About the Cult of Macintosh

You can rapidly judge whether an argument is emotional or rational by the amount of backstory that’s necessary to justify it.

This argument will require a lot of backstory.

I’m replying to Brian’s Being All That Apple Can Be essay here, and I can already tell that I’ll spend as much time talking about the “Apple community” and my experience working with Apples (dating back to 1981 or so) as I am going to discuss these nifty new machines that can boot Windows. In fact, in this essay, the Mac community is all I have room to discuss.

We’re Not Zealots, We’re Fanatics

The first thing I’d like to address is the term “zealot”. Yes, Apple users are, well, emotionally involved with their computers. Actually, all computer users are emotionally involved with their computers, and if you don’t think so, then you’ve never seen an undergraduate have a breakdown in a computer lab when his senior thesis got eaten by a power surge.

We’re all human (most of us, anyway), and we anthropomorphize the technologies we rely on. We name our cars. We customize our cell phones. And we chant reassuring incantations to our computers to encourage them to do what we want.

What differentiates Apple users from the superset of all computer users is that we attach our pet concepts to the brand name. I doubt that there’s any computer user on the planet who hasn’t verbally attacked his computer—brand name notwithstanding—when it foiled his plans for the day. But what Apple users have noticed is that we seem to say nice things to our computers more often than the rest of you.

Perhaps that’s no longer true. Perhaps there are thousands of Windows XP users out there who have named their laptop “Strawberry” and who sing metaphorical lullabies to it when it goes to sleep. All I can say is that I haven’t met those people, but I meet their Apple counterparts on a daily basis.

The vast majority of my interaction with “average” computer users is at Starbucks and other public Wifi points. All I can report on is this anecdotal experience. There was once a time when I would frequently be the only Apple user in the store. Today that ratio is closer to 50% or greater. Apple users talk to each other; the glowing bat-signal on the case is a beacon that invites conversation. I’ve seen this rarely with Palm users; never with Windows laptops.

The distinction between zealots and fanatics is that zealots are engaged in religious battles. Fanatics have reasons, however tenuous, for their devotion. The Apple community does have its zealots, no question; arguably, this dynamic was created when the zealots of the 1980s believed that any computer with a graphic interface was a “toy”. But most of us do stick with Apple for sound reasons, and most of us do note when Apple makes a misstep.

Our Relation to the Mothership

There’s no doubt that most computer companies do not have users sticking decals on their cars. Few non-Mac users ever cared about the loss of graphic doodads on their computers like we noted the discontinuation of the rainbow Apple and the happy Mac.

But we also remember, and not with fondness, John Scully and Gil Amelio. We remember the proliferation of beige boxes with incomprehensible numbers and completely different architectures. We remember the twelve different versions of System 7.

Which is why we treat Steve Jobs like a demigod: not because he is the head of Apple, but because he remade Apple into the company we wanted it to be.

And what do we want it to be? Brian accuses us as follows:

Among the most brand-loyal consumers on the planet, the Zealots believe that Apple is a different kind of company.  Nicer.  Purer.  Out for something more than generating profit for its shareholders.  Out to make the world a better place.  The only company on the planet that would willingly forego something profitable for something “cool.” The Luke Skywalker to Microsoft’s Darth Vader. The Ben & Jerry’s of personal computing.

This is almost entirely accurate. Apple isn’t alone in this, either; Ben & Jerry’s does quite nicely on its own corporate benevolence policies, and there are even organizations that promote the idea that turning a profit should not be the be-all and end-all of a corporation, as heretical as that might seem in the halls of Wharton.

Where it is inaccurate is the belief that we don’t care whether Apple turns a profit. You can’t go out today and buy a Timex/Sinclair, or an Amiga, or a SpectraVideo, despite the fact that each of these computers had some rather nifty features. If Apple collapses as a company, then the day comes when we can’t go out and buy a Macintosh. I am seriously invested in using Macintoshes; this is something I care about.

But let’s explore the idea of “cool” for a moment. No, Apple didn’t invent the GUI, but Apple did popularize it. Apple did set the standard for twenty years (and counting) of what a computer should do. Apple also introduced trackballs and palm rests into their laptops. Apple arguably set the stage for Palm devices. Apple was the first to popularize Wifi computing, and the first to build Bluetooth into an entire line of laptops.

Are these merely cool features? Hardly. These are affordances; design choices that allow the average person to do things with technology that were previously impossible. These things did not happen because they were guaranteed to be profitable; they happened because the designers at Apple do think that they are working towards some goal that is higher than the pursuit of profit.

I don’t know what the accountants in 1993 had to say about the profitability of the palm rest design. What I can say, with little fear of contradiction, is that having worked with Apple laptops for 13 years, 10-12 hours per day, seven days a week, I probably owe my lack of a crippling RSI injury to some anonymous industrial designer working at Apple when I was an undergraduate. Now that these are the industry standard, so does nearly every other laptop user.

As Brian points out, Apple enjoys a level of rockstar coverage in the tech world and mainstream press that is far out of proportion to its market share. Is that because the news media has been brainwashed by the Jobs Reality Distortion Field, like we are? Or because it’s generally recognized that when you go to an Apple announcement, you are likely going to see something that makes news, even for non-Apple users?

This is why we give allegiance to Apple. Making the world a better place should not be an accusation.

Safety in (Low) Numbers

Which brings us to the perennial market share argument. A few years ago, I found myself quoted extensively on the Internet with the line, “Yes, it’s true: Windows has 50,000 applications you will never use, while the Macintosh has only 10,000 applications you will never use.” From the user perspective, the market share argument has much the same dimensions.

No question, there are more Windows users out there than Mac users, by some vast number. There are constant arguments about what percentage of people use Macs, since market sales overlook the fact that Macs have longer lifespans than Windows machines.

I’ll leave that aside for now; pick your pundit and run with his numbers. I’ll just return to Starbucks. In Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia, at Wifi hotspots, the number of Apples has been steadily growing for years. It’s not uncommon to only see Apples in such places. Maybe all the Windows users have desktops. Maybe Windows has complete market domination of the red states. Maybe the Mac users like their laptops more and bring them with them to coffeeshops in greater numbers. Doesn’t much matter; the community is visibly growing and has been for some time.

There are two viewpoints a current Mac user could bring to this phenomenon:

1) They might like being part of a small, special clique, a member of the “rest of us”, and view with some suspicion any move by Apple that will grow the market share quickly.

2) They might just like using Apples and talking to other people who use Apples, and the more, the merrier.

Of course, I’m firmly in the second camp. I make my living selling clever ideas to people who use Macs, and every new Mac user is part of Jeff’s expanded target market. However, all of us in camp 2 share some concerns with camp 1:

1) If Apple expands their market by creating radically different computers (i.e., computers that suck), then since we have to buy those computers eventually, we fear that someday our computers won’t be as enjoyable to use.

2) A flood of new people means people who don’t enculturate into the existing community as smoothly. Cf. the “Christmas modemers” of the late 1980s who changed the nature of many BBS systems, or the AOL onslaught that caused the “death of USENET”. Mac users are self-selected, and so part of why we have a community is because we might share some things in common. Expand that community rapidly, and the commonality fades.

I personally don’t think either is likely; Apple’s next computers are different, but they don’t suck and I don’t expect that to change. And I’ll worry about the community changes that come with larger market share when it happens; that would alter the community, but there will be concomitant benefits.

In my next essay, I’ll cover technical details that Brian brings up, and get into more detail about shipping hardware.

3 thoughts on “About the Cult of Macintosh

  1. Ooh, boy – multi-part responses. This is going to get complicated. OK, I’ll keep it brief, based on knowledge (fear?) of what’s coming…

    Actually, all computer users are emotionally involved with their computers, and if you don’t think so, then you’ve never seen an undergraduate have a breakdown in a computer lab when his senior thesis got eaten by a power surge.

    Most computer users have are emotionally attached to the device, not the manufacturer. I’ve never had a positive or negative thought about (wait…checking the brand name of the PC I’m using…oh, there it is) Dell.

    The vast majority of my interaction with “average” computer users is at Starbucks and other public Wifi points. All I can report on is this anecdotal experience. There was once a time when I would frequently be the only Apple user in the store. Today that ratio is closer to 50% or greater.

    Maybe Mac and Starbucks have the same target market? I’m not being facetious here. We all know that Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee, they sell the “Starbucks experience.” I have no rational explanation, but it feels right to say that the same folks who would fall for, er… embrace the Starbucks experience would also be avid Mac users. Do you disagree?

    Apple didn’t invent the GUI, but Apple did popularize it. Apple also introduced trackballs and palm rests into their laptops. Apple arguably set the stage for Palm devices. Apple was the first to popularize Wifi computing, and the first to build Bluetooth into an entire line of laptops.

    Yes, and Chrysler invented the minivan, but I didn’t weep when I bought my Honda Odyssey. I’m not suggesting that Apple doesn’t produce cool hardware, just that they’ve never found a way to make it mainstream. Features like palm rests were a good idea, but now everyone has them, so they’re not a reason to buy Apple machines today.

    There are two viewpoints a current Mac user could bring to this phenomenon:

    1) [Zealots]
    2) [Fanatics]

    Of course, I’m firmly in the second camp. However, all of us in camp 2 share some concerns with camp 1.

    And it’s that last sentence that brings the two groups together, isn’t it…

    1) If Apple expands their market by creating radically different computers (i.e., computers that suck), then since we have to buy those computers eventually, we fear that someday our computers won’t be as enjoyable to use.

    OK, now we’re down to the meat of it. If you’re going to insist that any computer that is radically different automatically sucks, then you’re a Zealot (DISCLAIMER: later in the post, you say you don’t believe that, but it’s at best an internal contradiction). Also, the rest of us are way past the point where using computers is considered “enjoyable.” Some of the things we do with computers may be enjoyable (communicating with friends, cool web sites, fun games, etc.), but the computer is a tool. A household appliance. Like a telephone.

    I’ve had some very pleasant conversations on my telephone, but it would never occur to me to worship the CEO of Panasonic and run out & buy every new cordless the day it’s released. And if someone came along and showed me a phone with really cool buttons that was easier to dial, a nicer color, felt better against my ear, but could only dial 80% of the people I wanted to call, I wouldn’t buy it. Even if that person repeatedly insisted that it was a better phone, and that I only really needed to make 20% of the calls I make anyway.

    2) Mac users are self-selected, and so part of why we have a community is because we might share some things in common. Expand that community rapidly, and the commonality fades.

    Right. And my point is that could be a fantastic thing. The day it’s reflexively considered a bad thing is the day the Zealots/Fanatics are hurting the company, not helping it. If you think Steve Jobs is such a genius, imagine what he could do with an additional $12 Billion per year. Would it be worth disipating this Harley Davidson/Dungeons & Dragons/Star Trek-like crowd that’s currently gathered around the company, holding hands and singing Kumbaya? If you truly want to make the world (and not just 5% of the world) a better place, I think you have to say yes…

  2. Well, Brian certainly doesn’t “get it.” LOL For one thing, I use a Mac because I *can* talk to 100% of the people I want to, most of them pc users. And they have no trouble talking back. My other major reason for not ever wish to change computers is that since my first in 1986, I have never lost a single file or folder due to computer failure. Can you say that Brian?

  3. And the other reason for sticking to Macs is that when the head of Apple demonstrates some new facet of the machine, it *always* works. The far richer head of that other company always ends up looking like a doofus when he demonstrates why its a good reason not to use Windows. LOL

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