Mac Musings

It's the Software, Stupid

Why Apple Will Thrive as PC Vendors Burn

Daniel Knight - 2002.08.28

The personal computer industry is in a death spiral. The industry won't die, but several companies probably will, to join names like Packard Bell, Tandy, Zeos, and countless others that have lived, grown, and died on the PC side of the street.

Sales are down, profits are down, and even companies such as Apple, Dell, and Microsoft are feeling the pinch. So we keep asking ourselves, "How can we grow the Mac market?"

Some claim that we need to address the "MHz Myth" through education and head-to-head benchmarks. Others say that Apple needs to offer CPUs with higher clock speeds because we'll never be able to dispel the MHz myth. And still others say that Apple's future is with Intel and/or Athlon CPUs, leaving Motorola, the PowerPC, and the G4 behind.

None of this will turn things around for Apple. None of them would have a significant impact on market share. None of these will get people to buy new Macs.

Ongoing Growth

The personal computer industry invented itself in the mid-1970s with nowhere to go but up. By 1981, the fledgling industry was making sufficient inroads that IBM decided to create a business PC, which in turn gave the entire industry the legitimacy names such as Apple, Atari, Radio Shack, and Commodore simply couldn't.

Since the mid-70s, the installed user base has grown year after year after year. Even if a company did nothing more than hold on to their market share, they could be assured of selling more computers or more software every year.

That's no longer the case, especially in highly industrialized nations where the vast majority of people and businesses already have personal computers.

Case Study

I worked for a publishing house for over eight years. When I started, computers were used heavily in the design department, the editors were just starting to use them. Designers had Mac IIcis, usually with Apple's two-page grayscale display, and editors usually had an LC or IIsi with Apple's Portrait Display. The entire LocalTalk network consisted of maybe a dozen Macs and perhaps three LaserWriters.

When I left, we had over 80 Macs on our 10/100 ethernet network, ranging from Quadras and PowerBooks through G4 desktops. Our fastest machine at the time was probably a 450 MHz G4, and our most widely used was the 66 MHz Power Mac 6100.

What's interesting is the way most users got their computers. As we moved from the IIci to Quadra 650s to Power Mac 7100s to 7500s to b&w G3s to G4s, the designer's computers went to editors, people in marketing, and so forth. Except for the purchase of nearly 30 6100s circa 1995, almost everything except for the PowerBooks went through the design department first.

We had some Macs that were very long in tooth, but they all supported Mac OS 8.1 and ethernet. And despite incredible differences in performance between the fastest G4s and the slowest Quadras, they did the job.

The hard part was convincing management that the Quadras and 6100s had become bottlenecks - and then came a whole proposal from marketing to ditch the Macs and go Windows. I left before that happened.

They Last and Last

The thing is, two and three year old computers don't seem as slow today as equally old computers did 2-3 years ago. Under the classic Mac OS, the gains beyond 300 MHz G3 performance have been nice, but rarely enough to justify the expense of a new computer.

In the Windows world, the performance of a 700-800 MHz Pentium III, Celeron, Duron, or Athlon is quite satisfactory for any but the demanding graphics professional, video editor, or dedicated gamer.

Under Mac OS X, a 400 MHz G4 or 600 MHz G3 is comfortable, and Linux users need even less power than Mac OS or Windows users for a good user experience.

And that's Apple's problem. Their digital hub supports DV camcorders, iMovie, and DVD burning, but most Mac users still aren't doing that. For things like iTunes and AppleWorks, our 300-600 MHz Macs are more than adequate.

So when the economy is tight, when family finances are squeezed, when we don't have to replace our old computers, we make do with our old Macs a little longer. Windows users are doing the same thing, which is why Gateway is bleeding red ink and Dell has decided to pursue the white box generic PC market.

The Future of Personal Computing

If we consider our current computers adequate, we have no compelling reason to buy a new one, whether that means upgrading from one Mac to another or switching from Windows to the Mac OS.

Apple is hoping that Mac OS X and the iApps will be a compelling reason for Windows users to escape Microsoft's increasingly totalitarian policies and for Mac users to either buy Jaguar or buy a newer Mac that adequately supports it.

Because we're complacent with our hardware, Apple has to put the focus on selling us software and services (.mac, AppleCare) to turn a profit. And it's only the amount of unique, compelling, better-than-Windows-offers software that's going to get Mac users to upgrade and convince Windows users to switch.

The personal computer industry can't count on the kind of growth it's seen over its first quarter century. Computers don't grow obsolete nearly fast enough for that to happen, despite Moore's Law and the hype from companies trying to get us to buy the latest and greatest.

I think Apple understands this better than Microsoft or any hardware maker on the Windows side of the industry. Sure, we'll continue to buy new Macs as necessary, but that's not necessary very often, so for Apple to thrive, the focus needs to switch from insanely great hardware to insanely great software.

That's not news for longtime Mac users, who know that the Mac OS has always been the best reason to use a Mac, but it's news to those who put the focus on hardware. It's a paradigm shift. "It's the software, stupid."

With Jaguar, many of the objections to OS X have disappeared. OS X is finally as fast as the classic Mac OS, according to several sources. It's as stable as Unix. And it comes with a bundle of very useful, very free programs including iTunes, iPhoto, iChat, iCal, and Mail, which appears to be the best spam fighting tool available to end users.

PC companies will come and go, their fate tied to their commodity status, their ad budgets, and how willing Windows users are to stick with the platform when they replace their old computers. Apple will thrive with an OS that sings, applications that hum, and hardware that roars.