Blame It on Quark

As mentioned here last week after the introduction of the new “mirror tray” G4 PowerMacs, Apple is hoping that the dual debuts of these new machines and Mac OS X 10.2 will break them out of two troubling slumps:

  • PowerMac sales have been in the tank for over a year. This is the biggest problem facing Apple, because PowerMacs are by far their most profitable product line.
  • Mac OS X adoption is kind of slow, with most estimates putting the adoption rate at around 10 percent of the Mac market.

It’s hard to tell how linked these two slumps are. One argument is that people are waiting to switch to OS X until they buy new machines on which it’s pre-installed, but that they are waiting to buy new machines until Apple comes out with significantly improved PowerMacs. This makes a lot of sense, but doesn’t account for everybody.

It’s also an uncomfortable theory for Apple, because it’s based on the idea that their flagship PowerMac G4 line just hasn’t been very compelling. Apple’s preferred theory, as expressed by their executives in quarterly analyst meetings, goes something like this: Customers are waiting to buy new machines until they’re ready to switch to Mac OS X, but they’re not ready to switch to Mac OS X, but not because there’s anything wrong with Mac OS X itself, but because lazy third-party developers still haven’t ported essential software to run natively on Mac OS X yet.

One after another, however, important software packages like Microsoft Office and Adobe’s design suite — most especially Photoshop — have been released for Mac OS X. The updates come and garner stellar reviews, but neither PowerMac sales nor OS X adoption ever jump.

The lone notable holdout is QuarkXPress, which is neither native for OS X nor expected to be anytime soon. (Does anyone honestly believe that an OS X-native “Quark 6.0” will be shipping this January?)

This “blame it on Quark” excuse has achieved a lot of traction in the current conventional wisdom. Everyone wants to believe that Apple’s problems are just that simple: If only those cocksuckers at Quark would get their act together, everyone would start buying new machines and join hands in singing the OS X theme song.

People really want to believe that this is Quark’s fault. For example, Derrick Story — a smart guy, good writer, and managing editor for the O’Reilly Network. In a weblog entry offering advice to Apple, he wrote:

Do something about Quark. A large portion of the Apple customer base is being held hostage by Quark, and if someone doesn’t rescue them, they can’t join the Mac OS X party.

This is just silly. What exactly can Apple do about Quark? Take the source code for XPress and finish the carbonization for them?

But it’s all beside the point. QuarkXPress is just a convenient punching bag. Our money says that even if a native OS X version of XPress were released tomorrow, it wouldn’t have any more of an effect on OS X adoption than did any of the other programs listed above. If any single program was going to drive OS X adoption and new PowerMac sales, it was Photoshop, which is much more performance-hungry than QuarkXPress. Photoshop power users tend to be much more aggressive about upgrading their hardware and software than are Quark users.

In fact, with all the talk about QuarkXPress 5 and the rumored upcoming version 6, it’s easy to overlook the fact that many Quark users are still happily pounding away on version 3.32, which was released six years ago. QuarkXPress 4 was a long time coming, and most, if not all, of its new features were already available to QuarkXPress 3.32 users in the form of XTensions. (Much like Photoshop, QuarkXPress is a platform unto itself, supporting a large and lucrative market for third-party plug-ins.)

The same is true for version 5 — it was a long time coming, and in the end, didn’t contain many compelling new features that weren’t already available in the form of XTensions. Quark is a convenient scapegoat — for all the success of QuarkXPress the program, Quark the company has never been popular.

There’s no dispute that a native-for-OS-X version of QuarkXPress will be a big deal, but everyone seems to have the reason why backwards. It’s not Apple which stands to benefit from QuarkXPress for OS X, but Quark itself. Running natively on OS X is the one huge feature that users of older versions can’t achieve with XTensions. If you’re running Mac OS X and use Quark, you definitely want to buy an upgrade to XPress that runs natively. If you still use Mac OS 9 and an older version of Quark, you might not want to upgrade either of them.

One last point that’s often overlooked is that a large segment of Apple’s professional user base doesn’t order their own machines. Graphic artists — those who spend their days using the big three: Quark, Photoshop, and Illustrator — who work in medium to large shops usually have an on-site IT staff that orders and installs both new machines and new software. New machines with radically new software, like Mac OS X, require training. The training costs for moving to Mac OS X dwarf the $129 cost of the upgrade itself (even more so if you consider site licensing prices that large Apple customers get), and are probably on par with the cost of new machines themselves.

So here’s a hypothesis to explain the design market’s slow migration to Mac OS X. It’s not a question of whether Mac OS X’s major user interface changes are an improvement over Mac OS 9; it’s the very fact that there are so many major changes at all. A core segment of Apple’s user base consists of loyal, long-standing Mac users who buy very expensive, high-margin, top-of-the line hardware — but who are design nerds, not computer nerds. In the past, switching to a new machine was usually no harder than moving files from the old box to the new one. They could come to work on Monday morning and switch from an 8500 running Mac OS 8.5 to a new G3 running Mac OS 9 and be back to getting real work done by lunch. That’s not possible with a switch to Mac OS X.

The end result may be that the customers Apple most wants to switch to Mac OS X will be among the last to do so. Not because they’re curmudgeons or Luddites or stubborn — but simply because they have work to do.