Will Macintosh become the Concorde of the computer world?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 12/90 item 01 - scanned

Hands up all those who think the Mac is the best computer that ever was. OK. Now, hands up all those who think that a PC with Windows 3.0 and DOS is the best computer that ever was. OK. Now, raise your hands all those who think that the PS/2 with OS/2 and Presentation Manager is the best computer that ever was. (I won't bother with any other machines because none of them are likely to come near the mass market potential of the three I mentioned.) Now, hands up those of you who think that the PC will continue to dominate the desktop. And those who think PS/2 will? Hands up those who think the Mac will.

It's interesting, isn't it, that on the one hand almost all of you think the Mac is the best computer, and on the other hand you aren't at all confident that Apple will dominate the desktop?

OK then. What about if Sony were to buy Apple? This rumour has been around since Apple first bought its Mac disk drives from Sony, but the story appears to have heated up of late. There's no doubt that Sony has a brilliant reputation and the ability to shift high-priced, high-quality products to masses of consumers. Its products have a similar cachet to that enjoyed by Apple's computers. I remember that when the Walkman first came out it cost an arm and a leg compared with its rivals, but that didn't deter the discerning buyer. By the end of this month, Sony will have 85 Sony Centres in the UK's high streets. This programme of affiliated but independent outlets has been running for 10 years now and has provided Sony with a very short route to market for its consumer products. In fact, such centres extend Sony's reach in exactly the way Apple would like to extend its own. I don't suppose Apple and Sony would join up simply to get a few high street outlets, so what's Apple planning? One idea under consideration is for AppleCentres to set up retail outposts with minimal staff. The exercise will still cost the earth, and the proprietor would need to be convinced of significant volume sales in order to make money out of the new Mac prices. Such a retail initiative, coupled with the new low-priced Macs, could be Apple's way to increase its presence in the home and small business. It would still have the problem, though, of reaching a critical mass in big business. It's unlikely that a major company would go to an Apple equivalent of the Sock Shop for its corporate computer purchases. And simply being the most lovable computer around doesn't cut much ice with these companies. I have a sneaky suspicion that the new low prices won't make that much difference either. Few large companies buy purely on hardware price.

I've likened the Mac to the BMW car in the past. On reflection, I think that was the wrong choice. It might be better to compare it with the Concorde aeroplane. To my mind, that was the most beautiful object the human race has ever hurled into the air. If you ignore the taxiing and queuing at each end of every one, the flight, the noise, the pollution and the fearsome doses of radiation that its passengers receive, Concorde represents a terrific way of going back and forth across the Atlantic.

Concorde, like the Mac, has a certain style and is genuinely useful into the bargain. One would have thought that the world's long-haul airlines would have been queuing up to buy the thing. For all sorts of reasons, Concorde simply didn't catch on. And that, my friends, is what I fear may still happen to Mac. It could end up a machine that everyone admires but few (relatively speaking) actually use.

Like you, I feel this would be a tragedy. It means, apart from anything else, stepping backwards into a less perfect computer world. It means working with machines that are cobbled together to mimic the one which first popularised the concept of ease of use. Unless Apple can increase its business market share fairly dramatically, the Boeing 747s of the computer world - the PCs and PS/2s - will eventually marginalise the Mac user.

What frustrates me more than anything is that I can't see how Apple is going to pull off the massive business penetration it needs in order to be accepted on equal terms with the PC. The company talks of going for a 15% market share in the UK as a result of the price cuts. The trouble with this view is that this increase in share is most likely to come from education, the home and small businesses. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it does nothing to enhance Apple's position in the mainstream business computing world. There, Apple scores brilliantly with the high-powered, high-end graphical machines like the IIci but, as yet, it still needs a much wider acceptance of its middle of the road computers.