'

The average user feels little or no "Apple tax"

Yesterday Ed Bott put numbers to the "Apple tax" and came to the bottom line conclusion that switching to Apple would be "in the ballpark of $500." Sure, he put together a vaguely straw man argument in places, and chose to pick commercial Mac software where free software existed, but overall his argument is pretty solid.

Yesterday Ed Bott put numbers to the "Apple tax" and came to the bottom line conclusion that switching to Apple would be "in the ballpark of $500." Sure, he put together a vaguely straw man argument in places, and chose to pick commercial Mac software where free software existed, but overall his argument is pretty solid.

The bottom line is this - for people such as Ed or myself, there are costs associated with any platform switch. If you're a power user and you digital life exists in an ecosystem dominated by one OS then there will always a cost associated with any major change. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that these costs only apply when switch between platforms such as Windows, Mac or Linux. Even switching versions is expensive. I know for a fact that switching from XP to Vista wasn't a "free" process for me, and I'm sure that Ed paid for the privilege too.

There another cost that we can add to Ed's analysis - time. Remembering that time is money, and that it takes time to adapt to a new system, that process is just as much of a cost as the hardware and software costs. In fact, depending on how much an hour is worth to you, this time spent getting up to speed on a new platform could dwarf the physical costs.

As Steve Jobs pointed out yesterday in the Q4 '08 financial conference call, "there are some customers we choose not to serve." While Steve was in this case referring to those looking for cheap systems, I think that it's equally true to say that Apple isn't trying to make converts of people such as Ed or myself who have quite deep roots in the Windows ecosystem. Why waste the money where there's plenty of lower-hanging fruit customers.

I know that it's fun to have the occasional chat about the "Apple tax" (or for that matter the "Microsoft tax"), but the fact is that the whole thing is over-hyped, particularly when you consider Apple home user/college student/I wanna be cool audience. In fact, your average Mac user feels little or no "Apple tax" because most home users I've come across who own Macs (or PCs for that matter) seem to divide their time between pre-installed applications (such as iLife on the Mac, or FreeCell on Windows :) or within the browser hooked up to web services. Apple users can now also easily install Open Office if they want to work with Microsoft Office documents, thus avoiding the cost of Office for Mac in most cases.

Side note: I've had people ask me if Macs come with "The Internet" or "Google." Seriously. How do you answer such a question?

Another issue that Ed raises is one of lock-in. Like me, he has file formats that he can't afford to leave behind. Two points worth making here are:

  1. The issue here isn't an "Apple tax" or "Microsoft tax" or whatever, but one of proprietary format lock-in. One of the reasons I've been reluctant to embrace Mac is not because of the hardware (which I like a lot), but because I know I'm moving from one proprietary platform (along with countless proprietary sub-platforms) to another.
  2. One of the purposes of proprietary formats is to lock you in to buying or using a particular bit of software. While very few can achieve 100% lock-in, there can be a fair degree of hassle associated with shifting formats.

Over the past couple of years I've grown increasingly suspicious of proprietary formats and have made it a bit of a quest to choose file formats that I (and others) can easily (and cheaply) work with. Sure, I still use applications such as Microsoft Office and Photoshop, but I try to be careful. But again, even proprietary format hassles don't affect the average user that much. Most people it seems have a few text files, a bunch of photos/video, and some ripped CDs. In an age of 1.5TB hard drives, your average home user has very little data that they really value. Some even welcome moving to a new system because it's a chance to carry out an instant data spring clean.

Note: When it comes to proprietary format, three I get asked about most often are DRMed music, movie makers and scrap book software - seriously!

Apple tax, TOC, proprietary formats ... your average user that's migrating to the Mac platform doesn't care about any of this. They just see Macs as being cool, and maybe offering fewer headaches that the Windows platform does.