The Vision Thing: Shell Game

Bad things happen. And nowhere is that truer than in the computer business, where all it takes to derail a multimillion-dollar product launch are overly optimistic forecasts about the production of PowerPC G4 chips. The thing is, if something unforeseen happens, who should be expected to pay the price–the company that made the overly optimistic forecasts, or the consumer?

If knee-jerk responses are any indication, Apple believes the answer is the latter–hidden in Apple's reshuffling of the Power Mac G4 lineup is the fact that the company has failed to deliver the value it first promised (see ""Fantastic Four"," November 1999).

Three-Card Power Macs

Here's how it works: if you'd been lucky enough to receive a 400MHz Power Mac G4 before the G4 shell game, you would've gotten a machine with 64MB of RAM, a 10GB hard drive, and a 24 x CD-ROM drive for $1,599 retail. After the shells got shifted around, that configuration was made available with a slower processor (350MHz, to be exact), but Apple still expects you to pay the same price–$1,599. So, if you purchased one of those first 400MHz G4s, you got a heck of a deal.

The same is true for the two higher-end machines. Now, instead of getting a 450MHz or a 500MHz machine, you get a 400MHz or a 450MHz system with the same goodies as its speedier precursor, but with no change in the price tag.

Then there were Apple's manic vacillations over what would happen to the poor souls who'd ordered a G4 before the price shuffle but hadn't yet received their Power Macs. First they were told that they were out of luck; then their orders were canceled, and they were told to order one of the new configurations at the new price.

But after Apple's e-mail server was drowned in a tidal wave of customer complaints, the company modified this policy and said it would honor a limited number of original orders placed through the Apple online store, but none made through authorized resellers. This new plan was superseded a couple days later by Steve Jobs's public intervention: all G4 orders placed before the configuration changes would be honored–at some point in time.

Overpromise, Underdeliver

Now that the shells have stopped caroming around the table like billiard balls, the question facing customers is, under which shell has Apple placed the pea? Financial issues aside, the G4 shuffle is confusing the heck out of Apple's customers. We at Macworld know firsthand–they're sending us mail.

In the original G4 lineup, the 400MHz machine was based on a logic-board design, appropriately code-named Yikes, that offered the same features as the blue-and-white Power Mac G3–except it came with a G4 processor. The 450MHz and 500MHz machines were based on a totally new design, code-named Sawtooth. Unlike Yikes machines, Sawtooth-based G4 Power Macs offered such advances as a 2 x AGP graphics slot, an AirPort slot, an internal FireWire port, and much faster bus speeds.

Now the 350MHz machine has the Yikes logic board, with its slower PCI slots, while the 400MHz and 450MHz machines are Sawtooth-based, adding all those cool new features I listed above. Confused? I know I am.

I can understand Apple getting stuck and not being able to get enough 500MHz G4 Power Macs–Apple doesn't control production of the chips. (They've now signed up IBM to produce G4 chips, in addition to Motorola, which should eventually help with supplies.) But having said that, I still don't think Mac buyers should get stuck paying the same amount and getting less. It's the 500MHz G4 chip Apple can't get, not the 400MHz or the 450MHz. By delivering slower systems for the same price as faster ones, Apple seems to be attempting to profit from its supplier's mistake, instead of just being its victim.

It would have been better if Apple had left the 400MHz and 450MHz configurations alone and downgraded the processor speed in the 500MHz configuration. That way, the majority of Mac buyers would have gotten the G4 machines Apple promised to deliver at the price Apple promised to deliver them at. Further, buyers wouldn't have had to play yet another round in the ever changing features-and-megahertz match game. All this fast shifting around has only served to further confuse a community of Mac users that was already scratching its collective head. Where's the right G4 for you? Under one of these three shells. . . .

Questions? Comments? E-mail them to Andy at visionthing@macworld.com.

January 2000 page: 23

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