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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | MAC SMART / CHARLES PILLER

Now Available . . . Well, Maybe Not

December 16, 1996|CHARLES PILLER

Excited anticipation can be part of the pleasure of any large purchase. Unfortunately, Apple often fails to meet demand for popular models and generally lags the clone makers on peak-performance units. The clone makers, in turn, have often turned anticipation to exasperation with misleading advertising claims about the availability of new products.

At Macworld Expo in August, Power Computing introduced its PowerTower Pro 225--then the fastest PC on the planet--with marketing genius. It hired a construction crane adorned with a giant banner heralding the product, and invited Mac fanatics to bungee jump from the top. The company managed the jump exquisitely, signing up only as many jumpers as it could accommodate. No line, no confusion, no false promises.

If only Power Computing had managed buyer expectations equally well. Its ads and promotions generated thousands of orders that couldn't be met for up to eight weeks. This approach now typifies the clone industry.

In early December, I called MacZone, a major mail-order reseller, in response to prominent ads placed by Mac vendors in its catalog. The Power Computing Power Base 240--a system using the fastest 603e PowerPC processor--wasn't expected until the end of January. The Umax SuperMac S900/225 wasn't due until February. Motorola's entire StarMax line was out of stock, with no estimate of when it would be replenished. APS, the latest clone maker, began running ads in its own direct-mail catalog in October, but by mid-December it hadn't begun shipping.

Promotion of the latest models has been so out of sync with availability that many customers can't find a product until the first trickle of the next generation of models hits the market--starting the cycle anew. (To their credit, however, none of the vendors tried bait-and-switch, steering me to a system they could ship immediately.)

Efforts to capture "mind-share" are a big factor in creating this state of affairs. But another cause has been the PowerPC processor's rapid evolution. In six months, 166 MHz, 180 MHz, 200 MHz, 225 MHz and 240 MHz versions of the 604e were introduced, plus a spate of 603e's.

Of course, all of this is typical in the broader PC industry as well. But it's new to the Mac because Apple tends to avoid pre-announcements: It can't afford to kill demand for many thousands of older models in the sales pipeline. Nor can it afford to alienate retailers--a problem Power Computing, which sells via mail order, doesn't face.

In this industry, hype is like death and taxes. But it's hard to see how pre-announcements help endear vendors to consumers. Few of us buy the latest and greatest or care a twit about fine differences between most mid-range and lower-end Macs. So announcing such machines long before they can be delivered erodes consumer confidence.

I've heard from many users who abandoned Power Computing for Umax, simply because Power Computing kept breaking delivery promises. Others gave up on Umax for the same reasons. Some are so frustrated that they've sworn off clones altogether.

But ironically, at the high end, stunts like Power Computing's bungee jump probably benefit the Mac, a least in the short run. The buzz generated by claims of the-fastest-PC-on-Earth helps keep the Mac in the hunt as a credible alternative to Intel-based machines.

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Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at cpiller@aol.com

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