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What the Muses Deign: Basking in the sauna at Club Macintosh

by Porruka, porruka@macedition.com, January 5, 2002

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When analysts of any stripe look at Apple, they see a computer company. Even with devices like the iPod, Apple might get compared to other computer companies (like Compaq) or with other electronics companies, but recently I've come to think there might be something a bit more different even than that to Apple's strategy.

"The Rest of Us" can take a hike

It's been quite a while since Apple could claim any sort of price crown other than "highest." Even now, hardware prices are much more competitive with other computing solutions – but they are only compelling when such approaches are trotted out that include "compare setup time and cost" or the fabled "ease of use" and "compare what you get," when you don't have the option of removing certain features from Apple boxen. To be fair, the computers are much more affordable than they have been in many years. But they're still not the computers "For The Rest of Us." If anything, Macintosh has come to represent exclusion rather than inclusion – the few who "get it" get a Mac.

Flee or fight?

What happens when your market decides to put your company into a position you don't like or didn't prepare for? You can either fight that placement and convince your market that it is wrong, or you can go with the flow and make the best of it. Apple fought the good fight for a while, illustrated by the commercials: "I'm going over to Billy's house; he's got a Mac," to "There is no step three." However, the market had decided that Apple technology belonged in a niche, not in the mainstream, and Apple hasn't been able to market itself out of a wet paper sack, much less a subservient niche, for quite a while. Needless to say, the faithful cheered on the attempts (since we all already knew the benefits – all that had to happen was to enlighten others) and Apple continued to be boxed into a corner. The next step, in hindsight, seems to be acceptance.

Turning the tables

So Apple makes a niche product. As the common analogy goes, so does BMW, Braun and most country clubs. Companies can do quite well in niches as long as they understand their market and meet the needs of those "different" folks. Apple, it seems, is attempting to remake itself into something of desire. First, there was styling, an area that Apple has always had an advantage in (both aesthetic and industrial design). Hence, the iMac, the iBook, the revs of the PowerBook and the sexier desktop boxen for the pros. What couldn't be done in hardware at the time was done externally. Pundits laughed but style indeed made Apple hardware desirable again, helping to offset the now-ingrained "everybody uses Windows" mentality. As certain hardware became more commonplace, the underlying machine began to improve too. AirPort, FireWire, SuperDrive, Cinema Display – Apple brought all these things to the masses, but only for the initiated, the ones who "thought different" enough to try Macintosh. The Cube came and went, apparently being too much style, too much price and not enough hardware at the time. The magic seemed to fail, but it was followed up by the smash TiBook (PowerBook G4 Titanium). Then, of course, there's the iPod.

How much is that iPod in the Window(s)?

The iPod. This much-maligned device heralds the next step in the creation of Club Macintosh. We still await details about whether Apple predicted well enough on price and sales to make this a knockout or a failure from a business perspective, but in the remaking of Apple, it has been yet another success. Windows users drool over it. Mac users drool over it. Everyone who writes about it acknowledges the design and functionality of the device goes beyond other devices in the product space. So where does this leave Apple, since similar accolades were heaped on the Cube? Apple has one more (possibly) compelling reason to buy membership in Club Macintosh.

So what do you get for your $1299 membership fee?

When you take a look at the array of products and services Apple has lined up, Club Macintosh is taking on an air of being a place to be. Would just five more people out of 100 be interested in being able to turn on their machine and be up and running on the Internet (complete with a mac.com e-mail address) in mere minutes? And what about sharing pictures and home movies? When you have your membership, you get to listen to music and edit movies for free. Your membership fee (plus a service charge for the iPod) gives you something other people don't have – namely, the iPod, and the time to listen to music rather than configure your machine to connect to your device or spend time waiting to download the music. There may be some contention about the value of these benefits, but that's the case with any club: "Are the facilities worth the price of admission?"

Macworld San Francisco 2002

So all this brings me to Monday's keynote and what might be coming next. There is talk of new desktop machines, talk of new iMacs, talk of devices that might or might not emerge. There's talk of software, both from Apple and from other vendors, for the Mac. But there's not much talk about why Apple might be doing this. Here's what I predict...


Of course, none of this actually says specifically what the rumored announcement could be. That's because the actual device, assuming there even is one, is almost unimportant to the grander scheme, from what I've seen. If the device is compelling and it adds value to the Club Macintosh membership, then it will likely be a hit for Apple. That's the most important thing to be looking for in the upcoming keynote. I, for one, will be watching in anticipation to see if my Club Macintosh membership goes up in value or not.

—porruka
Editor-in-Chief, MacEdition

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