Familiarity Breeds a User Base

Joshua Marshall, author of the popular U.S. political weblog Talking Points Memo, seems rather dissatisfied with Wintel machines on the whole, and suffered a particularly unpleasant episode with a recent Gateway purchase, and yet is reluctant to switch to the Mac:

I must say that from my casual experience, Macs always seem to work better, be more intelligently designed, have a nicer screen interface and a bunch of other stuff. And honestly, after this most recent experience, for the first time in my life I’ve seriously considered switching.

So, why haven’t I, and, probably, why won’t I?

I think it basically comes down to two reasons.

First, I’ve been using PC-based computers for about 20 years. And over the years, I’ve invested a serious amount of money in software and various gizmos, all of which are PC-based. That in itself is probably enough to keep me shackled down in the Wintel universe.

Second, I’ve got a decent amount of know-how invested in PCs. I don’t just mean that I’d have to become a computer newbie again. But I can open up my PCs and install things and actually do a certain amount of maintenance on them. Not sure one can do that with a Mac, at least not to the same degree. In the background, I guess there’s also that concern about having one’s whole computer setup and data tied to one company.

I think this succinctly encapsulates the reasons why a large number of potential Mac users — people who could switch and likely would be better off in the long run doing so — don’t. I’m not talking about the corporate IT market or the silent majority of home PC users who really don’t give much of a crap about their computers. I’m talking about people like Marshall, a writer and web publisher whose computers are an essential — perhaps the most essential — tool used in earning his livelihood. Having read his weblog for several years, he’s the sort of person who I’m slightly surprised isn’t a Mac user.

But the reasons behind his reluctance to switch are eminently reasonable, or, if not quite reasonable, understandable. He’s a political nerd, not a computer nerd, but he’s cobbled together enough knowledge about Windows and PC hardware that he’s comfortable knowing he can get his work done with them, and that when things go wrong, that he can probably fix them.

Even though he suspects — correctly, I believe — that “Macs always seem to work better, be more intelligently designed, have a nicer screen interface and a bunch of other stuff”, they’re unfamiliar. And familiarity is comforting.

I don’t think there’s any easy way for Apple to overcome this familiarity factor, and I think it’s the single biggest impediment to would-be-switchers. However, I do think this — those who are aware of the Mac and suspect it might be a better choice, but who are reluctant to try because they’re so familiar with Windows — is one group of people who are perhaps likely to switch because of the so-called “iPod halo effect”. Through their iPods, they become familiar with Apple hardware and software (iTunes), and, in many cases, familiar with Apple retail stores.1 I think in some cases they just need to see existence proof that Apple kit isn’t “weird”.

But while I understand the “I’m not comfortable switching to a computer I’m wholly unfamiliar with” rationale, what I find curious is the last line I quoted from Marshall:

In the background, I guess there’s also that concern about having one’s whole computer setup and data tied to one company.

This too is a succinct summary of a commonly-held knock against the Mac: that because the Mac is controlled by Apple, that switching to it is risky because it puts your computing future in the hands of just one company. I.e. that PCs are open and Macs are closed, and open is somehow safer.

But while PC hardware in and of itself constitutes an ostensibly open platform, somewhere around 90-95 percent of all PCs sold are, in fact, Windows PCs. And while, yes, Apple controls the entirety of each Macintosh, both software and hardware, Microsoft controls Windows every bit as much as Apple does Mac OS X.

If Mac users’ eggs are all placed in Apple’s basket, I fail to see how Windows users’ eggs are any less all placed in Microsoft’s. And which company of the two strikes you as more likely to abuse the implicit trust placed in it by the customers who have grown dependent upon its operating system: the one with less than three percent world-wide total market share2 or the one with a monopoly position which it has already been convicted of abusing under anti-trust laws?

I’m not saying there isn’t merit to the idea that openness, in general, is a safer choice. But if that’s the route you want to take, it leads neither to Cupertino nor Redmond.

There’s a line in The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal Kint says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The greatest trick Microsoft has gotten away with is convincing the public that the Wintel PC platform is open.


  1. The other main source of “iPod halo effect” switchers are high school and college students — young people who haven’t yet matured to the age where they’re overly fearful of veering from the familiar.

  2. Of course, as I wrote in “Market Share” back in 2003, Apple’s seemingly meager sliver of “world wide market share” isn’t nearly as alarming, or meager, as it sounds. They certainly sell far more than 2-3 percent of higher-margin laptop computers, for example.

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