Can we please retire the iPod "halo" nonsense?

From the way analysts talk, every Mac sale is sparked by the "halo effect" of the iPod. But it's way overblown — the Mac's comeback isn't due to the iPod. Microsoft's bungling of the Vista launch helped and the quality of Intel Macs are the real "halos."
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

The common wisdom about the Mac is that the iPod's "halo" coat-tails has been pulling the Mac along behind it — it's the Mac puppy that follows Windows customers home with their iPods. This halo tag line is now a constant refrain by the press and analysts that can be found in almost every story about the Mac. The problem is that it's mostly nonsense.

This week Apple reported that it shipped 2,164,000 Macs in its fiscal Q4. That's 34 percent year-to-year growth. This is the most Macs ever sold in a quarter by 400K units. And at the end of the week, Apple will release Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, which could spark a hardware upgrade cycle in the installed base of Mac users.

People enter Apple's stores to gaze at the new portable devices, but many leave with Macs, analysts said. LA Times

Tim Bajarin, of Creative Strategies, the technology consulting company, said: “There is no question that Mac sales are . . . having a halo effect from the iPod and iPhone.” Times Online

Is the iPod and iPhone really driving all these Mac sales? Could Apple's music player provide enough oomph in the market to persuade a Windows user to switch to the Mac? Do we really believe this? No, it's a fantasy, or at best, a worn out exaggeration.

No doubt there was a time — now a good long while ago — when the iPod had some level of halo effect. Yes, iPod customers were exposed to demonstrations of Mac software at the stores. And perhaps by owning a piece of Apple hardware they listened with an open mind to their friends and family that used Macs, instead of tuning them out as they've done for the past couple of decades.

But this market myth of a super halo effect discounts the customer value and goodness of the Mac as an integrated hardware and software platform; one that offers a sophisticated but usable Unix software base.

The Mac is the real deal. If the Mac wasn't a superior computing platform, and if it didn't work as advertised, no amount of iPod pull would get switchers to switch. Customers would say "phooey." But they don't. The Mac is persuasive.

Here are some real "halos" that have enabled the recent progress of the Mac:

Intel Macs. By making the Mac hardware platform more familiar to PC users and open to native virtualization software, Apple removed the primary roadblocks to acceptance by Windows users. The change reassured potential switchers that they could maintain their investment in Windows programs. Of course, Mac users prefer to use Mac programs — because they're better. Still, the safety blanket is there.

Support & QA. Apple's local branded support organization located in its stores has been a huge success. When things go wrong, customers want a human face instead of a call center.

Microsoft's Vista mistakes. The launch of Windows Vista went all wrong and Microsoft totally mishandled the migration from Windows XP. More than a year ago and 6 months before the launch of Vista, I warned in an eWEEK column that Microsoft was underestimating the pull of the installed base of Windows XP and suggested it could take a lesson from Apple with its transition from the classic Mac OS to Mac OS X.

Unlike the situation with Vista, Mac users had plenty of time—more than a year and a half—to ignore the new OS if they chose to do so. Customers could make up their minds about OS X in their own time frame and still have the security of knowing their existing workflows would be maintained while upgrading hardware.

In fact, support for the Classic environment was only stopped with the release of Intel-based Macs. By my reckoning, Microsoft is sending the opposite message with its Vista rollout: You will be grateful for the "Windows Vista Experience"—Period!

The combination of PC hardware running Windows XP and/or Vista is the industry standard. But the platform appears to be losing its grip on the customer base. When users have an alternative that they can trust, some will switch.

Mac users. The community of Mac users is like no other in the industry. Mac users support the platform and evangelize it to others. Many Windows users consider this attitude smug and arrogant. But others will be influenced by the pep rally.

For longtime Mac users, the Mac has always been better than any Windows machine. The classic Mac OS was better than Windows and Apple's Mac hardware was better than any PC.

For example, I always remember the minitower enclosure design introduced with the blue & white Power Mac G3 in the late 1990s; it was brilliant. It featured a fold-out door on the side that gave easy access to the logic board and almost every component and connector. Even PC IT managers were impressed. (I see references to "El Capitan" as the enclosure's code name, which goes along other mountain code names of the time, such as the "K2" tower enclosure. But I recall that it had even earlier code name: "Stumpy." Anyone remember it?)

The problem was that Windows users distrusted the platform and the company and worried over the long-term prospects for the platform.

At an October 1997 keynote address in San Francisco, Steve Jobs told a crowd of professional content creators that he would "turn this around."

"We are not just one of 100 PC clone manufacturers making a box that gets the job done some of the time. ... We think different than the rest of these guys and we want to communicate that." He pointed to the "Think Different" ad campaign that was just getting going on television for the fall season.

Yet, Jobs knew the brand was suffering. "Even great brands need care and feeding," Jobs said back then. "We have to nurture this brand."

But later in the month, 10 years ago this week, Apple recorded a loss of $161 million for its fiscal Q4, way more than analyst predictions. For the year, Apple lost more than $1 billion (that's $1.26 billion in today's dollars).

In the next year, Apple started the release of innovative, brilliant hardware designs and kept refining its Mac OS as it prepared for the release of Mac OS X. And for the most part, the quality of Mac production has been good, better than the usual PC.

Taking a longer view, the turnaround in consumer attitudes towards the Mac didn't happen with the release of the iPod. Rather, it is the culmination of a brand rebuilding strategy that began 10 years ago.

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