With Apple's last Macworld keynote speech just hours away, Microsoft is again talking up the idea of an "Apple tax" that people pay when they opt for a Mac over a Windows PC.
It's a concept that Microsoft started touting in the fall. While the words may be fairly new, the melody sounds familiar. Saying that customers pay an added cost when using a rival is a well-worn page from the Microsoft playbook. One need only look back to the anti-Linux "Get the Facts" campaign for another example.
In any case, it is a notion that is likely to stay around, says Windows marketing VP Brad Brooks. In addition to talking up the idea with reporters, Brooks said it may show up in online marketing and potentially even in Microsoft advertisements.
Microsoft did come up with some new charts trying to put hard numbers on the "Apple tax." On the desktop side, Microsoft argues you can save $100, or 16 percent, by going for a Dell Studio Hybrid or HP Pavilion Slimline over a low-end Mac Mini. Microsoft argues that at the mid-range, a buyer can save 25 percent by going for a Dell XPS One instead of a low-end iMac and that the Mac Pro is more than double the cost of a high-end HP desktop.
I made the argument when Microsoft first brought up the concept that, if it is a tax, it is a tax that a growing number of buyers seem willing to pay.
Brooks said on Monday, though, that he expects the weakening economy will limit the number of people willing to pay more for a computer.
"More and more people are going to be scratching their head and say is that a tax I am really willing to pay," he said.
He noted that the tax isn't just about the higher sticker price, but also about the lack of choice that Mac users have. Certainly there are fewer hardware options and the Mac software aisles remain far narrower as well. Brooks also tried to position the Mac as less open, pointing to the iTunes App Store as an example of Apple forcing a "walled garden" on users. Were he to be comparing the iPhone and Windows Mobile, he might arguably have a point, but last I checked developers are free to write whatever program they want for the Mac.
Although I don't buy the idea that Mac users don't know there are cheaper PC options, I think the sorry state of the economy will pose challenges for all PC makers, including Apple. Consumers are clearly going to have to weigh any computer purchase against more basic needs, the prospect of not having a job, etc.
That said, it is unclear who will be hurt more by the economy. Apple is in many ways akin to BMW or another automaker that plays only at the high end of the market. I expect Apple will have a tough time keeping up with recent growth trends. But, as the car market shows, the Fords, GMs, and Hyundais of the world are also taking a huge hit.
I don't want to take this auto analogy too far, either. I don't see Microsoft running to Capitol Hill for a bailout anytime soon. Microsoft makes huge margins on its products. And while I hear layoffs may indeed be in the works, the company doesn't face anywhere near the structural issues of the auto industry (the Google threat notwithstanding).
Brooks would not specifically comment on whether Microsoft has trimmed its PC outlook for 2009, but did say that clearly the whole global economy is far weaker than it was in October, when Microsoft issued its last forecast.
"It continues to be a tough economic time for everybody," Brooks said. "We continue to see that our customers are suffering out there.