT Corp., Apple remains a company with significant reserves. That gives it the possibility of funding next-generation research, or fending off hostile takeovers.

When people hear that I write about computers, they often ask what sort of computer they should buy for their home/office/ school/kids. For years, the 'official' answer of the computer experts has been, "Choose your software, and get the hardware that you need to make it run."

Well, that's much less of a help than it once was: most major software products run, in pretty similar versions, on both major platforms -- Mac and Windows. Of course, you'll need to buy a computer with enough memory, drive space and processor to run your desired software at a comfortable clip.

Instead, I've tended to give the following advice:

* If you're planning to work in a specialized area, find out what is the most common computing platform in that area. You could use a Windows machine to work as a graphics professional -- the standard programs like Adobe Photoshop or QuarkXpress are available for Windows as well as for Macs. But you'll quickly find that the specialized hardware and software add-ons are often available for Mac only. And many of the pro-level service bureaus you need to work with are best equipped to handle Mac output.

* If, on the other hand, you're looking for a general purpose computer, whether for home, school, or office, find out what's being used by your peers. In many ways, Mac or Windows is less of an issue than where you're going to get informal support. Most users spend several hours a week getting productive on their computer, and then in ongoing fiddling, such as installing software, copying and deleting files and general housecleaning. If and when you need help, you want to have a network of people around you to lean on, and that means using the same kind of computer as they do. In a home-office setting, buy to meet your needs, not your kids' -- even if the kids are going to share the computer. Kids can adapt more easily to using a different computer from what they have at school than you can.

Don't avoid getting a Mac because of fears of Apple's current losses. In a worst-case scenario, imagine that Apple goes belly-up a month after you buy your new computer (something I think is extremely unlikely). That won't make your computer stop working or all of your software self-destruct. You will continue to be able to use your computer just as productively, for just as long as you would otherwise.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan