The Mac OS X Tipping Point

Jason Kottke, on Wednesday, in a brief follow-up piece regarding the Mark Pilgrim/Cory Doctorow switching-to-Ubuntu saga, expanded upon his “canaries in a coal mine” comment thusly:

In the late 90s/early 00s, Apple got their act in gear with OS X and their iMacs, Powerbooks, G5s, and iBooks. People who cared deeply about their computing experience (you know, computer nerds) took notice of Apple’s rededication to producing great products, switched to Macs, and thereafter the Macintosh gradually became a genuinely credible option for programmers, web builders, graphic designers, journalists, students, and grandmothers. Not cause and effect, but the so-called alpha geeks noticed something happening and reacted before everyone else did. So when you have two people who care deeply about their computer experience and who were dedicated Apple users for non-superficial reasons switch entirely away from Apple for equally non-superficial reasons, it may be wise for Apple and the rest of us to take notice that they did so and, more importantly, why.

I wholeheartedly agree with the main thrust of this, that it’s worth taking notice of Pilgrim’s reasons for switching (I mean, duh), but Kottke’s historical overview of the tail end of the classic Mac OS era is, to say the least, a tad myopic.

There are some number of current Mac users who have switched to the Mac (or, like Kottke, switched back after a long absence) only recently, where by “recently” I mean after Mac OS X 10.0 shipped. This includes many of you who are reading this.

But I think there’s a widely-held belief, especially amongst recent switchers, that Mac OS X and Apple’s recent hardware designs have led to a dramatic resurgence in the number of total Mac users. This belief is wrong.

It’s true that Apple is currently doing very well financially, and consistently strong Mac sales have been an important part of that. And it’s also true that in the ’90s — especially from 1995-97 — Apple’s financials were in terrible state. They lost about $1 billion in 1997, and at their nadir analysts suspected they were down to less than $200 million in cash reserves.

[Update: That $200 million figure cited by BusinessWeek is apparently flat-out wrong. This chart at Morningstar shows that Apple’s “cash and equivalent” bottomed out at around $1.2 billion. (Thanks to Scott Stevenson for the link.)]

But Apple’s financial struggles weren’t caused by an inability to sell Macs — they were caused by inept management. Throughout the second half of the ’90s, Apple sold about one million Macs each quarter, and about four million each year. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but usually about a million per quarter:

Which numbers really aren’t that much different than today’s:

In other words, Apple isn’t selling significantly more computers now than they were 10 years ago. And according to this report from Computer Industry Almanac2, Apple actually sold slightly more computers from 1996-2000 than they did from 2001-2005.

An awful lot of those million Macs sold per quarter 10 years ago were sold to graphic designers, web developers, programmers, and students. Take “programmers” out of that list and you pretty much have a description of the Mac’s core market of the era. A “credible option”, indeed.

The Mac had an especially strong share of the late ’90s web authoring market. When I started working at Bare Bones Software in 2000, part of the marketing material included a circa 1998 survey of the software tools used by web designers.3 According to the survey, 50-some percent of web designers were BBEdit users. Not 50 percent of Mac-using web designers, but 50 percent of all web designers.4

Yes, there are markets where Macs are now popular but were almost non-existent pre-Mac OS X. But the market of, say, “people who attend O’Reilly tech conferences and SXSW” is, in the grand scheme of things, minuscule. (The market of people who’ve even heard of SXSW probably qualifies as small in this context.)

The Mac users of today are, by and large, the Mac users of 10 years ago. If you drew a Venn diagram with a circle representing Mac users circa 1996 and another circle representing Mac users circa 2006, the two circles would be about the same size and would significantly overlap.

I’m not trying to rain on any parades. There is a discernible uptick in the most recent unit sale figures cited above; the average for the previous six quarters is around 1,150,000 units. I think those numbers will continue to grow, to 1.5 million units per quarter and beyond, and I’m not alone. Switching is afoot — but it hasn’t yet reached the tipping point where it goes mainstream.

Regarding long-time Mac users, though, I think Kottke has it backwards: in the dark days of the Spindler and Amelio regimes, Apple’s problem wasn’t that they lost their mojo with the Mac-loving designer and developer market, it was that they lost their mojo with the mainstream not-really-all-that-into-computers market. Their marketing was lame, their brand image was fading, their product line-up was confusing (can you say “Performa”?), and the consensus among the mainstream media was that Apple was on the verge of either going bankrupt or being sold for a song — more or less like corporate scrap metal — to someone like Sun.

But Apple never lost its stronghold in the “creative” markets where the Mac had always been popular. Using the C-word, however, risks conjuring up bad feelings amongst those people who didn’t prefer the Mac all along. The point isn’t that all “creatives” prefer (and always did prefer) the Mac, or that all people who prefer the Mac are creative; it’s that creative people have always been much more likely to prefer the Mac.

The difference between the old Mac OS and Mac OS X isn’t that it used to suck but now it’s great. The difference is that Mac OS X’s appeal is broader; it is good in more ways than the old Mac OS was.

It’s this increased breadth of appeal that has grown Mac OS X’s share of the nerd market. What makes nerds “nerds” is that they care to an irrational depth about certain specific things; Mac OS X covers more of those things than did Mac OS 9, and so it appeals to many more nerds.5

The difference is palpable. The Mac was a polarizing presence throughout the entire classic era — arguments over its merits would range between two extreme positions: “Macs are fucking awesome!” vs. “Are you kidding me? Macs fucking suck!”. But today, it’s hard to find someone serious who thinks Macs “suck”, or that old chestnut that they’re “toy computers”.

John Siracusa wrote about this eloquently in March in his essay celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Mac OS X era:

Today’s Mac users span a much wider range than those of the past. Mac OS X’s Unix-like core reached out to the beard-and-suspenders crowd (and the newer source-code-and-a-dream crowd) while the luscious Aqua user interface pulled all the touchy-feely aesthetes from the other direction. In the middle were the refugees from the Mac-That-Was, but they aren’t the story here. Mac OS X is about new blood and new ideas—some good, some bad, but all vibrant. The Mac is alive again!

After spending half my life watching smart, talented people ignore the Mac for reasons of circumstance or prejudice, it’s incredibly gratifying to live in a post-Mac OS X world. When I encounter a tech-world luminary or up-and-coming geek today, I just assume that he or she uses a Mac. Most of the time, I’m right. Even those with a conflicting affiliation (e.g., Linux enthusiasts) often use Apple laptops, if not the OS.

The myopic view of the classic Mac OS held by OS X era switchers, I suspect, stems from a thought process that runs like this: I wasn’t using a Mac in the late 90s, and I care about computers, and a bunch of my friends and colleagues feel the same way, so therefore no one who cares about computers was using a Mac in the late ’90s.

But the inverse is wrong, too — which is the tendency for long-time Mac users to think: I appreciate good user-interface design; the Mac has always had a better-designed user interface than any other platform; therefore anyone who hasn’t been using a Mac all along has no appreciation for good UI design. (Yours truly has, admittedly, been guilty of this particular false logic.)

You can’t appeal to all people all the time, but Mac OS X comes remarkably close. The old Mac OS, as insanely great as it was, did not.

  1. Sorry for the scattered sourcing on some of these; Apple’s official PR archive only seems to go back to 1999. ↩︎

  2. I’ve never heard of them until now, either. ↩︎

  3. The survey was conducted by some trade publication devoted to web publishing, the name of which I don’t recall. So, again, sorry for the lack of sourcing here. You’ll have to trust me on this. ↩︎

  4. BBEdit’s disproportionate share of the HTML editor market in the ’90s reminds me a bit of NetNewsWire’s disproportionate share of the XML feed reader market today. It doesn’t seem possible that a Mac-only app could be the leading app for something utterly cross-platform like HTML editing or aggregating RSS feeds; I think the explanation is simply that Mac users are significantly more likely to be early adopters. ↩︎

  5. I would argue that this breadth of appeal has come at the expense of a little bit of depth of appeal — that the Mac is now very appealing to more people but no longer as extraordinarily appealing to those at the center of its user base. But that’s too big a digression to explore here, even for me. ↩︎