Today, let’s have a little fun with Microsoft’s latest attempt at countering Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign. Their premise is simple: for the same amount of computing power you pay more for a Mac, you pay an Apple Tax. As Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, puts it: You pay $500 to slap an Apple logo on a laptop.
Microsoft is right: Macs cost more.
Pundits and advocates on both sides use contorted arguments to make a point either way, but the point remains: Macs cost more – at the time of purchase.

But, before we go on, a few words on the color of my skin. Especially the operating system layer.I’ve been in the high-tech industry for 41 years this coming June and I’ve used (or even caused at Apple and Be) system software of many flavors. Regarding Microsoft, I’ve been a DOS and, later Windows user; a happy customer, an occasionally proud one as I acquired the skills to fix or quickly re-install systems in my family or at the office. Naturally, after leaving Apple, I continued to use Macs, even after my company, Be, lost the Apple opportunity to Steve Jobs’ NeXT.

There was a time when using Macs in “enterprise” environments was, in practice, impossible. I had, or felt I had to use Windows laptops to connect to Exchange, the quasi-universal hub of enterprise mail, calendaring and contacts. I enjoyed many small Sony Vaio laptops and, in the late 90s, I loved carrying a Toshiba Libretto, a real Windows 95 machine, in a coat (not jacket) pocket.

I used the past tense for a reason: Vista helped me out of Windows. This is now January 30th, 2007, 8:00am. I am first in line at the Fry’s Palo Alto store, this is the launch of Microsoft’s new Windows version. I have been a happy beta-tester, using one of my HP desktop machines, exchanging the occasional e-mail with (the also new) Office 2007 support engineers. I feel Vista really is interesting new software. Knowing the pains of upgrading an existing Windows system, as opposed to “clean” installs, I want to buy a brand new HP laptop, big 17”screen, about $1,500. Plus, of course, about $400 for the full Office 2007 Professional. The door opens. As I walk in, I look back: I am first and alone, no one is lining up to buy Vista. You know the rest of the disappointing Vista story. My own experience parallels what led many large companies, Intel included, to stay away from Vista. With an added little twist: I found out the Vista Home Premium on my HP laptop couldn’t connect to my company’s domain. (The same happens to Xp Home, you need Xp Pro.) Queried, Microsoft says I can buy and download the suitable upgrade to Vista Ultimate for $199. In spite of various email exchanges, I can’t make the upgrade work and, time being money, I buy an OEM Ultimate DVD from a friendly Chinese custom PC shop in San Francisco.
I still have the HP laptop and use it to keep an eye on Windows’s progress towards its next version, Windows 7. My Acer netbook runs Windows Xp.

Mac-using friends had been telling me, hectoring me even, to get an Apple laptop. ‘Install a virtual machine to run Windows Xp if you need a safety blanket’. That’s what I did more than two years ago; they were right. I rarely use Windows running on VMware’s virtual machine and our friendly Persian IT support technician jokes I’m going to put him out of business as more of my partners start to use a Mac at work. Back to Microsoft’s Apple Tax advertising campaign, you can find a couple of examples here and here.On the other side, the Apple “Get a Mac” ads.
The PC-mocking Apple ads have been airing since 2006. For all these years, I’ve wondered how Microsoft could let Apple go unchallenged, poking fun at PCs, portraying them as plodding, bourgeois, not fun, complicated. Is it a coincidence that Steve Ballmer finally decided to run ads criticizing Apple now that the founder, Bill Gates, is no longer running the company? In any event, Ballmer picked a simple, understandable argument: price. But, under the dollar argument, there is another one being made, a cultural dig at Apple’s attitude. The character in one of the Microsoft ads makes it clear: ‘I’m not cool enough to own a Mac’. This, it seems, is more profound argument and, unfortunately for Microsoft, bound to be a losing one. This is similar to Republicans accusing Obama of being too “European” or to Detroit automakers calling Californian buyers of Japanese or German cars un-American degenerates, effeminates or worse. Microsoft’s posture isn’t good for the long term.
Yes, Apple and its fans can be irritating in their occasional (some say permanent) pose of technical and aesthetic superiority. Look at Steve Jobs, look at the ads, all saying: We’re cool, you’re not; we’re better than you.

Let’s stipulate Apple is putting on airs. Does this justify Ballmer’s letting his ad agency use the “We’re not posturing coolness, therefore, unlike Apple, we don’t charge more” angle? I’m afraid not.

To explain, let’s go back to Detroit, for a moment, this because Steve Ballmer offered an unwitting but interesting parallel. In a recent public speech, Microsoft’s CEO claimed his family had always been “Ford people”. (Indeed, his father once was a Detroit executive.) So, he said, when Ford sold Land Rover to an Indian consortium, for patriotic reasons, the Ballmer family got rid of their Range Rovers and went back to Fords. On another occasion, he claimed that iPhones and iPods were a no-no in his family. (Note to Microsoft: the spellchecker accepts iPods but not iPhones…) Perfect, not knowing what the opposition does sure helps sleep better. No wonder Ballmer keeps calling the iPhone a passing fad. This reminds us of (soon former) Big Three executives driving cars carefully selected on the production line, maintained by factory mechanics, parked in heated garages in the harsh Michigan winters and changed every six months. ‘Nothing wrong with our cars’.
Fortunately, I know two Microsoft directors who use Macs outside of the closet, they must take their Steve to task from time to time – unless of course they don’t use Windows at all and can’t compare either.
Let’s stay with Detroit.
Compare a mid-size car, such as the Chevrolet Malibu, one of GM’s best cars, really, with a BMW 3 Series. Similar dimensions, weight, number of cylinders, interior space, four round wheels in both cases. How come BMW charges more than Chevrolet? Is there a BMW tax? Will Chevrolet brag about their un-coolness?
Yes, there is a brand effect working for BMW. But it’s not solely based on advertising with nothing behind the “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan. A brand is a promise – but, for the brand to stand time, the promise must be fulfilled. (I’ve owned several Chevrolet vehicles but no BMW, my preferences go to another Teutonic brand.)

By now, you see where I’m going. Microsoft’s Apple Tax tack is... tacky. There is no more Apple Tax than there is a BMW tax. Microsoft’s argument is a) assuming customers are idiots buying only on price and, b) an admission of weakness.
GM’s Chevrolet doesn’t make that mistake.
When do we see a cheeky Apple ad explaining the Microsoft Discount? You know, the compensation you get for having to use Windows on an Intel machine.

I’ve refrained from getting into technical minutiae, from comparing the virtues of Windows to the vices of OSX. I just wish we’d put Steve Ballmer and one of his Mac-using directors on stage. Steve, their Steve, would migrate, or try to migrate, documents and applications from a two-year old Windows system to a brand new one. His director would show him how it’s done on a Mac. Having personally gone through both exercises several times, I know one takes many more hours than the other, when it works at all: some applications just won’t move and must be re-installed and re-updated. Assuming Ballmer makes more than minimum wage, in this exercise, how much is the Microsoft Tax? —JLG

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