Ballmer on the $500 "Apple tax": The man was right

Steve Ballmer took plenty of hits on the Internet last week for claiming that Apple users pay $500 more than a similar PC just so they can get an Apple logo on the machine --- in essence paying an Apple tax. The truth is, though, the man was right.

Ballmer was reacting to the news from the NPD Group that Mac sales fell a precipitous 16 percent in February. Here's what he said, according to Todd Bishop of TechFlash:

"The economy is helpful. Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be."

Sure, Ballmer was indulging in a little bit of hyperbole -- but only a little bit. In general, you can buy a PC for from $300 to $500 less than a simililarly equipped Mac. In using hyperbole, Ballmer is only following the Steve Jobs playbook. Jobs has used hyperbole to build Apple -- he's a master at it.

Are Macs more nicely designed computers than PCs? Without a doubt. Are they easier to use than PCs? Certainly. Is that design worth up to $500 per machine? Certainly not, at least for most people. The NPD Group's latest sales figures bear that out, and the figures don't lie.

The truth is, most people use their computers primarily to browse the Web, send and receive email, listen to music, watch videos, and create and edit documents. For doing all that, there's no real difference between a PC and a Mac, and most people simply aren't willing to pay a premium for a logo, especially in these hard economic times.

Preston Gralla's Tax Series:

Spending the extra money to buy a Mac to do those things is like spending several hundred dollars extra to buy a designer handbag. A designer handbag and a regular handbag perform the same function -- hold things. One doesn't hold it any better than the other. People pay for the designer logo. For most people the same holds true of Macs: For basic computer use, Macs are not very different than PCs, except they cost more and have an Apple logo.

It's true that for certain tasks, Macs are superior, such as for video editing and design. But few people buy them for that. And it's also true that for certain tasks, PCs are superior, such as playing games. And plenty of people buy PCs for that.

Many people jumped on Ballmer's statement because he doesn't have the world's most winning personality, and at times he's made an fool of himself. But not this time. This time he was right on target.

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