Apple Makes Appliances, Not Computers

That isn’t an insult.  I mean that as an accurate description.

I like tinkering. I like to get under the hood and play.  This is what keeps me as far from Mac computers as I can get.  But that is also their strong point.

Here’s the reasoning behind my analogy.  What do you do with a refrigerator when you want one?  You go to the store, you look at the available models, you choose from the models a given company makes.  That’s it.

I just described purchasing a Mac.

What happens when it breaks?  You send it to an authorized repair shop, or back to the manufacturer to be repaired.  I was actually talking about a fridge… but wasn’t I also talking about a Mac?

They make things easy and obvious to use.  Upgrades are limited, tinkering is generally not permitted.  But what works works well, and what isn’t available on it is something you are just generally going to have to accept as a feature limitation of the appliance.

Apple make appliances, not computers.  It isn’t a bad thing, but I wish it would be acceptable for them to market themselves like that.  It makes the comparison with “PCs” (and Linux) ridiculous and irrelevant.

Apple makes some pretty darn good computer appliances.  iPhone.  iPod.  Desktop and laptop computers.  They are good at what they do operating within their defined set of use cases.  It’s a fault, and a strength.  I give them credit and criticize them at the same time.

Update:  I just reread this main post.  I’m a little surprised at my own words.  At this point I’m going to leave this here as a reminder to myself of what I’m not here to do.  While I do have something constructive I was trying to say, I think trying to reword it would only worsen perceptions.

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About John

I write about technology interests, cooking, and my own writing (sci-fi and fantasy... sometimes both). I try to keep things light, but sometimes I get side-tracked on an issue that I feel strongly about. No offense is meant, I'm just like any other person who feels strongly about something when I write. View all posts by John

6 responses to “Apple Makes Appliances, Not Computers

  • Jim Marks

    I was going to write something really long, and decided not to. Yes, this is true. Apple continues to sell appliances. But as time goes on, it is becoming more and more true for all the other hardware sellers, as well. I don’t know of a single model of cell phone that is intended to be cracked open and upgraded by users, not just the iPhone. I don’t know of a single mobile media player with that feature, either, not just the iPod. Very, very few people are “tinkering” with their Dell laptop or performing upgrades at home. Netbooks (which Apple doesn’t even make) aren’t just toasters, they’re toasters that can only toast Pop Tarts, not real bread. Apple isn’t the only company selling small, nondescript cubes which are essentially nonupgradable but are great for trade shows, demos, presentations and anywhere else you need a “real machine” with a very low profile (and represent a rare niche in which Apple is very price competitive), and HP and Sony both now sell machines very similar to the iMac as the “all in one” desktop machine.

    And Apple -does- sell real, honest to goodness towers that are just like any other tower out there. Upgradable, openable, tinkerable. They are just very, very expensive and come with base level parts that are very, very high end because they are marketed to professional power users doing intensive graphics, audio or video work. Not intended for the DIY tinkering sort, to be sure, but a genuine non-toaster computer nonetheless.

    So what it boils down to at this point isn’t so much that “Apple makes appliances” as it is that “Apple -only- makes appliances” (or just about only). Because at this point, Dell makes appliances, too. It is just that Dell -also- makes low end, bare bones towers which are cost effective for the hobbyist who wants to DIY some of their hardware. Which is a market in which I think Apple would greatly struggle to make a place for themselves and so rightly opt to stay out of it. The bulk of sales are going towards either mobile computers or towards dedicated server hardware like Blades. Which are basically all appliances. Electronics are becoming increasingly disposable. Which is a bad bad thing. But Apple is hardly alone at this point in taking that approach.

  • John

    You are right that many other manufacturers are getting closer to producing appliances instead of computers. The key distinction that sets Apple apart though is that they even have an operating system that is their own. Hardware + Software. That makes them more like Palm and PalmOS. I’ll even say that Palm makes appliances, not computers.

    Again, not a criticism. Just a statement.

    But there we are talking a different arena anyway. PDAs have generally been very specific. They started out that way, and that’s how they are.

    Apple is the surviving desktop/laptop PC maker to make a system as closed as possible. Had Wang survived, I would accuse them of the same. Wyse essentially makes computer appliances. The same would have been true if IBM’s OS had successfully duked it out with Windows.

    I will disagree on Netbooks to some extent. Some are actually more powerful than a 7 year old laptop I have. They are actually causing a CPU revolution through the Via and Intel Atom chips. I anticipate that in the next few years, we’ll see 8-core and 16-cure CPUS operating based on that technology instead of Intel and AMD’s current technology. HOWEVER, yes, there are some netbooks that are mere poptart warmers and nothing else.

    At first I wasn’t sure how to take your conclusion, but I realize that I think we’re not really disagreeing with each other so much as hashing out the finer points. As I said, Apple is the only desktop/laptop system with a closed OS. It is illegal to install OS-X on anything but Apple hardware, and they even have gone so far as to drive PyStar into repeated bankruptcy over that fact.

    Apple used to completely control the hardware. Even after their move to Intel boards, they have little interest in playing ball with the hobbyist with the exception of a few models. They are okay with their business model, and my only “criticism” is that they can’t market themselves as what their appliances really are. I think that is too bad, and I’ll explain why.

    In the end, I really think more “computer shoppers” want an appliance more than a “personal computer”. But, as you said, that disposable mentality is a bad thing — I’ll add, “in many ways”. I keep my computers going for many years beyond their normal lifetime because I can upgrade them; most people would have thrown them away (ACK!) and just bought a new piece of junk to get them through the next few year until that “played out” as well. But that is what most people do. Apple is the only one to take the “right” approach to the “personal computer appliance”: high price, good parts, long lifetime.

    Other manufacturers I think ARE trying to get closer to appliances. In my opinion, it is a bad thing. The improvements in miniaturization are bringing with them greater disposability of the hardware. But this tangents. I don’t blame Apple for that; I don’t hold them even partly accountable for that.

    The ultimate point is that they make appliances. They survived the capitalistic sorting to come out as The Vendor that does this and lives. They are okay with that model, but for some reason they aren’t “allowed” to market themselves as they truly are.

    • Jim Marks

      I’m glad to see that your use of “appliance” had changed from a pejorative to a neutral assessment, but I think you give the rest of the industry far too much credit and I think your assessment of Apple’s position remains inaccurate and at this point quite out of date.

      I think your assessment of their marketing is entirely off the mark. Their marketing in the past handful of years has been the most accurate and most effective it has ever been and this is proven by the fact that Microsoft has had to, for the first time in a long time, start running a contrary ad campaign to try to reduce the damage in market share (their “I am a PC” campaign). Apple has completely neutralized the push towards Linux as a consumer operating system and are leveraging their phones and media players to draw more and more people into adopting their larger appliances. Are they going to “admit” they sell toasters in an ad campaign? Of course not, why would they? But they are selling their toasters more effectively than they ever have before, regardless of whether or not any of this measures up to your hobbyist point of view of “what a computer should be”, which in dollars and cents at this point represents a nonexistent market.

      It is a shame that becoming appliance-like has also come to mean “disposable”, but that is a trend that the whole industry is going to have to address sooner or later as they all move in the appliance direction. At least Apple offers discounts on new hardware if you bring in your old hardware to be recycled at the time of purchase.

      I can’t do audio engineering on a netbook no matter how powerful the CPU and RAM are because they have virtually no drive capacity. They are a cloud touching tool. A big PDA, not the latest generation of tiny work station. Hence pop tart toasters. Which isn’t a pejorative. Just further evidence that almost all sectors of the consumer electronics market are moving towards the appliance-based business model.

      Just because Microsoft sells their OS to Dell and Apple won’t sell theirs to PyStar doesn’t make the OS “closed”. Microsoft _has_ to sell the OS because that’s the business they are in. They got into the Office suite business to market their OS. They created the “compatibility” scare to cement the OS market. Now that the compatibility scare is over, they’re having a very hard time keeping market share on anything other than inertia. Is it any wonder they are trying so hard to dominate the keyboard, mouse and gaming console markets? They need to diversify their business model because their OS is rapidly approaching a zero value commodity even without the rising dominance of Linux.

      Apple is hardware company, like Palm, that produces an OS to help market their hardware as “different” from everything else. Neither has any motivation to allow it to be included on -competing- hardware because they are a -hardware- company. Apple has no interest in whether you buy a copy of OS X and install it on your Dell, and you can do that, if you really want to (although I can’t imagine why anyone would). And at the very least it is an open source OS with genuine root console level access, which the overwhelming majority of computers in the market today do not have. In that sense an Apple machine is far -more- DIY than most of the other computers on the market, and as more and more hardware trends towards the toaster approach, Apple is in a far more “open” position than anyone selling Windows machines.

      History has now proven that IBM made the -wrong- call by allowing IBM compatible clones. They went from absolute market dominance for -decades- to becoming a software company over the course of 20 years because they allowed clones. Eventually the clones were of a high enough quality that no one could justify the price of an IBM anymore. Given that Apple occupies a similar space in attempting to sell “only the best”, allowing clones of their architecture and operating system would ensure they ceased to exist very quickly. IBM lasted 20 years because they had a long, long way to fall. Apple does not.

      I just don’t see how not allowing sale of the OS on competing hardware makes the OS “closed” from the point of view of you the consumer. I can see how it would be “closed” from a B2B point of view, but that’s fairly tangential to the conversation. No one cares -how- the toaster makes toast and it is distinctly possible that if someone came up with a new way, they’d patent it and might refuse to license that patent to anyone else for as long as they could. But would you and I care if the thing didn’t make better toast? No. If OS X is “better” then it is an effective marketing tool to sell Apple hardware to those people who would otherwise not consider buying premium hardware. If OS X isn’t better, then everyone (and I mean everyone) would just buy the cheaper systems. It is a very risky strategy they’ve taken for all this time (and for a long, long time it looked like the wrong choice, compared to IBM’s) and it seems like what this boils down to is, you realize the OS is better, but you don’t want to have to pay Apple hardware prices to get it, especially when that means that you’re buying hardware you can’t stretch over time via DIY.

      It is hard not to conclude that you’re basically just taking it personally that you aren’t the sort of person to whom Apple wants to sell a computer and so you’re trying to construct an argument that makes this somehow a failing of the company either in terms of effective business modeling or honesty. And I think that their business model is quite sound and that they are very honest about not wanting to sell you a computer. But yes, we both agree that they do not want to sell you a computer.

      • John

        If anything, I appear to have complete misrepresented myself. I think I’ll keep all of this as an example I am review later to better express my thoughts.

        FWIW, I think SUN makes great products. I would also state that they make appliances. Talk about a closed OS — they make the hardware AND the OS. Yikes! It isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a personal thing. I really only meant it as an observational statement. Interestingly, there is an example of a company that is failing in their approach (SUN). However, I guess specializing in servers and workstations isn’t really all that lucrative compared to the “consumer desktop market”. Plus, Solaris hasn’t been “sexy” like Mac OS until they finally clued in and started using Gnome as their window manager instead of something that looked like it was a leftover from Xerox’s original project…

        Thanks for calling me out on my misdirection. It makes for some points to ponder.

        • Jim Marks

          You can’t use words like “closed” when talking computers and operating systems and software and then claim it isn’t a value judgment. Especially as an avid Linux user. There are -strong- negative connotations to that word which cannot be avoided in this context. Esp. when paired with phrases like “as far away as I can get”.

  • John

    As an aside, the original Google Android was open architecture — hardware and software. There are other smartphones out there that are as well. I’m in a hurry and not furnishing links… but can later if asked to.

    The Palm Pre runs a Linux kernel and I believe it is open to being modified — you can compile your own smart phone OS and run it on the Pre without breaking Palm’s law. It is making Linux geeks around the world giddy.

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