WWDC Hardware Keynote Wrap-up

Apple had their WWDC keynote yesterday, and announced lots of new stuff. Some people were disappointed that they didn’t release more products, but as I mentioned in my article right before the show, this probably isn’t the right venue for too many products, and Apple generally likes to keep releases more focused. The “don’t overwhelm customers with too much at once” strategy of marketing. So keeping it on-topic with “Pro-line” of Macs and Leopard makes a lot of sense. This article is about the hardware announcements, I’ll go into the Software / Leopard stuff in another article.

It makes sense that Apple went with the Xeon (Woodcrest) processor. Mac OS’s advantage is in MP. Apple designs good high end machines, and so it makes sense to come out with the high end boxes first. Plus the other processor isn’t even released yet.

Apple’s desktop machines are on the higher end of the price curve; Apple does beat many PC’s on the high end, if you configured a PC equally (especially name brands) — as Apple pointed out. What Apple didn’t point out, and one thing I’ve noticed (as have many others) is that if you configure Dell’s certain ways, or add anything beyond the standard, Dell tends to smack Apple right back and beat them by at least as much. So it isn’t as clear as the RDF (Reality Distortion Field) tries to lead one to believe.

Like I want a Dual Core (not quad core) desktop, with lots of RAM, and a slot to do one thing that Apple hasn’t thought of (dual monitors or a second network card to use it as a firewall, etc.), and a 17″ high density LCD with a built in TV tuner. Apple doesn’t offer anything; so I’m stuck with a completely non-expandable iMac, eMac or MacMini — because Apple won’t compromise the design by adding a slot, won’t offer low-quality or 3rd party displays, and so on. So I’m forced to go to a Mac Pro which is more machine than I want, at a much higher price — and I’m forced to go buy parts from all over the place, to hodge-podge my machine together — or buy a used one.

Pricing in the mid-range, a Dell is $1,000-1,500 with a cheap LCD, and Apple is at best $2,100, and that’s before you buy the 3rd party LCD (Apple doesn’t make a low-end one), or an external TV tuner (Apple doesn’t make or offer one). If you buy Apple’s 20″ or 30″ displays, you end up with a best of breed display, but that isn’t always what someone is looking for. And so on. If you’re not in the target market Apple wants to sell to (the high end), then you’re kind of out in the cold. Apple doesn’t offer a middle market expandable machine — yet. But in each of the markets Apple is in; low end, mid- line all-in-one, laptops, and high end desktop, and servers, Apple does do a really good job — but only if you fit in the niche/ demographics that Apple’s marketing people targeted.

I started pricing a nice Dual Xeon machine from Dell, and it started at $2800 with a single (Dual core) processor. A second one could be up to another grand. Now Dell offered more options; with processors from 1.6 GHz to 3.7 GHz, so on the high end, they were beating Apple (Apple doesn’t offer the 3.7 GHz ones yet). But the other side is I suspect that’s the old Xeon, and not the new one Apple offers — so we’ll see what Dell responds with. I bet that Dell will be later to the market, offer an uglier machine, with more options. At the sweet spot that Apple targeted, Apple will beat Dell — and everywhere else, Dell will beat Apple.

The same in the server market. Apple offers a really nice 1u rack- mount server. Dell offers 1u, 2u, 4u, towers, and blades (7u holds 10x blades). If you want a top-of-the-line 1u servers, with dual core, multiple processors, drive spots, and so on, Apple kills. If I want anything else, Apple tries to force the round peg into the square hole. I want a low end 1u or 2u rack server; Dell starts at $750, Apple starts at 3 times that. I want to add a backup option, a switch, etc., Dell has options, Apple tends not to. And so on. Apple offers clean options, and if you fit the niche, you’re golden. If you don’t, then you probably are frustrated by Apple and their thinking.

Apple still molests you on some options, but is fair on others. Add 1GB of RAM; Apple’s price is almost always exactly twice Dell’s price. Then you get to hard drives and with Apple you have fewer choices; you can buy 1 model hard drive for the alternate slots, which is the 500GB 7200 RPM top of the line drive — but it is about $129 cheaper than Dell’s version of the same. If you add 3x drive, that adds up with Apple offering serious savings on the best choice, but you can only get Apple’s choice for you. If you wanted a simple 250GB or 160GB drive and a mirror drive, Dell offers you the option, and with Apple you’re out of luck. So Apple offers far fewer options in both number of variants and variety things to add. You can choose between a dozen video cards with Dell, many optical devices, floppy media, USB keys, and software. Apple is getting better, but still does stupid things. Look at the software selections; they’re radio boxes and not check boxes, you can buy iWork or Aperture or Logic Express, etc., pre-installed. Why “or” instead of “and”? On Dell or competitors sites, it is often a checkbox for software that means you can select MULTIPLE things to have pre-installed, with Apple it is a radio box, as if installing iWork means you can’t also want to do Photo editing — and Apple doesn’t offer things like Office.

And don’t get me started on AppleCare — it costs $50 for better support from Dell. With Apple your machine is less likely to need support (by far), but if you want a support contract it costs 5x more ($250). And Dell starts with 3 year warranty on their business line, Apple starts with 1. I still remember back when Apple saw their reliability as a competitive advantage, so they offered better support than the competition, or bundled it into machines. Now they’re a profit center. I’ve had mixed results with both companies, still slightly preferring Apple’s support — but there are horror stories for both. In the end, if I pay 5 times as much, I expect more, and Apple doesn’t deliver it — in fact less as Dell’s upgrade options often have in-home or in-office support — so in value, Apple loses.

Apple also starts out better in price and price performance when machines are first released, but over time, other companies tend to keep lowering prices by more than Apple, and thus become more competitive over time, while Apple tends to be more flat (and thus expensive) over time. Until the next big release, where they again take the lead.


It seems obvious to me. Apple is sort of what happens when marketing gets out of control. When the marketing types start believing their own hype, they can position products to death. They do a great job of targeting some people, and comparing what they offer to the competition, and beating them (in the ways that they thought of). But if you aren’t the exact demographic, instead of loving them, you’ll probably be using epithets. Apple’s products are almost always best of breed, and the quality is some of the best in the market, if the marketing people thought about your needs/usage. If you want or need something a little different, Apple can really piss you off. And sometimes they just get dumb with things like not exploiting their quality advantage or perceived high end branding, by offering you more and better service.

Dell on the other hand is what happens when nerds or supply-chain wonks get out of control. Some choice is good. Too much choice is not. It can take you hours to figure out exactly what you want, and there’s little guidance on the site, and lots of things that make it MORE confusing. Do you really need every .2 GHz speed variant under the sun? Like I would really tell my friends, “I decided that the 1.8 GHz processor was better in a SPEC/$ comparison to the 2.2GHz machine”. A user shouldn’t have to choose between multiple network cards, and so on. Dell needs to learn a little about product positioning, steering and simplifying the message. The “I want to offer everything to everyone in every variant” message is as daft and confusing as Apple’s “we’ll only offer what we want to who we want” message is annoying.

In the end, I’m likely to buy Apple’s for users and small to medium business, and Dell’s for large business and servers.

Dell is great if you know what you’re doing, or know what you want — then you can get it your way. They are BurgerKing to Apple’s vegan Wolfgang Puck. Apple make a delicious and tasty vegan meal, but sometimes I want to eat greasy bad-for-me crap. And if I ask for something that isn’t on the menu, or want to add a little catsup to something, I don’t want an angry German chef yelling at me and telling me how I’m ruining his culinary masterpiece.

If you have an IT staff to pick the right machines, to install them, to maintain them, and to deal with Dell’s support, then they are fine. If I need a particular server setup a certain way, I can usually do it cheaper and better with Dell; if I have the expertise and pay the costs to choose wisely. I’m still leaving with a lot of calories, little nutritional value, and probably a lot of gas and heartburn later — but I can make my own mistakes, without someone else telling me what I really want.

Users will have a much better experience with a Mac. It is easier to buy, easier to configure, easier to use, and even easier to resell. It has a better OS, and less maintenance issues and a longer life. If you’re a small shop that doesn’t have an IT staff, or want to spend the time making the “right” choice, or just a user that wants a decent machine, then Apple offers machines where none of them are “the wrong choice”. Everything Apple offers is pretty good or near best-of-breed in its segment. And in the laptop segments it isn’t even close; Apple just spanks the competition. You get fewer choices, but often those choices are the right ones, or tasty enough to make up for the frustrations. So Apple offers nice quality at a more than fair price and they win in user experience, or for everyone who doesn’t know exactly what they want and need. Or like most users, just wants a good cutting edge machine, without being a car-nut-tuner- type that bolts ugly wings and bling-bling spinners or “Dubs” all over his ride. Thus I’ll leave Dell’s to the tuner-freaks or those with the budget (in either time or money) to buy the Dell. And the Mac is still the computer for the rest of us.

Hopefully, Apple will continue to diversify and rectify their shortcomings. Really, for me, if Apple did 3 things, they’d be a whole different league in hardware.

1) Offer expandability in the low end. The way to position your products is not to cripple the bottom end of the line. Apple could slap a PCMCIA card slot or two, or one small format PCI card into their MacMini and iMacs, and it would make those machines far more useful to FAR more people, for far more things. Yes that might pirate a few higher end sales, but it would also mean LOTS more lower-end ones. And the name of the game is volume (marketshare).

2) Offer a mid-range desktop. I suspect that is coming. But something in a small(er) format, with maybe 2 slots and 2 drive bays would be great for the desktop line. Maybe like a big cube, or something like the MacPro lite at 1/2 this size. Use the Dual Core, single chip, and fill out the middle of the product line. (And repeat the pattern in the server line — spread it out a little).

3) Offer better service at a better price. If you want to be a premium brand, act like it. Dell and the competition kick Apple’s butt in length and terms of service. I realize you’ll need it — but it is there. I’ve needed it with Macs too — and eventually Apple did right by me, but not until there was a ton of effort on my part. BMW, Mercedes and most of the premium brands realize that they’ll offer a better service experience for cheaper than the competition.

Once Apple gets those ducks in a row, and fleshes out some more options in their website (without going completely Dell on us), and trims some margins on a few extras (like RAM!), they’ll really be where they think or pretend they are. Which is the best computers for the best prices.


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