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PowerBook 145B & Apple Strategy

After all my yammering about what a wonderful idea the PowerBook 100 suddenly became after Apple dropped the price, it looks like the powers-that-be at Apple listened. Or, should I say, that’s what those of us doing the yammering would like to believe. On June 15th, Apple will announce the PowerBook 180c (active matrix color screen on a PowerBook 180) and the 145B. I don’t know what that "B" stands for, but I suspect "budget" or "bare bones" or perhaps something totally nonsensical like "brillig." That’s right, we’re going to see another cheap PowerBook. Rumored prices currently range from $1,300 to $1,500.

The 145B, according to one source, will replace the 145, but it won’t differ significantly from its predecessor. In fact, the only technical difference that I’m sure of is that the 145B will have a slight daughterboard modification to will provide 4 MB of RAM soldered on. The RAM slot will remain the same, but don’t bother putting a 6 MB card in since the 145B will still only address 8 MB of RAM total.

So how else will the 145B differ from the 145? It won’t ship with System disks (but it will come with a backup program that I suspect will be the one that comes with the Performas), it won’t have a microphone, and it may ship with ARA Client and a bunch of software demos on the hard disk. Those are small changes, but when multiplied over many thousands of machine they may make a significant difference to Apple’s bottom line. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see the 145B ship with documentation on a diet.

The immediate response, especially from tech support people who get their jollies from having troubleshooting-challenged customers boot with the Disk Tools disk, will undoubtedly be an outraged squawk. But think, folks. How many people would buy PowerBook 145Bs as their only Macs? I’m willing to put money on that number being low. And, to further lower the number of people affected, how many of those PowerBook 145B-only users would be sufficiently inexperienced to fail to realize they can get System 7.0.x for free? So everyone should already have or can easily get a set of System disks (and please do, folks, if only to appease the overworked tech support therapists). I have at least three sets of System disks right now, and a number of sets of documentation, none of which I ever read.

[I suppose Adam is right, but I hope Apple sells that 145B with a warning right on the box – "This Macintosh does not come with a set of System 7 disks. Proceed at your own risk." -Tonya]

Oh, and the microphone? Neat idea, but the support for sound in Macintosh applications has generally been abysmal. I’m not talking about sound for sound’s sake, but sound for productivity’s sake. I doubt many people will miss the microphone.

I think the 145B is an excellent idea as I currently understand it. This isn’t say that some little detail won’t appear later on that will change my mind, such as learning (and this is hypothetical!) that another missing feature is the one-year warranty. That would bug me.

Apple has shown that dropping the price on soon-to-be obsolete machines works well; it increases market share and customer loyalty, although it probably doesn’t affect the large corporate accounts much, and they exert an unfortunately disproportionate level of influence. But can this sort of price drop work on a machine that isn’t yet on the endangered list? The concept of stripping a machine down to the bare minimum is certainly not new. The technique originated in the computer industry with the no-name PC-clone manufacturers who would put together a customized system for you or let you buy only those parts you wanted. And, those prices that were so commonly batted around for extremely cheap PC clones often didn’t include DOS or manuals or even necessary cables at times. Hmm, pre-format the hard disk and don’t include the operating system and some other package stuff. Sounds like the 145B.

This technique serves the picky power user perfectly. When I buy my next Mac, I will want a minimum of 20 MB of RAM and a lot more hard disk space than I have now. The Apple monitors are nice, but I’ve heard good things about NEC’s recent entries, and frankly, I’ve never liked the feel of Apple’s keyboards, especially the el-cheapo one that came with the Classic. So why should I pay for Apple memory, hard drives, monitors, and keyboards when I can buy equipment more suited to my work style for less money elsewhere? Support isn’t a big issue; I know what I’m doing. So, for instance, I’d like a Quadra 800 with no hard drive and only the motherboard memory. Nothing else. If you’re like me, machines like that 145B are just what you want.

The negative aspects of this technique are obvious. Many don’t wish to make lots of choices from the Macintosh buffet. They want to give someone money and have the system up and running out of the box, plain and simple. And, equally as clearly, Apple earns less money which could affect the company negatively and result in less or slower innovation. But still, I think there is room in Apple’s product line for stripped models of certain Macs.

Another view — In his first column for Macworld (Jun-93), Guy Kawasaki (what does he really do in the industry these days, other than push TouchBASE and Norton Essentials for PowerBook at user group meetings?) suggests that Apple bless three models of the Macintosh and discontinue the rest in order to make it easy for people to decide which model to buy. Guy’s suggestion has some attraction, especially for the indecisive and for those poor tech support people, who are having trouble keeping up with the Macintosh of the month since they have to know every model. And, from the perspective of Guy, a man who left Apple just after the introduction of the Macintosh SE and Macintosh II, it’s not in the least bit surprising.

However, Guy carefully ignores some basic marketing issues. Back in the spring of 1987, when Guy left Apple for ACIUS, there were far fewer computers, far fewer computer users, and most notably, far fewer Macintosh users. It’s easy to keep a small number of people happy with a small number of choices, but as your audience increases in size, so does the number of different viewpoints and desires expressed therein. Combine that with the concept of filling shelf space, and you see that the SE and II could exist on their own because they had far less immediate competition from PC clones (they weren’t sold in the same places, for one). Even still, Macs always looked outnumbered whenever they were displayed with other computers. That’s what having 15 models of Macs does for you, and discontinuing all but three Macs (Guy suggests the Color Classic, PowerBook 160, and Centris 650) would significantly shrink Apple’s presence in stores. Small presence, small sales. See TidBITS #171 for Marc Kossover’s article on shelf space wars.

This isn’t to imply that Apple is correct to keep ramping up the number of models at all times. For instance, the IIvx has never excited me, and with the quick introduction of the LC III below it and the Centris 610 and 650 above it, I can’t see much reason to keep it around. And, as much as I like the Duos, there isn’t much difference between them. Pick one, discontinue the other. Judicious weeding and the introduction of some stripped models for the budget-conscious power user could be the combination Apple needs, although with the Star Trek project at Apple putting the Macintosh operating system on PC machines on top of Novell’s DR DOS, all bets are off as to what Apple’s crack (or cracked?) marketing team will do next.

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Related articles:
Macworld — Jun-93, pg. 316

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