Deciding whether to abandon the Mac is a two-part exploration. Having answered question one-“Can I thrive with Win95?”-in the affirmative, I now faced question two: “Is there a compelling reason to leave Mac now?”
Answering this question, I have come to believe, is a matter of choosing the correct metaphor. Is buying a new Mac this year like buying a Porsche 911 or a Sony Betamax? Both are superior machines; neither boasts an impressive market share. Porsche parts may not be compatible with market leaders Toyota, Ford, and Honda, but they are nonetheless readily available (albeit pricey). Most important, the car rides beautifully on almost any road. Loyalty to the Porsche may seem eccentric, but the choice of driving system does not prevent one from getting where one wants to go or from enjoying the ride.
The Betamax, on the other hand, was a terrific machine that quickly lost its value for those who were unlucky enough to purchase one in the mid-1980s. A friend of mine in college clung proudly to his Betamax, touting its superior technology. But the vast majority of consumers chose the cheaper, if inferior, VHS machines, and Betamax “software”-video tapes-never developed into a viable market. My friend wound up playing the same few movies over and over again. Betamax proved that a superior technology can also be a useless technology if the market so dictates.
Some folks will say the Betamax analogy is the right one. It takes about 90 seconds in any software store to realize that there are vastly more titles available for Windows than Mac. The Windows user has many more choices among peripherals like printers and CD-ROM drives as well and tends to pay less to boot. Will Mac’s market share shrink inexorably to zero? If Mac is destined to slide into oblivion like the Betamax, I’d be a fool to buy one.
But to my mind, there are at least three good reasons why the Porsche analogy works and the Betamax analogy fails. First, Porsche may not be a top-selling car, but it sells well enough to keep lots of Porsche repair shops in business. Mac’s 7 percent market share may not sound like much, but there are approximately 20 million Mac OS computers in operation right now. That’s a substantial market by any measure, one that Microsoft and many other software and hardware vendors profit from handsomely. (Remember: Microsoft was producing and profiting from Mac software when there were fewer than a million Macs in circulation.) In fact, because of the enormous growth in the PC market, it’s quite possible that even if the Mac market share slips to just a few percentage points over the next couple of years, the actual size of the Mac economy could keep on growing.
Even if Apple stopped selling Macs tomorrow, there would be a very healthy market out there for many years to come. Since Mac owners tend to use their machines longer than PC owners before upgrading, the Mac market is guaranteed to thrive at least through the end of the century.
Second, the Mac still has four wheels and chugs unleaded gasoline. That is, despite the apocalyptic visions conjured up by headline writers, it continues to provide the services that many of us are after (20 million of us, apparently). Not only is the Mac still as user-friendly as complex machines come; it uses software similar or identical to the most popular applications available on Windows. As if to reinforce this point, Bill Gates publicly committed Microsoft last year to solid support for MS Office and Internet Explorer for the Mac for years to come. What has come to be unfairly regarded as an oddball specialty computer actually drives as well as anything else on the information superhighway.
Finally, it’s a damn good car. I drive a Mac PowerBook for the same reason that car enthusiasts spend weekends behind the wheel of a 911: superior aesthetics, superior performance. We drive not just because we have to, but because we want to. We not only get to where we want to go; we also enjoy the ride.
That’s not to say that there aren’t other wonderful machines out there. But there’s something very special about the Mac that people really seem to miss when they leave it behind (I’ve listened to their groans). Asking them to explain it is like asking a wine expert to explain the difference between a superb wine and a merely good one: it’s a wordless experience. Those who come to Mac from Windows, like those who have never acquired a taste for fine wine, may never appreciate what they’re missing. But to those attuned to fine distinctions, that indescribable difference is deeply significant.
The designers at Apple have always understood that the aesthetics of a computer is every bit as important as its technical performance and that a personal computer is not merely a tool but an extension of the user’s mind and body. It assists and complements us in a range of subtle ways-it serves at once as notepad, rolodex, and library; it adorns our desks; it is something we step into as we would a piece of clothing. Just as a superb meal always begins with pleasant lighting and the warm greeting of the maitre d’, so it is that an exceptional computer is a pleasure to look at, listen to, touch-even before it’s switched on.