Apple's Soft Spots Mean Consumers Need to Look Before Leaping

It's still OK to buy a Mac, but experts say ask a few questions first

So many bad things keep happening to Apple the corporation that even loyal consumers are beginning to wonder whether they should stick with Apple the computer.

With the departure of its chief executive earlier this month, the company seems adrift. Its former strategy to return to profitability this year is in tatters. And questions about its future continue to swirl as many computer users decide whether it still makes sense to buy its desktop computer, the Macintosh.

For many of those users, however, the answer is still a surprising yes.

Getting a Macintosh is a risk, says John Staudenmaier, a technology historian in Detroit. "I thought about it before buying it. And I bought it anyway." He's the proud owner of a new 166 MHz Macintosh clone.

Robin Brown, chairman of the Arts and Design Department at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, wouldn't buy anything else. "There's no problem justifying it at all in my field - 99 percent of graphic design is based on Macintosh."

So is it still OK for someone to buy a Macintosh?

Yes, as long as you confront the issues involved with buying a niche computer from a company in financial trouble. Users and dealers suggest you ask these questions before you shop:

What will the machine be used for?

If you're in education, desktop publishing, or graphics design, sticking with a Macintosh makes good sense. Apple has such a strong presence in these markets that software companies continue to write programs for it.

As a general business computer, it's hard to justify a Macintosh. Some users do it, but the software choices are more limited than what's available for machines running the rival Microsoft Windows. As a home computer, it depends. Some users consider the Macintosh easier to use than Windows. But if children want to use a home computer to play games, then buyers are better off getting a Windows-based machine, because many more games are available for it.

Some Macintosh customers buy special cards to run Windows programs on their Macintosh computers. The programs run more slowly than they would on a Windows-based computer, but the solution works well for those who use mostly Apple software but occasionally need to run a Windows program. In fact, when buying any computer, don't buy for the sake of the hardware. Buy it for the software that's available to run on that machine.

What if Apple doesn't survive?

This doesn't mean the end of the line for the Macintosh. "Even if something happened to Apple, someone would buy the business," says David Blow, a sales associate with the Mac Store in Collinsville, Ill. "It's too good a company."

The disappearance of the corporation might force Macintosh users to find software and hardware at specialty stores instead of general computer outlets and prices might go up. But the market is still big enough that someone will continue serving it beyond the independent makers of Macintosh clones who continue to pump out machines.

Will Macintosh computers continue to cost more than the equivalent Windows machines?

Yes, and the situation could get worse because of the economics of the computer business. Chip manufacturers for Windows machines can spread their multibillion-dollar development costs over sales of millions of chips. Chipmakers for Apple probably won't have that luxury when it comes time to develop the next generation of Macintosh computers.

Is the Macintosh really easier to use than Windows?

Technically speaking, the Macintosh is more elegant than Windows because the hardware and software are much more tightly integrated. So, when you change monitors, for example, the Macintosh recognizes the change. With Windows, the automatic detection is more hit-and-miss.

But from the standpoint of everyday use, the differences between Windows and the Macintosh are minimal.

"I tell them [customers] to buy what they're used to using," says Tim Chagnon, a salesman at Boston Computer Exchange. "With Windows 95, it's the same as the Mac." The Boston retailer of refurbished computer equipment at one time was heavily Macintosh oriented but now is devoted to Windows machines.

Such questions should give potential Macintosh buyers pause. "It's certainly harder to convince my wife that my next computer should be an Apple," says Steven Lubar, curator of history of technology at the National Museum of American History in Washington.

But it doesn't mean that the Macintosh is somehow doomed.

"I don't really care what I hear on the news about Apple going to die because I've been hearing it for the past 10 years," says Mr. Brown of Southern Illinois University. "I think that's the way that corporate culture wants to live."

Buying a computer is like test-driving a car, he adds. "You need to go to a place and figure out what you like."

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