Over the past six months several pricing decisions by Apple Computer Inc. have tested the loyalty of its customers.

Each time, indignant Mac users have lambasted the company in online forums, only to be scolded by Apple defenders.

The first shocker was the announcement by Chief Executive Steve Jobs at the Macworld trade show in New York last July that Apple's formerly free suite of Web services, iTools, would be renamed .Mac and, henceforth, would cost $99 a year.

The Macworld audience, which normally cheers most everything Jobs says, sat in stunned silence.

Discussion forums across the Mac world boiled with anger, with many calling the move a "bait-and-switch" tactic, while others questioned whether the service was worth even the $49 discount offered to existing iTools members.

"If .Mac wasn't branded by Apple, no one would even give it a second glance," wrote one soured user in a Macworld magazine forum.

Adding to the furor was the concurrent announcement that when Mac OS X 10.2 "Jaguar" would go on sale in August, it would cost $129. Those who bought a new Mac after the announcement could get the upgrade for $19.99, but everyone else - - including those who had paid full price for the OS X versions 10.0 and 10.1 -- had to pay full price.

In this case, what drew the ire of Mac users wasn't that Apple was charging for the Jaguar upgrade -- most acknowledged that the improvements qualified it as a major upgrade -- but that Apple refused to provide a discount to the "early adopters" who had bought earlier versions.

By fall, the chatter had died down, but the resentment lingered. When it was rumored in the days leading up to Macworld San Francisco last month that Apple might begin charging for its suite of multimedia programs -- iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto and iDVD -- many Mac users cried foul again.

In fact, Jobs did say in San Francisco that the four "iApps" would be packaged as the $49 iLife, which went on sale Jan. 31.

The complaints over iLife's price later were undercut somewhat by the fact that Mac users can download three of the programs -- iPhoto, iTunes and iMovie -- for free from Apple, though only iTunes is a reasonably sized download for those with dial-up connections.

Nevertheless, some Mac users objected to what they saw as Apple's attempt to charge them for supposedly free products.

"What's your digital lifestyle worth?" one Mac user asked. "Apparently, Apple thinks more, instead of different."

A few threatened to defect: "If this is true, then this will be the last Mac I'll ever own," one said.

But what's telling about these reactions is how much it reveals about the nature of the Mac community and the passionate relationship so many Mac users have with Apple Computer.

Just look at the strong language in these comments from last summer, when the .Mac and Jaguar pricing decisions were announced:

  • "I do not think they [Apple] are fair, no. Jobs is lying left and right about everything."

  • "It's really becoming obvious that Apple's principles are rotten to the core. ... Even I find it hard to fathom, hard to comprehend, how blatantly Apple is abusing their customers."

    Mac users tend to idolize Apple, its products and Jobs -- so any deviation from the hero's script always sparks a harsh reaction. When a hot issue erupts, Mac devotees often sense betrayal.

    The general thinking goes, "How dare they take advantage of their loyal, paying customers by [the latest transgression]?"

    But not every Mac user responds negatively to Apple's unpleasant announcements. For some, loyalty is loyalty -- even when the "mother ship" (yes, Mac users really use that term) seems off course.

    And in the very same forums where some complain vociferously, other Mac users -- just as adamantly -- defend Apple:

    "I think Mac users will have to get over this idea that Apple will give us free upgrades forever," wrote one defender of the recent iLife policy. "If the iApps come free with a Mac purchase, that's cool enough. We just have to get used to it if we want Apple to survive."

    Wrote another: "Apple needs to make a living. This is capitalism. They have to pay the designers, programmers, workers and everyone on down to Airborne Express [who picked up and delivered my PowerBook for repairs]. Plus, they need to pay the shareholders; you can even become one."

    Like the critics, Apple's advocates also share common notions, primarily that the computer maker is in business for profit and that those who complain are cheapskates unwilling to pay for quality products.

    In addition, a third group occupies a middle ground: displeased with an Apple decision, but understanding of its reasons behind it. This group sometimes offers suggestions to make the offending issue more palatable.

    "If Apple bundled the [iLife suite] with .Mac, it wouldn't bother me at all, and I would absolutely renew my year-long service," one Mac user posted.

    But even with a solid corps of defenders, can Apple afford to provoke any portion of its relatively small customer base? What if some Mac users get so fed up they abandon Apple altogether? After all, when your market share hovers around 3 percent, every customer is vital.

    "There's traffic on both sides," said Roger Kay, director of client computing of IDC, the research firm based in Framingham, Mass. He said that while some Mac users may defect over Apple's pricing policies, products like Jaguar and iLife are winning over new customers.

    "People who want that more elegant feel will pay the premium," Kay said. "People who want to get it as cheap as they can aren't really Apple customers."

    Though he primarily uses Windows now, Kay said that when he used the Mac as his primary system he, too, sometimes was annoyed by Apple's conduct.

    "It's part of the [Mac] personality," Kay said. "But the alternative was Mordor, the unthinkable. So you take them with their faults."

    So the existence of a lot of grousing on the Mac Web doesn't necessarily translate into legions of Mac users preparing to jump ship.

    Rather, most Mac users upset with Apple just want the company, based in Cupertino, Calif., to hear their concerns and, hopefully, respond to them. That's why you often see suggestions in the forums on what Apple could do to rectify an objectionable policy.

    No matter how steamed a Mac user may get over something Apple has done, it's rarely serious enough to cause flight to Windows.

    Most Mac users can't escape the sense of loyalty that ties them to Apple. The same emotional bond that stirs the distraught reactions in the forums simultaneously prevents mass defections.

    And when a disgruntled Mac user looks at what he'd have to give up, moving to the PC world could lose its appeal quickly.

    Mac users, in the end, have little choice. It's the only one we have.

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