Switching Is Afoot

A slew of follow-up points to Sunday’s “Familiarity Breeds a User Base”:

Josh Marshall Buys a Mac

I truly did not expect this, but, over the weekend, Josh Marshall went ahead and bought his first Mac:

So, my own predictions notwithstanding, this weekend, I took the plunge. I went out and bought my first Mac.

I am, it turns out, afflicted with a severe characterological disorder which prevents me from ever reading directions for any new product I purchase but rather forces me to stumble around by trial and error until I figure out how the new thing works. No pity please, I’ve had the condition since childhood. But that did create a few grumbly moments as I tried to figure out how to do some elementary task. At first at least, not having the right mouse key was something like learning to ride a bike.

Within about a day though I felt like I’d gotten my sea legs. And so far I have to say that I’m really pleased with the decision.

I’m sure he got about 500 emails Monday morning letting him know he can simply plug in any multi-button USB mouse and it’ll just work. I suspect this is going to work out well for him.

And from the other side of the political spectrum, conservative-ish Time weblogger Andrew Sullivan has switched as well.

Penny Arcade

The other prominent switchers this past week are the creators of the popular web comic Penny Arcade, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, who not only used their switch as grist for their comic, but also have been writing about it.

What makes their switch notable is that they’re avid gamers — video games are more or less the central theme of Penny Arcade. This is not a demographic where the Mac, or Apple itself, has done well.

Holkins writes:

Gabriel’s MacBook doesn’t arrive until… they start arriving, later this month, but save for platform-dependent gaming I’ve used my own Mac for every computing task this week. What I have ascertained is not that PCs as we know them lack good design, but that PCs as we know them have hardly any design to speak of. I’m not trying to be insulting. Use a Mac for a week, and we’ll talk again.

I have edited autoexec.bat files in order to optimize the amount of available conventional memory, and I liked doing it, liked being the sort of person who could. As a PC user, enduring the grotesqueries of that experience is something that we are actually proud of. It’s come a long way since then, jokes about “blue screens” and what not ring like tired vaudeville acts. But those struggles were certainly real, the battle wounds considerable, and now the skin has grown over it and to a certain extent we think this is just how it is.

I didn’t even understand that’s what was going on until I started to write this. Like men who love the wilderness for its savage and untamed qualities, I believe many of us are drawn to this stark brutality. That frontier living, the self reliance, the adversity. The Mac, like The Alliance in World of Warcraft, was easy mode.

I don’t think that the Macintosh was inspired by ancient holy scrolls, found in a sea cave and excised from the original bible by a convocation of priests and wise men. But I do like it very much. It is extremely good at what it does, which is to say, exposing functionality.

Welcome aboard, of course — but this could have just as easily been written 10 or 15 years ago. (See also Holkins’s follow-up here.)

Reader Comments

There were a bunch of insightful comments from readers regarding “Familiarity Breeds a User Base”.

Pete Gontier, via email:

I suspect one reason Wintel people believe their fortunes aren’t tied to any particular vendor is that the little plastic badge on the front of their computers doesn’t say “Microsoft”.

Regarding my statement that “familiarity is comforting”, Jemaleddin Cole emailed:

When I was a boy 20 years ago, I heard someone on NPR point out that the reason that people spend so much time and money at mediocre (at best) restaurants like McDonald’s was that they were consistent in their mediocrity.

Trying out a new restaurant could be good, but it could also be terrible. At least with McDonald’s you know that every location will give you pretty much the same surly service, moderately clean dining areas and bland, overly processed food. And that really describes the PC experience to me.

Which of course is why I’ve bought 3 Macs in the last eight months.

Derek Powazek, commenting in his Delicious bookmarks:

Agreed with one additional thought: Having “Intel Inside” may make the new breed of Macs more familiar to the wider world of PC users.

I think this is an interesting point. In the same way that Wintel users feel like Windows is an “open” platform even though it isn’t, prospective switchers might feel like Intel-based Macs are somehow more familiar.

Doug Dickinson, via email:

This reminds me a bit of the story about the man who shows a friend “Abe Lincoln’s Axe”. The friend says, “What, this is an actual axe used by Abe Lincoln?” And the man says, “Sure thing. Of course, my grandfather replaced the head about 75 years ago, because the original broke; and I’ve replaced the handle a couple times, but that’s the axe that once belonged to Abe Lincoln.”

So, this guy thinks he’s “continuing” to use “a” Wintel computer, when in fact he’s switching this and that component incrementally. And at any point in time, he’ll have a completely different set of software and hardware components than he had at some previous point in time. But because he didn’t have to make the switch all-in-one- go, it seems like the “same computer”.

The Big Picture

Lastly, a bunch of people emailed to bring up factors such as Windows-only software and hardware. (And gaming, but I think we could just file that away under “Windows-only software”.) I tried to make it clear that I was not claiming there was just one reason for not switching. There are many. People who depend upon Windows-only software have a very good reason for not switching to the Mac, even if they might otherwise want to. My point is that there is some significant number of Windows users who could switch, today, and who are aware that they could and are tempted to, but who don’t, and that it’s this “familiarity is comfortable” factor that’s holding them back more than anything else.

If Apple can somehow get most of these people to jump ship, it would be a bonanza from Apple’s perspective in terms of unit sales — and yet still leave Microsoft with a monopoly share of the overall market.

However, losing another chunk of the “computer enthusiast” market could be very dangerous to the long-term stability of Microsoft’s monopoly. Enthusiasts might only constitute a few percentage points of the home market, but enthusiasts are the people family and friends go to for advice when buying new computers.

How many people do you know who love computers and prefer Windows?