Apple Should Be Nothing Like Dell

Why Apple Doesn't Need to Appeal to Everyone

by Jon Glass (Posted: 7/28/04)


[Please Note: As with all Bully Pulpit articles, the views expressed in this opinion piece are completely those of the author, and are not necessarily representative of CMUG.]

Robert Velarde has written that Apple needs to mimic Dell Computer's tactic of filling our mailboxes with slick product catalogs, and David Burke has argued that Apple really needs to engage in Dell's practice of media saturation. Mine is a rather different perspective.

Apple is one of the most known brands on the face of the earth. It's right up there with Coca Cola as being one of the most recognized brands. Apple is known by most people who are buying a computer.

The real problem now is one of inertia. For so many years now, the myths about Apple have been passed from person to person, cubicle to cubicle, so that, in my opinion, it would be well-nigh impossible to change this without somehow changing those geeks' impressions of Apple. The best thing that Apple could have done, therefore, was move the OS to a *nix base. This got the "geeks" on their side at last—and by the way, Windows network managers are not geeks in my experience. They know how to keep the Band-aids plastered to the "wounds" in Windows, but they don't really understand how the computers work. True geeks use *nix. ;-) But in any case, even Windows IT personnel are learning that OS X is *nix and tremble, because they've finally been "outclassed." (Again, this is my experience.) So, by going this route, Apple has, in my opinion, done the best thing they could have done. People who know... well, know... You don't have to convince them. So, it's not a matter of marketing, it's a matter of slow saturation.

But there is something else we are forgetting... I personally believe that Steve Jobs does not want to be the computer for everybody. The computer "for the rest of us" means the computer for those oddballs, those who "think different." It's the concept of elitism that sells the Mac.

It's like so many other areas of life. If you beg people to join your "club" they will ignore you. But, if you say that you have to be "'accepted," then suddenly, you will have people begging to join. Example: Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. At the end, when they were ready to depart to the end of the world, all the sailors were afraid to go. Then the king said that it wasn't something to be spurned, that it was the greatest expedition ever undertaken on this (their) planet, that those who went would receive great acclaim, and that only those sailors deemed worthy would be accepted. Suddenly, sailors who had been grumbling about having to go were clamoring to prove their worthiness. Another example. My daughter belongs to a web site that discusses the Redwall series of books. One facet of this site is that there are "patrols" that people can create for others to join. Most people who create patrols are begging people to join, and don't do so well. I suggested to my daughter that she make it exclusive: make it so people had to show their worthiness to join, and she would have no problems. Guess what ... it worked!

So, Apple's approach is just like we hear about all the time... The BMW approach. Not everybody is going to own a Beemer. That doesn't mean that everybody doesn't want to own one! The Beemer club is exclusive. It's a finely-engineered driving machine—or at least this is their reputation! (Here in Poland, I would never buy a used BMW, because they are all junkers!)

I think at this point Jobs wants to keep the reputation, as this creates a sense of added value to the Mac. This is why Apple's ads don't talk much about what the computer has inside, nor do they rave about the value per cost. If you want a Mac, you will buy it. It's a much more sophisticated, subtle approach.

It gets even worse. I believe that if Apple tried to behave more like Dell, they would undermine their own image that they have now spent over a decade creating!

Apple's dirty little secret is that it neither wants nor needs market share. What Apple needs is profit—money. What they need is to keep enough customers happy that they will buy their computers, enough to act as an incentive to developers to develop, but not so many as to saturate the Mac market with mediocre software. You see, by being a minor player, this acts as a very concentrated "survival of the fittest" environment, keeping a lot of bad developers from considering writing for the Mac. So, with this kind of arrangement, Apple can continue to operate, selling fewer units, with a higher profit margin, and keeping their customers more happy.

Apple is a small company on the global scale. It must be if it is to be able to innovate. Think about that point. What's the one thing that drags down the Wintel world? Backwards compatibility—and compatibility in general. By keeping the number of units limited, Apple is in a position to suddenly dump the floppy, for instance, and go strictly CD, or drop serial, and move 100% to USB. Or to make drastic changes to their OS, and expect all their developers to follow suit. If Apple were a behemoth like Microsoft, such innovations would have been impossible! By remaining small, Apple is able to perform flanking maneuvers and keep the competition jumping and guessing—and worried about what Apple will do next. This is why Apple is always imitated, but never equaled.

If Apple grew too much, it would lose these advantages which are the very forces that drive the company. The Dells and Gateways of the world are not innovators. They are copiers. For that matter, so is Microsoft. Yes, they do introduce some innovations, but they cannot afford to "upset the apple-cart" in the same way and to the same extent that Apple can. So Apple, by remaining small and turning these "myths" to its benefit, actually thrives and survives. This is what the bulk of the computer industry does not and cannot understand.

I never complain that I paid over $2000 for my laptop. Why? Well, every single Windows-using friend of mine who uses laptops like I do, has bought at least two computers in the past four years since I bought mine. Some have bought three or four just to keep going! Who, in the long run, has spent the least amount of money on their computer? Me! Even better, I may, in the end, get seven or eight years out of this Pismo! And when I'm done, I believe my son will take it and use it for another couple years.

So, I don't think that it's really right to compare the Mac to Dell or any other computer manufacturer. Apple is unique, and it must remain that way. We need to understand how it works and support this.

Does this mean that we should not encourage our friends to buy into Mac? Hmmm. Perhaps if we did it this way:

"You don't want a Mac. I don't think that you would really be able to get the most from the Mac. Your needs are too simple, and besides, I'm sure the Mac would be just too much for you to really get a grasp on. Not, mind you, that the Mac is difficult to use. Quite the opposite! I just don't think that you would understand the elegant simplicity of the Mac to truly understand its beauty. You know, it's like cars. Not everybody needs the quality of a BMW. Most people are quite happy with Fords. I think you will be happier buying a 'Ford' computer..."

Anybody else want to try this on your friends and see how they react? I think I'm going to!

Jon Glass is a long time member of CMUG and has been known to pontificate on a variety of subjects on the Mac Ministry e-mail list. He works as a missionary in Krakow, Poland, where he lives with his wife and four children.

Other Bully Pulpit Features:
How Apple Really Should Be More Like Dell: Another perspective on what Dell can teach Apple about marketing.
Why Apple Should Be More Like Dell: What Dell can teach Apple about marketing.
Bible Software: Business or Ministry? Cutthroat Competition? Christian Charity? or Compassionate Capitalism?
Glad Steve's a Buddhist: Examining the fate of Konfabulator.

Recent Articles:
2004 Mac Bible Software Survey Results: What you had to say about Bible Software for the Mac.
Mac Bible Software Update (3): Updates galore! Accordance 6.3, MacSword 1.1, Bible Reader Free 0.98.
Getting the Bible's Number: How to Use Strong's Numbers in Mac Bible Study Software.