Well, it's happened. Apple has started selling products directly to customers via mail order in The Apple Catalog. The catalog will contain Apple products, accessories, supplies, peripherals, and selected third-party products. We don't know if they'll offer cool Apple t-shirts from it or not, but we wouldn't be surprised.
Sartorial sarcasm aside, did you send in your Macintosh registration card to get that free mouse pad or subscription to Macworld? It appears that Apple is going to use that list for pretty much the first time (well, they're informing affected PowerBook 100 users of the recall mentioned above, supposedly, and they might have used it a few times in the past, although I've never gotten anything from them in over five years). The Apple Catalog will go out to 1.1 million Apple users in the consumer and general business markets sometime in mid-October, and updates will follow approximately every 13 weeks.
The propaganda claims that Apple will offer only "selected Apple Macintosh computer hardware products including the Macintosh PowerBook 145" and the third party products will come initially from Claris (surprise!), Aldus, and Kensington. Don't throw out your MacConnection catalog just yet, though, since aside from the small selection, all Apple products will be for sale at Apple suggested retail price of more money than you would pay anywhere else.
You will pay for convenience since Apple will take orders around the clock every day. You can order by phone, fax, or mail, but you must pre-pay by check or credit card. Like other mail order houses, Apple will provide a 30-day money-back guarantee. You should get products quickly since Apple is aiming for next-day turnaround on orders taken by midnight Eastern Time and will ship products weighing less than 20 pounds overnight for free. Heavier items will ship free, but via surface. No word on how Apple will help if you want something heavier than 20 pounds shipped overnight.
You receive a year of toll-free support directly from Apple on all Apple hardware ordered through the catalog, as well as help with installation, configuration, compatibility, and basic use.
[I find Apple's one year of support policy intriguing. I'm curious if the help line will end up helping anyone who calls in with any question or, if not, what criteria they will use to turn away people who have called without being qualified for help. -Tonya]
Interestingly, dealers can order from the catalog for customers as well, at which point Apple will ship the item to the customer directly. The dealer will receive a percentage of the sale in that case. Perhaps equally interesting, businesses can now order directly from Apple rather than going through the dealer network. Apparently large businesses dislike having to work with a dealer instead of with Apple directly, and the catalog will solve that problem.
Overall, I'm unimpressed, mostly due to the prices. The Apple Catalog's shipping and warranty policies are in step with the rest of the mail order industry, but gone are the days when you could get away with either bad service or high prices. The Apple Catalog may be the only legitimate way to buy a Mac via mail order, and perhaps the premium will be worth getting a guaranteed clean Mac, but frankly, for everything else, I don't think that the good mail order companies should worry much.
Apple Catalog -- 800/795-1000