Google Sidebar, $499 Dell laptops, and the Macintosh OS

Just downloaded the new Google sidebar software and am playing with its Weblog aggregation features.  It installed and started doing useful things within about 2 minutes.  Yet another impressive showing from our former classmates and students.  In other computer news, Dell is now offering laptops for $499.  These aren’t nearly as good as IBM’s $599 laptop in some ways (only 1/4 GB instead of 3/4 GB; no built-in wireless; on the other hand it does come with a CD burner/DVD combo drive) but it is nice to see the $500 threshold cracked. 


[One wonders if it is a good time to short Apple stock.  A Macintosh is not only 2X the price of one of these IBM or Dell laptops but it can’t run any of the software being put out by the world’s most innovative software company (Google; all of their stuff has been Windows-only so far).  If MP3 jukebox prices start to fall and iPod-like devices become a commodity like all other portable music players, it might be “game over” for Apple shareholders.]

23 thoughts on “Google Sidebar, $499 Dell laptops, and the Macintosh OS

  1. “You can’t get more for less. You get what you pay for.” -Barbara Mikulski

    “Keep in mind that 99 percent of PC hardware is garbage.” -Philip Greenspun, _Web Tools Review_

    🙂

    Chris

  2. Wow. I never knew that the old Maryland hag was so quoteable. Of course, it’s easy to be quotable when you can repeat the words of greater people who have come before you. (Gabriel Biel)

  3. I realize you’re probably just Apple-baiting here, but I think you’re wrong pretty much across the board.

    First, most of Google’s cool software is (within reason) platform-agnostic. The only exceptions are Google Desktop and (before the Firefox version was released) the Google Toolbar, plus one or two whiz-bang beta demos like Google Earth.

    Secondly, most of the really neat software I’ve used lately (like Google Maps or the stuff 37signals is putting out) is also platform-agnostic.

    Finally, that $649 Dell ($499 after mail-in rebate) is a pretty shitty laptop: about the only way it’s equivalent to an iBook is that they’re both the cheapest laptop that their respective manufacturers are selling. Unless you consider internal 802.11g, Bluetooth, twice the installed RAM (and six times the maximum) and dedicated VRAM insignificant. Not to mention a LiIon battery and bigger hard drive. And longer warranty. And first-rate fit and finish.

    All of this reminds me of a funny Slashdot comment from a while back: Now that Apple is using BSD (sic), is it dying twice as fast?

  4. Long-time reader; first time poster.

    My boss shorted Apple this past spring – didn’t work out well for him. Perhaps, he was just a bit ahead of his time.

    I have been telling people Mac people are happy people. They buy their computer and like Google software, it just works. That’s why I moved my family to Macs last year. I couldn’t take the pain of repairing Windows at home and work. No regrets.

    However, I had to bring back to life a Win98 computer so the red-headed boy can play games like Civ and Age of Empires (I was hoping game consoles would solve this problem but these type of strategy games are PC only). I haven’t allowed this computer on the network to spare me the pain of spyware. He can use the iBook to go on the net and look-up cheat codes – a fine way to locate spyware.

    Anyway, I apologize for the meandering post, I think you’re right that software determines the machine. If the consumer knows to install two or three anti-spyware apps, load AVG anti-virus (free for home users) or CA’s anti-virus, enable Microsoft auto updates, and set Microsoft’s firewall correctly, they can use the web about as safely as a Mac user. No emoticon required: I’m being serious.

    Of course what we all need is an OS that is of this century and not the last. Then, everyone could short Apple, Network Associates, Symantec and Microsoft.

  5. Frank: All of that extra stuff in the Apple laptop sounds nice but not as nice as having enough money banked simply to buy a new and vastly improved laptop two years hence and give the old one away to a niece or nephew. Most consumers can’t figure out what to do with Bluetooth or VRAM. They just want to turn the computer on and get to a Web browser and read their email. Buying a Mac would be an impressive display of conspicuous consumption, perhaps, but folks who are prone to that are already facing some steep gas bills for their SUVs and might need the extra $500 to pay for fill-ups.

    In http://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2004/09/09 I predicted that the lack of innovation in the desktop computer software industry, notably stagnation at Microsoft, would lead to people buying cheaper machines. Some of my students thought that it would lead to increased market share for Apple. Maybe we were both right. http://macdailynews.com/index.php/weblog/comments/6367/ says that Apple’s market share has increased from 2.3% to 2.5%. Dell and other vendors, meanwhile, seem to be advertising low prices rather than improved capabilities

  6. Those innovative things in Google’s sidebar that ‘won’t run on the mac’ — desktop search, and RSS aggregation — weren’t those functions already built into Apple’s OS X.4 when it shipped earlier this year?

    As far as shorting the stock is concerned, I think that would be a good idea for you. You know, the old ‘put your money where your mouth is’ saw.

  7. Is the extra $500 really not worth it? It depends on the user.

    I’m a computer programmer, and spend a lot of (too much?) time at a computer. This being the case, I want to use whatever computer system that I enjoy the most. I am not terribly fond of using Windows. It’s not all that bad, but I just don’t like it. (You might not like Latin jazz, but whether if you do or not doesn’t make it good or bad.)

    I do like GNU/Linux, and I do like OS X. I happen to like OS X more. For me, given my preferences, amount of computer usage time, and how much my preferences mean to me, paying an extra $500 to get a computer that I enjoy a lot more is worth it.

    Is it worth it to my friend who just wants to browse the web and read email every now and then? Probably not.

    As another example, I also am a musician, keyboards mostly. For me, I wouldn’t have any problem at all spending $3000 for a really good 88-key synthesizer, because, like computers, music is a big part of my life. I want to do my music work on quality equipment that I enjoy.

    BUT, is $3000 for a synth too much for someone just starting piano lessons? Probably. Hence, things like the Casio and Yamaha keyboards at Best Buy — perfectly adequate for many purposes, at about $200 – $400.

    It wouldn’t be fair to say that Apple is charging too much, and that their extra features aren’t worth it, and just leave it at that. It depends on the user, and how much they want (or need) whatever those features are.

    I’m very happy to see these new $500 IBM laptops. I very well may get one some day. But I’m also happy with my Apple machines, and don’t feel that I wasted my money, because I got exactly what I wanted, which was not what I would have gotten with the $500 IBM.

    $0.02 🙂

  8. ” I had to bring back to life a Win98 computer so the red-headed boy can play games like Civ and Age of Empires (I was hoping game consoles would solve this problem but these type of strategy games are PC only)”

    Civ 1,2, and 3, and Age of Empires 1 and 2 are availalbe for the Mac.

  9. Um, this functionality is already present in OS X 10.4 w/Spotlight & Dashboard, though you can also have it by just “personalizing” your google.com page. Not sure about the desktop but Google has said they’re going to support multi-platform. Most of the new software offerings are all going to be web-based — companies and big corporate entities are going for web platforms, be it CRM, word processing, etc… …some of this due to Sarbanes/Oxley, but a lot of it because of the simplicity in having install/upgrade process server side, and supported by external vendors.

    Second, the Apple hardware is going to get longer usage life than the equivalent Win laptop (and all of the Win laptops I’ve had have been garbage with the exception of an old IBM ThinkPad), and it comes standard with DVD burner, bluetooth, wireless, etc…, along with software that Windows doesn’t have by default – i.e., iTunes, iDVD, iPhoto, etc… And it’s a wonderful development box, allowing one to run apache, scripting and all the other *nix goodies (yeah, you can do this on Windows too…

  10. The cheapest Dell laptops are really awful. They have tiny keys on tiny, cramped keyboards. They are heavy, thick and have atrocious battery life. $500 is only a bargain if you won’t ever use it for anything more than occasional Solitaire.

  11. I’ve converted some of my friends and family to Linux, and others to Macs.

    My experience supporting Windows and Macs at work is that *taking all costs into account* (ie spyware and virus removal when necessary), the Macs are about half as much work to look after.

  12. I don’t think Apples going to be worried. A market segment with little profit and I’ll bet lots of unimpressed customers when they realise how limited the machines are.

    What would be interesting is the creation of a new product type. Most of the users of these machines would want internet, e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations only. A good case for getting rid of Windows and using Linux and OpenOffice with a customised desktop manager.

  13. One wonders if it is a good time to short Hasselblad or Rollei stock. A YashicaMat is 1/10th the price and uses the exact same film and is just as accurate in terms of shutter timing.

    Having actually had clients with the cheaper Dells, I recommend staying away from them. They are not even the equal of the better Dell laptops, much less the iBooks.

  14. I think that the fate of any proprietary software that isn’t innovating is to be knocked off by open-source clones that eventually become good enough to replace the originals. Operating systems are no exception. Linux on the desktop (and OpenOffice, GNUmeric, etc) is catching up because the target isn’t moving very quickly – Desktop Linux is really a lot better than it was 3 years ago when I first installed it, while Windows has hardly changed at all.

    And most innovative software these days is on the web, and can be used from any platform.

    I’m not saying that you’re wrong about the future sales potential of Macs, just that the time may be coming to short MS too. Unless they actually do something innovative on the Desktop. Or use their patent arsenal to sue non-MS software developers back to the stone age, initiating an era of Tokugawa-shogunate-like technological stagnation.

  15. rps: Agreed that it would be a good time to short MSFT if they were extracting significant $$ from users. At the consumer level, though, I think MSFT only gets $30-100 from each buyer of a new computer (bundled XP Home edition and sometimes a defeatured Office suite). That isn’t enough to motivate people to learn a new interface. Apple is different because they are extracting $500+ in extra profit from every customer and switching from Mac to Windows is easier than switching from Windows to Linux because nearly everyone must at some point in their lives learn to use WinXP.

    PatrickG: The reason that Rollei and Hasselblad can survive with their small market shares and high prices is that they are 100 percent compatible with other medium-format camera systems. The same film that goes into cheaper medium-format cameras works in a Rollei and the same labs that process film from cheaper cameras can process Rollei-exposed film. Apple’s position with its 2.5 percent market share is more precarious because a lot of companies, e.g., Google, decide that it is not worth bothering to make film (software) for Apple computers and film (software) for Windows won’t run on Apple (to say that a $300 add-in to the Mac OS enables the running of Windows software doesn’t wash because for anyone on a budget they would notice that $350 will buy a complete Dell Windows PC complete with keyboard and monitor).

  16. Phil: just curious, what kind of personal computer(s) do you use? What criteria did you use in making your selection?

  17. Trevis: I have a WinXP desktop (white box circa 2001, supposedly silent but in fact not very, 2 GHz CPU and 1 GB of RAM, a couple of Seagate 80 GB hard drives (both just about full)) with an Apple 23″ LCD monitor (it was the only 23″ monitor available at the time). My criteria at the time? (a) ability to run the Oracle RDBMS for development (Macintosh could not run Oracle at the time), (b) ability to run photo editing tools such as Photoshop (ruled out Linux at the time), (c) ability to run X Windows and all the standard Unix tools (cygwin is free and adds all of those capabilities to Windows), and (d) future ability to run innovative software and services. I got my pilot’s license and an airplane about a year afterwards and it was a good thing that I had picked Windows because all aviation IT requires Windows software and sometimes even Windows hardware.

    I used to have a Thinkpad but I kept dropping it and it was getting old and slow so I wiped it and gave it to my friend Anne in Manhattan and she used it for 1.5 years to watch DVDs and read email in her studio apartment. Then she threw it out when it wouldn’t turn on anymore. I wanted another Thinkpad but was dismayed that no big disks were available for laptops so I bought a Toshiba TabletPC out of boredom. I said at the time that it was like buying a Thinkpad and an Etch-a-Sketch and then lighting 10 $100 bills on fire. The TabletPCs can actually be used effectively by pilots of ancient Cessnas who load them up with all kinds of accessory GPSes and data link antennae and end up with all of the avionics capabilities (and more, actually, because they have the keyboard and mouse/stylus) of a brand-new $300,000 plane for about $4000. Personally I am done with buying expensive laptops. I think I will buy sub-$1000 Thinkpads and give them away to young nephews and cousins after 1-2 years (none of these kids have ever seen a Macintosh or know how to use one so they would not appreciate being saddled with learning a new U.I., even if an iBook were cheap enough to buy and give away every year).

  18. Compelling reasons! Thank you for sharing!

    I do sometimes wonder about my choice in Apples. As I have already said, I do like them, but if I can get a sub-$1000 laptop and run GNU/Linux, that is worth considering. Although, the times that I have run GNU, I have always been happy to return to OS X, just because of the nicer GUI. That’s why I don’t run GNU as my main OS.

    I’m not a pilot myself yet, but I do spend all day with avionics software at work. On Windows. 🙂 Honestly, it’s not bad. It used to be a lot worse. But I still like the Unix interface, so for my home machines it’s pretty much picking between OS X, GNU, or *BSD, and for me OS X wins.

    I can’t say that I like spending the extra cash for Apple hardware, but I tend to buy a new laptop about every three years, and at that refresh rate, the extra price is more palatable. 🙂

  19. Is the TabletPC a disappointment because of not supporting your airplane/flying software needs, or did it just not work out in terms of useability?

    I must confess that a TabletPC offering is enticing enough to invite me back to the dark side 🙂

  20. The TablePC is disappointing because I’m too old/lazy to learn a new user interface. Also because my handwriting screams “developmentally disabled.” My cousin Lynn, who is smarter and neater than I am, grabbed the thing once and started writing and all of her handwriting was recognized perfectly. A person who is good at sketching would probably like it also. We have so much time invested in learning user interfaces that we forget how fundamentally unnatural most are. If you sit and watch a first-timer attempt to use Emacs, the Macintosh, or Windows it is amazing how little they accomplish. I don’t think the TabletPC is actually that much more U.I. on top of Windows but I’ve never been motivated to spend a day or two becoming proficient.

    The Toshiba TabletPC pretty much does everything a regular WinXP laptop does so in that sense it is only disappointingly expensive. And it would be “the bomb” for the owner of an old airplane who didn’t have color LCD moving maps integrated into the dashboard. But the only two planes that I have flown regularly already had pretty much all the computing power I needed hard-wired.

    I think the marketplace has ruled on TabletPC and the verdict is “not worth extra $$; we’d rather pay $600 for a standard laptop.” I can remember a talk that Bill Gates gave to a bunch of academic eggheads back in 2001. He proudly demonstrated TabletPC and predicted that it would be huge. http://www.manufacturing.net/ctl/article/CA631564?spacedesc=industryUpdates shows that it was an insignificant $1.2 billion in 2004. http://www.tomshardware.com/hardnews/20050727_123053.html pegs the TabletPC at “1-2 percent of the notebook market”. That’s even slightly lower than Apple’s market share!

  21. Wouldn’t try it. AAPL is above its 200 DMA, and it doesn’t even touch it anymore – it gets close and then makes another leg up.

    One day, a few months from now, yes it will be ready for shorting. And I will be there to eat it. But not right this minute.

  22. Not that anyone is really interested in my opinion, but I’d like to go on record as saying that a workable compromise may be to buy a used or refurbished Mac. Even so, Mac laptops are still awfully pricey compared to the pcs, but my Macs have always worked fine and lasted for long past the date when colleagues needed to turn in their pcs for faster models because the machines they had weren’t getting the job done anymore.

    Furthermore, we had a low-end Dell laptop in my family which worked for all of 3 days. So, Dell sent us labels to DHL the unit in for repair and we never saw it again.

    Six weeks later I was finally able to get hold of a VP’s number at Dell and I begged him for help. He put me in touch with a special customer service rep who told us that our shipment had been routed to a receiving plant for damaged equipment and probably got disassembled. I’m not sure we ever got our money back from Dell. I know the $100 online coupon they offered wasn’t worth anything to me, as I wasn’t really interested in buying a computer from these people again. 18 hours trying to get this craziness straightened out was enough for me. After a while I just didn’t want to talk about this any more. If the cost of having peace of mind was the $800 purchase price of my kids’ laptop, I was soooo willing to forfeit that money. So much for economizing on a pc laptop.

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