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Prodigal Mac: Stranger in a Strange Land

How a 'quick trip' to the Apple Store left me considerably lighter in the wallet

by Kevin Schmitt
Creative Mac Contributor
[email protected]

Since there are only a smattering of Apple-branded stores strewn across this great land of ours, I imagine that a good many of you out there have not had the opportunity to actually set foot inside of one. Oh, I'm sure you've seen pictures or heard stories, some of which have grown to mythic proportions. "Steve Jobs personally mans the cash register at every store!" "They have 400,000 software titles just for the Mac there!" "I heard that the employees can smell the rank stench of Windows on you, so be careful!" "My God, it's full of stars!"

Now everybody, please calm down. I mean, it's just a store, right? What could possibly be so great? Genius Bar? What the hell is that? Is this going to be some hippy-dippy Apple lovefest, all candy colored and curvy like the iMacs of yesteryear, manned by salespeople named Moonbeam or Lovepuppy who would want and encourage me to become one with my machine? Could the Reality Distortion Field possibly extend from Cupertino all the way to each and every one of the Apple Stores? I could feel my natural cynicism tempered by years of Windows-induced mind rot beginning to take over. Well, I thought, there's only one way to get these questions answered. So I packed up the car and took what I thought would be a quick trip to the Apple Store, armed with the insane amount of great advice I got from readers responding to my cry for help in the last installment of this column.

The closest Apple store, in my case, was the one located in Tysons Corner, Va., right outside of Washington, D.C. I decided to go on a Tuesday night, since there would probably be fewer of the crowds I had heard so much about, and there was nothing good on TV anyway. The first thing that struck me when entering the mall was that I was almost completely alone. I'm not entirely surprised that there weren't a whole lot of shoppers, considering all that's going on in the world these days, but the feeling was no less eerie. I figured since I would likely be the sole patron in the store that I would have to beat the salespeople off with a stick. Sooooo not true.

Now, to give you an idea of my mindset when I entered the store, I was completely expecting the same old Mac shopping experience. To the majority of computer superstores, Mac shoppers are just barely above adult bookstore patrons. The Mac area, assuming there even is a Mac area, is the seedy, run down part of town. There are maybe three pieces of software, and most of the time they're not even the latest versions. There are sad, dusty, neglected Macs that don't even work most of the time, and if you are lucky enough to find one that does work, you can't do much more than putter around in the Finder for a bit and maybe run the demo. Forget about actually trying out useful software. It's embarrassing, and you probably feel ashamed to even be in that part of the store. The salespeople smirk sadly at you if you dare even ask them a Mac-related question, quickly change the subject to how much better a nice Windows machine would be, regardless of your needs, and then escort you as quickly as their little feet will go from the poor dilapidated excuse for a Mac showcase. Meanwhile, the rest of the store is the geek's equivalent of the executive washroom. The latest PC games are showcased proudly. You can actually play with current software and operating systems, and the salespeople suddenly seem a whole lot more talkative. This was the sad state of Mac retail sales, until I realized that this was no longer the case within about fifteen seconds of stepping into the Apple store.

It seemed that everyone who in the mall was in the Apple store. By no means was it packed, but all the salesmen were busy chatting up interested customers, and there were plenty of folks wandering around just playing with all the toys. And this is within a couple hours of closing time on a Tuesday night. Speaking of hardware, it's literally all over the place: Quicksilver G4s, Cinema Displays, TiBooks, iBooks, iMacs, DV camcorders, printers and more covering every inch of show space. Even better, a good number of the computers are stuffed to the gills with real software. Want to see how Photoshop runs on an iBook? Okely Dokely! Want to see how freaking fast OS X 10.1 is on a Dual 800 G4? Step right up! Want to try out After Effects or Final Cut Pro on a TiBook? By golly, you betcha!

As I wandered the forest of hardware, I found myself stopping to play just about every step of the way, with everything I could get my hands on. There was so much to look at and do, I literally lost track of time. I must have spent a good hour and a half just trying out stuff, asking questions of the salespeople (who were never far) when I needed to, but mostly lost in exploration.

Eventually, I found myself in the middle of the store, where the software is kept. Any Microsoft apologist who tells you that there isn't any software for the Mac should immediately be brought, kicking and screaming if necessary, right smack into the middle of any Apple store. It's one thing to see a bunch of software in a mail order catalog; it's quite another to see rows and rows of it right in front of you, and none of it is for Windows. Graphics, multimedia, games, productivity, educational: It's all covered.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I proceeded to the back of the store, where about 15 people were gathered around a large screen watching an employee demo the features of OS X. So I took a load off and sat for a while, picking up a few OS X tips for my trouble. Then it was on to the Genius Bar, as I had some specific questions about hardware. If there was a flaw in the Apple store, it was the Genius Bar. Maybe I didn't see it for what it was while I was there, but I don't really see the purpose behind it. Sure, I got some good information from the nice gentleman behind the bar (save for the fact that he informed me that the TiBook does not do monitor spanning when plugged into a VGA monitor when, in fact, it most certainly does), but he was no more or less helpful than everyone else there. Maybe, in a way, it's a compliment. The entire staff knows their stuff, so the Genius Bar seemed kind of redundant.

The lesson I took away from my visit to the Apple store is a profound one: we don't have to be the pariahs of the retail computer world any longer. We have our own place to feel welcome, to get real information about our computers of choice, and to see those machines in action before we buy. And Apple is going about their retail strategy in exactly the right way: by doing it themselves, and doing it correctly. Placing their stores by and large in malls, where foot traffic and the curiosity factor tend to be high, will net more than a casual amount of sales. Hopefully, the mix of great hardware, software, and service will help Apple buck the trend of dismal PC sales.

Oh yeah, before I forget, there was also something else I took away from my trip: a TiBook. After this article, I'm kind of expecting to be fully reimbursed for it. Steve, you listening?

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Kevin Schmitt has been a working with just about every aspect of digital design since before it was called digital design. An award-winning multimedia producer, artist, and animator, he is currently the Digital Design Director for StudioAPCO, a creative shop housed at a communications firm in Washington, D.C. By all means, drop him a line at [email protected].

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