Wandering in the Mac Wilderness (or My Afternoon in the Apple Store)

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Wandering in the Mac Wilderness (or My Afternoon in the Apple Store)

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I know, I know…all this Macintosh stuff is completely off-topic for a SharePoint blog but I just had to get something off my chest here – just delete this one if you don’t dance to the Mac groove. Despite my ranting about how incensed I am over the two-steps back "updates" to the current MacBook Pro lineup, I still consider the 13" model to be one heck of a computer for average users. After shopping around a bit and comparing features and prices between Dell, Sony, Lenovo, HP and Apple (I won’t even consider the rank ugliness and poor support of Toshiba, Gateway, Acer or the other also-rans), I came to the conclusion that the new 13" MacBook Pro is a pretty solid contender. The closest in terms of quality and performance was Sony but I quickly discovered that the Apple tax is nothing compared to the Sony tax – holy cow are they proud of those things. Dell was the second runner-up but the Studio XPS machines are just as pricey as an MBP when you spec them out and the build quality and battery life just aren’t on part with Apple or Sony. So, after much gnashing of teeth as to whether or not I still wanted to support Apple based on their dissing of corporate users, I bit the bullet and trundled off to the Apple store to pick up a 13" MBP for my colleague in the UK.

First, let me just go ahead and point out the obvious – anyone who works at an Apple store is a bit weird. Some are downright creepy but most are just harmless hippie types who really can’t get a job doing anything else (seriously, do you really think you’re going to get a job in corporate America with that scraggly beard and beach-bum attire?). The major exception are the business team members who are more aligned with polite society (or as polite as we get down here in the deep south, anyway). Having said all that, I should point out most of the sales folk in the Apple stores are *very* knowledgeable about their company’s products. They can jump from OS X to iPods to Apple TV without so much as blinking and give you all the speeds, feeds, and other purchasing information that you may need. And, in my experience, they genuinely seem to want to help customers get all their questions answered. [Ok, I said it – now everyone can flame me about how cool Macheads are and all that but they’re still weird people – nice, friendly, and helpful, but weird nonetheless.]

[[Interlude: I just had someone tell me how they felt walking into a Mac store for the first time. They said it was like "being at a cult meeting" and how they felt the employees were trying to "convert them into a new religion". After buying her an iPhone for Mother’s Day, my wife told me when we left the store that the sales guy was "beyond creepy" and that the whole thing felt like a revival meeting with a hint of The Twilight Zone. Different stores, same weird people. I’m just the messenger here, folks.]]

So I made the mistake of going into my local store at 4:00PM only to find myself in the middle of complete chaos. People running this way and that, high-school grads playing with every single gadget in hopes that mom and dad will ship them off to college with some cool gear that they can brag to their friends about, kids playing games on massive monitors (good move, Apple – keep the kids occupied while their parents spend money. I dig it.), and a general feeding frenzy over iThis and iThat. Recession, indeed. In the midst of all this, as I strained to find the business rep who feeds and encourages my Mac obsession, I overheard several sales associates giving their pitch to prospective buyers. What I heard was troubling – it seems as if the accepted sales strategy is to bash Microsoft, talk a little about how sexy the computer is, bash Microsoft some more, demo iPhoto and GarageBand, then finish with bashing Microsoft some more.

Now, to be fair, I’m down with promoting yourself over the competition and demonstrating how cool your widget is versus their widget, but let’s be honest here – Microsoft doesn’t make computers. I know that’s lost on a great many people but Redmond has little control over the design and features of the average notebook PC (hence the "Vista Capable" launch fiasco). Telling people how great Mac OS X is because it doesn’t have driver issues is the highest order of misinformation – drivers are the responsibility of the OEM, not the OS vendor. It’s easy to keep conflicts to a minimum when you limit the customer options to virtually none and control all the hardware; that’s the classic "closed box" Mac approach versus the "open box" PC approach.

Furthermore, just how honest are you being when you tell people that Vista requires endless updates and patches? Umm, just how many versions of OS X are we up to now? And how many times to I have to run Apple Software Update (hint: at least once a month)? C’mon, that’s just total crap. Windows Update is there to insure that customers have the latest and greatest software, not just for the OS but also for business applications, drivers, and umpteen other things. And don’t even get me started on the baloney about User Account Control being too intrusive; as soon as you disable automatic login in Leopard you get prompted for damn near everything – I have to enter my password just to launch a terminal session, open a virtual machine, change a system setting, you name it. I get prompted to enter credentials far more in OS X than I ever do in Vista/Windows 7 (at least in Win 7 I can dial it down to nothing while still maintaining a secure login). Once again, more unnecessary Apple FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

But what really chaps my hide is listening to business team associates bash Microsoft. I actually heard someone say to a customer "Why would you ever want to run Windows again? You won’t need it once you try Leopard. That Vista stuff just sucks." I wanted to smack the guy upside the head (just like those idjuts in the forums who try to convince people that they don’t need more than 4GB of RAM or that BootCamp is the first level of Dante’s hell). First of all, there’s a ton of software that doesn’t run on a Mac and never will (Visual Studio, anyone?). Second, Microsoft still owns the enterprise (and always will if Apple keeps selling corporate users short on features) and users have to deal with all sorts of home-grown apps that run on the Windows stack, not to mention all the Office products (Visio, Project, InfoPath, OneNote) that don’t have a Mac equivalent. Corporate computing isn’t about being "cool" or "edgy" – it’s about getting work done. Apple has done a fairly decent job insuring that Windows can run on their Intel-based machines (although I’m still pissed off that they won’t twist nVidia’s arm into making a real Vista driver available for the 9400/9600 combo card); don’t try to sell customers down the river by disparaging the tools they need to get their work done.

And here’s another thing – Office:Mac may just be the very best piece of software ever written for the Macintosh platform since Photoshop. It kicks Office 2007 up and down the block in terms of usability and task-oriented functionality. I cringe when I have to switch back to Outlook from Entourage – it’s just that much better. Microsoft would be well served to completely throw Outlook into the rubbish bin and replace it lock, stock and barrel with Entourage in PC form. Here’s the kicker – Apple sales reps are trained to try and upsell you into iWork for fifty bucks when Office:Mac is sitting right there on the shelf, retails for several hundred dollars, and is far superior in every possible way (please, really, Pages and Numbers are joke compared to Word and Excel – let’s just stop the madness right here and now). Want to bump those sales figures? Easy solution – sell Office instead of iWork. But you can’t really do that when you just spent thirty minutes telling the customer how bad and evil Microsoft is (who, by the way, still owns a big chunk of Apple stock, is mostly responsible for rescuing the company from certain doom, and is probably snickering behind the scenes at all this us-versus-them nonsense).

And that leads me to my real point (I know, it always takes me five paragraphs to get down to the nitty-gritty) – you don’t need to waste all your ammunition on the supposed competition just to sell your stuff. So what if the customer wants to run Vista on their new Mac? What do you really care? Apple still moves a unit and everyone is happy. Sure, you can tell ’em how great you think OS X is (and, having used it for months now, I can say without reservation that it’s just not *that* much better than Vista – good, yes, but it ain’t all that) but with iTunes available for the PC you can still sell ’em all the iPods and iPhones that you want so just what the hell is the point? And I’m sorry but if it "just works" and is so damn easy to use, why are there always twenty people crowded around the Genius Bar being shown how to add a printer and set up Spaces? Are new Mac users really that ignorant or is it just a way to get them back into the store to buy more stuff? And I hate to have to point this out time and again but Finder still sucks – Windows Explorer eats it for lunch.

Sales associates shouldn’t be preaching, they should be providing information – answer the customer’s question, explain to them how they can still run their Windows apps on their new Mac, let them know that the Boogie Monster is not going to eat their children if they try to dual-boot into Vista, tell them how much Office:Mac kicks ass, and get on down the road. Sale made, customer happy, store meets its numbers. There’s no rocket science here. But don’t try to give me a sermon on the evil behemoth in Redmond. That’s a two-way street and you don’t want to go down it with me; I can just as easily turn that around and talk about the closed-box policies of Apple, how evil it is to force me into proprietary audio and video formats, how childish it is to control peripheral choices with an iron fist, and how anti-consumer the stupid the MagSafe no-license policy is.

As a Microsoft MVP, lots of people at conferences ask me about my Mac and I tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly. I know for a fact that several people have bought MacBook Pros because they saw my rig and asked me about it. I don’t have to say anything bad about Vista or Microsoft, nor should I need to, but it sure doesn’t help when a new customer walks into a store on my recommendation and gets bombarded by anti-Microsoft bias. Especially when the customer makes their living on Microsoft technologies (note to Macheads: Microsoft makes some very cool products – like SharePoint, for example. Put the latte down and base jump back into reality, Moonunit – we won’t bite you, I promise.)

Microsoft and Windows aren’t going away anytime soon – Macheads are just going to have to learn to live with that. Apple is clearly retreating from the Enterprise space and focusing purely on consumers but that’s not going to stop people from needing to use both operating systems on their Macs. Selling one doesn’t require an RPG attack on the Redmond juggernaut – they’ve got plenty enough features that they can be sold on their own merits. There’s no need to try to brainwash the customer; give them the facts and let them make up their own mind. Try it – empowering customers is a really cool thing. And hey, isn’t that what all that hippy, feel good, anti-establishment stuff is about in the first place – letting people be individuals and make up their own minds???

P.S. – Ignore all of the above with regards to Windows Mobile; I completely support any and all direct frontal assaults on that craptastic pile of cow manure. I would like to see a billboard at every freeway exit of an iPhone tearing a Tilt to shreds and eating the pieces. WinMo must die. Viva la revolucion!