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Thanks, Steve, for Quite an Education

By Alex Salkever This is my last "Byte of the Apple" for BusinessWeek Online. I started writing this column roughly three years ago. At the time, I didn't understand what I was getting into. Yes, I had been a Mac user for two decades. My first was an Apple II that my father purchased for my two sisters and me. We used it to write book reports. When Dad wasn't paying attention, we played nifty games like Sneakers and Castle Wolfenstein.

But I had been a casual Mac user. I never paid attention to the vigorous debate over Apple (AAPL), the personalities, and the fascinating technologies that invariably emerge from the skunk works in Cupertino, Calif.

That changed when the iMac came out, and concurrently, Steve Jobs turned the company around. I started buying Macs exclusively. Not only were they once again cool to own, after years of stagnation, the Macospshere again became a very interesting beat for reporters and columnists. So I wanted in for selfish reasons. Not only was Apple a newsy company but I also welcomed an excuse to learn even more about the platform that I had fallen in love with.

PARADE OF WONDERS. I've learned a lot -- not least that writing about Apple is a more consuming activity than covering any other technology company. After every column, e-mails jammed my inbox. Many flamed me for alleged ignorance.

Others brought thoughtful opinions. A significant handful led me to even more interesting tidbits about the Mac. My greatest problem became too many things to write about. Of course, Apple CEO Jobs helped me along by doing amazing things. The flat-panel iMac, the iTunes Music Store, iPhoto, the iPod, and the G5 chip all were unveiled on my watch.

Jobs also sent me an e-mail or two telling me how wrong I was. That made the whole exercise even more interesting. Journalists often wonder if what they write is being read, not just by the masses, but by people in power. An e-mail from Jobs, even a scathing one, is an important psychic reward. As OS X emerged and blossomed, I came to realize more and more that what Apple lacked in market share it more than made up for in mind share.

CORE FOLLOWERS. A disproportional percentage of the high-tech elite use Apple. Software innovator Bill Joy? He uses OS X. Open-source security software expert Martin Roesch? Loves his PowerBook. Prominent author, magazine publisher, and search expert John Batelle? He's a Machead. And on and on. Either Jobs is ahead of his time again, or he has truly figured out how to build the computer equivalent of a Porsche.

Like most other Mac users, I began to develop opinions on products and strategies that verged on, for lack of a better term, the fanatical. Why won't Apple sell a headless Mac for schools and entry-level users? Beats me. Apple says it doesn't want to compete on that level, but it desperately needs to reduce the cost of switching from a Windows machine to a Mac in order to entice more users. An entry-level Mac for $500 would do the trick nicely.

Why did Apple stop making wireless cards for older units when millions of people still own them, and the price of these cards on eBay (EBAY) is often double or triple the original sales price? I guess Apple doesn't have an on-staff economist to explain the concept of passive revenue or price-demand elasticity.

And why, oh, why, did Apple put Al Gore on its already wimpy board of directors? While Gore seems like a nice guy, his tech experience is limited, and he has never worked in business, aside from an early stint in journalism (no snide comments, please).

GREAT STOCKING STUFFER. I can snipe from the sidelines, but ultimately, these critiques are minor compared to the heavy lifting Jobs and his team have done to return Apple to robust health. The turnaround will certainly be a textbook case in business schools for decades to come. And it's especially hard for me to walk away at a time when Apple's future looks brighter than ever.

One last note to you, Steve. I need a new Apple laptop, but I'm waiting for the G5 version. I know you have one tucked away in the labs somewhere. You've solved most of the engineering problems with jamming this hot-running chip into a small footprint with the new streamlined iMac. Is it too much to hope for one for Christmas? Salkever is ending his stint at Businessweek Online, where has been Technology Editor

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