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The 100 Phenomenon

Poking around in the Sunday Seattle Times, I can’t find a single PC-clone laptop for under $1000. Those that range around $1000 are all slow machines that would probably die a miserable death running Windows. And yet we just adopted a cute little PowerBook 100 named Sally for under $1000, and that includes a RAM upgrade to bring her up to 8 MB. I’m writing this article on the 100 while sitting calmly in a beanbag in the living room, ignoring the 15 applications clamoring for attention on my SE/30. As the PowerBook 100 supply diminishes and the buying frenzy wanes, I wanted to look back at the phenomenon.

It started with Apple sending all the PowerBook 100 4/40s to Price Club superstores. Price Club generally priced the 100 under $1000, occasionally as low as $800, and suddenly the slowest-selling model of the PowerBook was in demand. Unfortunately, the only way to get a 100 from Price Club was to have a Price Club store near you and to become a member. Membership stopped no one, but there simply aren’t enough Price Club stores around to satisfy everyone. Even still, as fast as the Price Clubs could put the 100s on the shelf, they sold. One Price Club employee said that she’d never seen anything sell so quickly. The short and sporadic supply contributed to the frenzy, and the waiting lists grew.

The high-tension relationship between Apple and its dealer network threatened to snap (not that either can do without the other). One dealer said that they could sell the 100 as quickly as Price Club if they could charge the same price. Perhaps heeding this call, and perhaps because the Price Club deal was an experiment in dumping cheap hardware into the consumer channel, Apple sold the PowerBook 2/20 to dealers for either $550 or $650, depending on the inclusion of the external floppy drive. Suddenly dealers could compete with Price Club, and compete they did.

Prices to the consumer ranged from $599 on up, and it was relatively easy to get a machine for under $800. Of course, as we decided before even getting ours, 2 MB of RAM is not sufficient unless you wish to run System 6 (which works fine on the 100 although you have to find version 1.3 of the Portable Control Panel on <>. Apple also created, but did not distribute in the US, a special version of System 6 (6.0.8L) specifically for the 100, although it’s unclear what differentiates it other than the inclusion of Portable 1.3). Even still, mail order prices on a 6 MB upgrade card ranged from $250 to $325, making an 8 MB machine an easy reality and making System 7 an easy install. (I can’t use System 6 any more- it’s way too clumsy, so it doesn’t matter that windows open faster.)

Dealers found that they couldn’t keep the PowerBook 100s on the shelf at those prices either, but a third source quickly appeared for some people. Citibank offers a bonus called CitiDollars on selected merchandise to holders of its credit cards, and in the middle of all this they suddenly offered the PowerBook 100 (a 2/20, I believe). I don’t know how many they had, but they didn’t last long as PowerBook 100-hungry credit card users snapped them within several weeks.

At this point I doubt many US dealers or Price Club stores have any model of the PowerBook 100 left because Apple has emptied their warehouses. Stories abound of people who bought one and promptly lost it to their spouses. (I’m lucky Tonya’s got a 20 MB SE/30 with 80 MB hard disk and a nasty Compaq DOS box at work or she’d have ours all the time.) Such tales were met with little sympathy, given the price, and the complainers were advised to go buy another one and suffer with a mate who at least appreciated the Mac sufficiently to snag a PowerBook 100 when given the chance. [It all depends on to whom you talk. I thought we bought the PowerBook to replace my home Mac, a sluggish Classic, and that I would be nice enough to share it with Adam when he went out of town. And now he can’t keep his hands off it. -Tonya]

It’s not at all hard to peg the reason for this buying frenzy. At the lowest range, the 100 was a bit cheaper even than the floppy-only Classic, and the 100 destroys the Classic in almost every category. Its screen is bigger, it’s twice as fast, it can take up to 8 MB of RAM, it has an internal 20 or 40 MB hard disk (and let’s face, there’s no real difference between the two; they’re both too small for indiscriminate storage), it can boot from RAM disk, it can use an internal modem, it weighs a bit over five pounds, and it can run from battery for a few hours. If, like us, you intend to mainly write on a PowerBook, there’s absolutely no reason to buy a faster 140 or 145. In some respects, primarily power usage and weight, the 100 even outclasses its more powerful siblings.

Most people forget when looking at these fire-sale prices that the price cuts must affect someone. The dealers and Price Clubs did fine on their profit margins, which leaves Apple holding the empty money bag. An unconfirmed report put the cost of a PowerBook 100 to Apple at $1000. That includes design and testing along with manufacturing and shipping costs, I’m sure, but even still, that means Apple lost lots of money. Had Apple kept the 100 around longer, that cost per machine would have dropped as profit erased some of the one-time costs associated with a new machine.

We don’t know how many PowerBook 100s Apple sold (although we’re guessing around 175,000) and we don’t know how many they sold at what price. Thus, we can’t accurately check the number a source provided, namely that Apple lost $15 million on the PowerBook 100. Of course, reports claim Apple made $1 billion on the PowerBook line overall.

You can view that $15 million in several ways. First, if you own stock in Apple, it’s not good. Second, if you’re a user who snapped up one of those machines cheap, you don’t really care because you got a great deal. Third, if you are an Apple manager in need of a way to justify the money, consider the incredible public relations coup those cheap prices provided. All of a sudden, normal people without gobs of money could buy one of Apple’s coolest machines and they did, in droves, and they told all their friends about it. That looks really good and provides wonderful word-of-mouth advertising. In addition, the low prices provided extra free press coverage and megabytes of discussion online. Even still, people swap information about which dealers have machines left. Finally, in that same justification mode, I’m sure Apple gathered plenty of data on dumping obsolete machines cheaply via both existing and different channels.

It may be justification, but I think the dumping policy was beneficial to Apple. The question now is what happens to the PowerBook 100. "It just goes away," you say, "because Apple dropped it from the price list." Not so fast. Remember that Sony actually designed and manufactured the PowerBook 100, and we’ve heard rumors that with Apple dropping the 100, Sony obtains rights to continue manufacturing it and selling it, at least outside of the US. We have no idea how this might work – a Sony-labeled PowerBook 100, perhaps, or even a new name. It’s even conceivable that Sony could import the machine back into the US and continue selling it, at which point it would be the first true non-Apple Macintosh. Interesting stuff, and given the demand for cheap PowerBook 100s, Sony might well be considering it, assuming of course that these rumors, like all rumors, are utterly true and grounded in fact.

Information from:
Mark H. Anbinder, Contributing Editor

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