By Harry McCracken | Thursday, April 9, 2009 at 8:10 pm
As I said in my post last Sunday on Microsoft’s “Laptop Hunter” ads, it’s unrealistic to expect TV commercials to contribute to a thoughtful discussion of anything. An exercise in comparison shopping between Windows and PCs that takes place in a sixty-second Microsoft commercial just isn’t going to be fair and balanced, any more than an Apple commercial is going to explain that it’s possible to get respectable Windows laptops for a whole lot less than the cheapest Macs.
But Microsoft’s latest salvo in the Windows-vs.-Mac war isn’t a commercial–it’s a ten-page white paper by veteran analyst Roger Kay (a friendly acquaintance of mine, and, like me, a former IDG employee). Roger is independent and knows the personal computer market as well as anyone on the planet, but his paper was sponsored by Microsoft, which means that even if it’s a third-party take on things, it’s going to be one that the company is comfortable with. But the whole point of vendor-sponsored white papers is bring an independent expert’s analysis and data into a discussion in hopes that it’ll be taken more seriously than mere marketing materials.
Roger’s paper includes a bunch of tables that compare Windows PCs and Macs–sort of like what I’ve been doing, although in less excruciating detail–and an analysis of the cost of ownership of the two platforms that concludes that a family than buys two Macs instead of two Windows machines will pay a cumulative Apple tax of $3,367 over five years.
In his laptop section, Roger compares the white MacBook, new MacBook, and 15-inch MacBook Pro against various notebooks from Dell, HP, and Sony, and finds, unsurprisingly, that the Macs cost more. He shows, for instance, that the $999 MacBook comes with a skimpy 1GB of RAM, a bare-bones 120GB of hard disk space, and Intel’s uninspiring x3100 integrated graphics. For hundreds of dollars less, the chart proves, you can buy a Windows laptop with double the RAM, more than twice the disk space, and better graphics.
Pretty compelling. Except that the $999 MacBook doesn’t come with 1GB of RAM. (It has 2GB.) It doesn’t have a 120GB hard disk. (It’s 160GB.) And it doesn’t have X3100 graphics. (It has the considerably more potent NVIDIA GeForce 9400M.) Here, look for yourself. The analysis is based on the old MacBook configuration that Apple refreshed more than two months ago, but the white paper talks about it in the present tense.
At least some of the Windows laptops that the white paper compares the MacBook to are also more richly configured today than the paper’s charts indicate. For instance, the chart has the $699 HP DV4 with 2GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive, but HP will sell you one with 4GB of memory and 320GB of hard-drive space for that price.
The chart’s analysis of desktop computers is also stale, at least in spots: It features the old $599 Mac Mini rather than the better-equipped one which Apple started shipping more than a month ago. He’s also got the old $1199 iMac and a Mac Pro configuration that Apple no longer sells. Nobody shopping for a computer today will be confronted by the choices that appear in the paper’s grids.
Note that I’m not claiming that Roger’s conclusions would be fundamentally different if he was analyzing current computers. Any analysis of Windows-vs.-PCs will always show that it’s possible to get a Windows machine with a faster CPU, more RAM, and a bigger hard drive for less than the cheapest vaguely comparable Mac. But the numbers in his charts sure would be different if they were current, and it’s odd that his analysis is labeled “Where We Are Now” but the charts carry no footnotes indicating that he collected at least some of his data months ago.
[Side note: Roger also says that the $999 MacBook doesn't come with a keyboard or mouse, and I'm really not sure what he means there--all notebooks come with built-in keyboards, and I doubt that any of the notebooks in his chart come bundled with an external keyboard and mouse. Maybe he meant that point to refer to the Mac Mini?]
Roger’s analysis goes on to bring up a number of reasonable points–especially the fact that there are plenty of worthwhile items that aren’t available for Macs which are commonplace on Windows systems, such as Blu-Ray drives, HDMI ports, integrated wireless, and built-in TV tuners. But he stacks the deck against the Mac in ways that remind me of earlier Microsoft commentary, such as assuming that Mac owners will buy Apple networking products when the Linksys products he assumes a Windows users will buy work equally well with Macs. He factors a $99 iLife upgrade into his Mac math, but doesn’t account for getting comparable creativity software ont the PCs in the first place; he also assumes that the Mac owner will buy the MobileMe family pack each year without accounting for adding similar functionality to the Windows computers. (There are multiple free ways to get MobileMe-like features on a Windows computer…but just about all of them also work with Macs.)
I don’t understand why his five-year cost analysis seems to assume that products like Blu-Ray players will cost the same years from now as they do today. I do understand why he doesn’t address issues like the money and time required to protect a Windows computer from all the security risks that don’t apply to Macs–but the fact that he doesn’t address them means that the white paper isn’t the work of a neutral observer.
Actually, I don’t think the paper is meant to come off as objective–it keeps coming back to Microsoft’s talking point that the primary difference between Windows computers and Macs is pricey, wasteful cool factor. (It uses the word “cool” twenty-five times.) And it uses the words “fairy dust” in referring to the Sony Blu-Ray player that a Mac owner will supposedly be forced to buy in a way that I don’t really understand…but which would appear to be snarky.
Can we get one thing out of the way here? I’m not an advocate for one platform over the other–I buy and use both, and recommend both to different people depending on their needs. I say nice things about Microsoft when warranted; I say nice things about Apple when warranted; I criticize both companies when appropriate.
But for the last couple of years, my primary computer has been a Mac laptop, and it has absolutely nothing to do with cool factor. I’m not cool. I don’t want to be cool, especially if it involves spending money that I don’t have to. I’ve spent more time with Macs primarily because the software involves fewer hassles and is more reliable (especially because Apple doesn’t lard up its machines with the junk that still runs rampant on many of the systems of Microsoft’s PC-manufacturing customers).
My choice, in other words, has had nothing to do with cool factor or fairy dust or the unicorn tears that Microsoft marketing honcho brought up when talking about Macs with Newsweek’s Dan Lyons. It’s been about practical matters and long-term value rather than initial cost.
One of the reasons I’m looking forward to Windows 7’s release is my hope that it’ll make the contrast between Windows and OS X at least a little less striking. But for now, any discussion of Windows PCs and Macs which fails to acknowledge the possibility that Macs might have virtues that are real, not fluff, is no more serious than the repeated mantra in Apple’s “Get a Mac” ads that Windows PCs are mostly about spreadsheets.
And here’s something I’m still confused about: Every time a consumer considers a Mac but buys a Windows computer instead, it validates the pros of the Windows platform–the lower entry-level price points, the far wider variety of hardware, and the multiple useful features which Windows PCs have and Apple chooses not to offer. Even in an age of increased Mac market share, the overwhelming majority of consumers decide to buy Windows computers. So why is Microsoft harping on the Windows-vs.-Mac issue? Why can’t its charts use current pricing information, and why does it have to put its thumb on the scale when analyzing the cost of owning a computer?
I’d love to know. I’ll ask Microsoft again whether it’s making representatives available for discussion of all this (I made an inquiry last week but didn’t hear back). Meanwhile, your thoughts would be appreciated. Knowing you guys, I’ll hear from both sides, and there will be plenty of food for thought.
[UPDATE: Here's another post on the white paper--it turns out its charts are insufficiently-updated versions of ones Microsoft distributed a few months ago.]
[FURTHER UPDATE: Fortune's Philip Elmer-DeWitt interviewed Roger Kay about all this. Roger attributed some of the paper's issues to changes to the Mac lineup after his deadline and a production gaffe on Microsoft's part. He also called Mac fans who dogpiled on him--not including me, I hope--"brownshirts." Which, when added to Microsoft's other recent comments about Macs and Mac users, brings to mind visions of Nazis who are overly concerned with looking cool and into unicorn tears and fairy dust. Roger also says that the glitches with the paper don't impact his thesis, and he's right--as I say above, I'm sure his overarching conclusions wouldn't have been different even if his data had been current, accurate, and quibble-proof.]