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What's with the Hassles from Apple?

By Alex Salkever Time was, you bought an Apple, and you knew what you were getting. The hardware rarely failed. Sure, you might need to buy Microsoft Office or AppleWorks to do some basic computing stuff, but you could get by with Microsoft Outlook Express and a cheaper text editor. Every two years, you paid $100 to buy a system upgrade. It was easy. The overall cost of owning an Apple was very low. More important, the hassle factor was minimal. Now, though, in its mad dash to diversify revenue streams, Apple is steadily upping the hassle factor. Let me count the ways.

Recently, I logged onto to catch a streaming video of Steve Jobs's keynote address at Macworld. But because I had Apple's QuickTime installed as my default media player, I recevied a snarky notification telling me I would have to upgrade to QuickTime Pro for $29 to view the higher-resolution version of the stream, although a lower-resolution stream would work with standard QuickTime.

I watched the low-res stream for a minute, but it was jumpy and hard to watch. So, I switched my preferences to a different, free, player. But it really bugged me that Apple would ask me to pay $29 to watch a high-res feed of what's essentially a nice infomercial. (Yes, I know QuickTime Pro has other nifty features -- they just don't happen to be the kind I would use very often.)

BAIT AND SWITCH? Item No. 2: When I purchased my iMac six months ago, I understood the digital-hub strategy to mean that Apple would provide me with decent software to edit movies, set up a digital jukebox, and organize digital photos. Cool, I thought. No need to deal with the hassle of keeping track of expiring product licenses, and downloading new versions should be a snap with OS X's Software Update feature.

Then Apple decided it wants to charge $49 for its iLife package of digital-hub software. Jobs and company will sell iLife as a package but allow Mac users to continue downloading iMovie, iTunes, and iPhoto for free. That means those paying for iLife are really just paying for iDVD. Apple used to charge $29 for this anyway, unless you bought a machine equipped with a DVD SuperDrive, in which case it was free.

Some Macheads say thats not a bad deal for people who used to pay $29 for iDVD or $49 for iMovie upgrades. For my part, I'm just confused about what I will and won't be paying for in the future, in light of Apple's zigging and zagging. As an Apple user, I hate uncertainty -- it's why I bought a Mac. Equally important, will Apple's otherwise handy software-update function stop bugging me about these updates if I decide not to pay for them?

Then there's the infamous .Mac ploy. It started out as a free e-mail service, but Apple started adding extra features like online storage -- and then announced it would charge. I can understand that Apple wants to build a nice community of folks around its services. And I would gladly pay, say, $20 a year for a permanent .Mac e-mail address and the features it offers. That's about what Yahoo! is charging for a similar product. But do I want to pay $100? Hardly. I don't like trusting Apple with my backups. And I don't want to pay Apple for antivirus protection that I've already installed on my machine to guard my other e-mail accounts (show of hands, how many Macheads really only have a .Mac account?)

PULLING A MICROSOFT. Yes, .Mac can also sync my calendars and let me publish to the Net. Both are things that Yahoo either already offers or will offer soon -- for far less cash. In short, I don't want to pay $100 per year for something I would hardly use, the same way that I don't want to pay for a package of additional cable channels that I would never watch.

With .Mac, too, Apple has managed to pull a Microsoft as far as annoying pop-up alerts go -- as well as software that takes control of your preference settings. I've had to go in and rebuild my e-mail preferences several times to pull out settings for a .Mac address I don't have anymore. It just keeps coming back from the dead. And whenever I reset my preferences, Apple assumes I want to set up a .Mac mail account.

Like Microsoft's alerts, Apple's never really go away. I call it .Mac pollution, and it has the other unpleasant side-effect of fouling up my outgoing e-mail on a semiregular basis. That in turn requires time spent fixing the problem -- it's almost enough to make me miss my PC.

With all these moves, Apple's new-revenue efforts are slowly but surely making it harder to own and manage a Mac. All the hassles I've mentioned are the kinds of problems I had hoped to avoid in buying a Mac. Do I still love my Apple? Absolutely. And I like much of what Jobs & Co. is doing in software. Can't argue with the hardware progress, either.

EASE IS KING. Still, Apple has traditionally thrived by maintaining an obvious relationship with its customers. When Jobs returned Apple to health, he did so by clearly demarcating product lines and communicating with the Mac's loyal fan base. Now, those lines of connection have snarled. None of the Mac faithful mind paying for something they want. But most would rather get fair warning that cool new services will be free for only a limited time -- rather than getting used to the features, then having a charge sprung on them.

And few want to buy something they already have, such as most of the .Mac package. Witness the service's anemic sign-up tallies of less than 300,000, despite worldwide Jaguar (OS X version 2) penetration of 5 million units. Most of all, Macheads want things to run smoothly. If all the selling gets in the way of ease of use, then Apple will have a serious backlash on its hands. Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online. Regular "Byte of the Apple" columnist Charles Haddad is on temporary leave

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