Mac Musings

Marketing the Mac: Crossing the Platform Divide

Daniel Knight - 2004.04.29

Apple is in a rut. They've been selling about three millions Macs a year since the "beleaguered" era. While the broader PC market grows, Apple's unit sales are stagnant, and their market share is dropping.

This week we're looking at ways to grow the Mac market, which isn't a simple task. There are a lot of myths and misperceptions that keep people from even considering the Mac.

On Monday we looked at the fact that Macs are simply different than Windows PCs, a difference that most Windows users see as a negative thing. On Tuesday we looked at how the limited expansion of all but the top-end G5 keeps "experts" (the people asked for advice when buying a computer) from recommending the Mac - and we proposed a smaller Power Mac G4 with plenty of expansion options to address their concerns.

Yesterday we saw how Apple could sell a machine that "computer experts" might recommend and even buy for their own use - and how Apple could profit by selling hardware upgrades up front and service packages on the back end.

Today we'll look at how Apple can make it easier for Windows users to use Macs and for Macs to coexist with Windows computers.

OS X Is So Different

Whether you've used the classic Mac OS, some variant of Unix, or Microsoft Windows, there's no denying that OS X is a different computing experience. It's not necessarily better (although I tend to think so) or worse, but it's definitely different.

There was a lot of gnashing of teeth as Mac users migrated from OS 8 or 9 to X. We were used to working one way, and while OS X is similar in many ways, it was different enough in others to trip us up or slow us down. But after a few months most of us who tried OS X got used to it, stopped complaining, and eventually stopped booting into OS 9 at all.

Today we can't imagine going back to the classic Mac OS as our primary operating system.

It really helps that classic mode lets us run almost all of our classic Mac applications quickly and flawlessly. Windows users don't have it that easy when adopting the Mac OS. Virtual PC lets most Macs run Windows, but it is slow - and it doesn't work on the Power Mac G5.

The Interface

It's been suggested by others that Apple create a "skin" or "appearance" for OS X that makes it easier for users to get used to the new operating system. That probably would have helped longtime Mac users embrace OS X more quickly, and a Windows-like skin would make it easier for Windows users to adjust to OS X.

The alternate appearances shouldn't look just like old Macs or various incarnations of Windows. They should look like OS X, but with things arranged more in the way switchers are used to finding them. For instance, that might mean locking the dock to the bottom left corner and placing something like the Windows Start button there.

I don't use Windows enough to make any more suggestions, and I do find going to Windows confusing enough that I can sympathize with PC users who try to switch. In fact, Apple should design the various skins so that switching from them to the primary OS X appearance will be comfortable.

<irony on> After all, in the end we want everyone running their Macs the same way. <irony off>

Windows on a Mac

My wife has used Virtual PC on her 366 MHz and 600 MHz iBooks, and it's pitifully slow. For any program that needs a bit of speed, VPC is a lousy solution - and nobody seems to have come up with a better software emulator for the Mac.

I'm going out on a limb here to suggest that Apple give up on the whole idea of emulation and instead make it easier to use a Mac and a Windows PC together. Here are some of my ideas.

Macintosh KVM

Include new software in OS X that simulates use of a KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switch along with a port on all future Macs that supports VGA video, USB, plus PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports. Plug in the cable, hit a hotkey, and you essentially turns your Mac into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for the PC - or another Mac.

We're looking at absolutely no loss of performance. No need for two mice, keyboards, and monitors or a hardware KVM switch - just buy the cable that goes between the Mac and PC. And if Apple does things right, the Mac could act as a USB hub and give the remote computer access to the Mac's peripherals.

This won't work with older Macs without creating a PC Card and/or PCI card to support the PC cable on older models, but there's another place Apple could turn a profit. Or they could license the hardware to another company.

That still leaves current iMacs, eMacs, and iBooks out in the cold. Further, this makes no provision for cutting and pasting content between Windows and Mac programs, one of the nice features of Virtual PC.

Windows in a Window

Another option would be to use a window on your Mac's monitor to display what's happening on the Windows PC (or Mac, Unix box, etc.) instead of the whole display. Depending on how this is done, it should be possible to cut and past between operating systems.

And there's no reason this couldn't include a full-screen mode.

The most useful solution might be a hardware port that moves video and keyboard/mouse data between the PC and the Mac. The solution proposed above would work in terms of hardware, but the Mac OS would have to capture and remap the Windows display to a window on the Mac's monitor. This could be death for action games, but it shouldn't be a huge issue for most other applications.

VNC: An Existing Solution

You don't need a dedicated piece of hardware to enable this. You can already do this using VNC, Virtual Network Computing, which creates a window on your Mac, Linux PC, Wintel box, etc. and lets you see what's taking place on a remote computer's display - and use your keyboard and mouse for input on the remote machine.

Display performance is pretty much limited by the speed of the connection between the two computers. You can use it over the Internet, but for really fast performance, using gigabit ethernet, FireWire networking, USB 2.0 networking, or 100Base-T ethernet would be far better. Although you can do this using USB 1.1 or 10Base-T ethernet, you're definitely feeling a need for speed when you do. Still, it's impressive that you can do this at all.

VNC is open source and available under the GNU license, so it should be very easy for Apple to include it with a future update to OS X. How about including a tweaked version with 10.4?

If you want to give it a try, you can download the server software (it's what runs on the remote machine) and client software (what you use to interact with the remote machine) using these links:

There are also client and server programs for Windows, Linux, and other computers. If you have access to two computers on the same network (and won't get into trouble with the IT guys if this is at work), give VNC a try. I think you'll be impressed.

Cross Platform Software

One thing that makes using both Macs and Windows easier is an abundance of software that runs on both Macs and Windows PCs, such as Microsoft Office, FileMaker Pro, Photoshop, and a host of others. Files can go back and forth between operating systems without a problem at all.

One drawback to cross-platform computing is single-platform software. I suspect that one big reason Microsoft doesn't port their Access database to any other operating system is that it helps them keep Windows PCs dominant in the workplace. At my last job, Access was one of the main reasons they wanted to move from Macs to Windows.

Of course, this cuts both ways. There are also some programs for the Mac that aren't available for Windows, most of Apple's own applications being on that list. And that's not a bad thing if we want to give people a reason to embrace the Mac.

Embrace Windows Users

Some programs never need to be run over a network or share their files with a Windows PC. iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD are among the programs I don't see any reason to port to Windows. They are Mac exclusives, and they give people a reason to choose Macs over PCs.

But we live in a world of Macs, Windows, Pocket PCs, Palms, and more. There's no reason someone shouldn't be able to sync their iCal schedule with a Palm, Pocket PC, or Windows computer. For that reason, I think iCal is one of the first programs Apple should develop for alternate platforms. Imagine the pleasure of being able to use the same calendar program at home and work even though one computer is a Mac and the other runs Windows.

The universal Address Book in OS X is another program that should be portable not only between various types of computers, but also with as many cell phones as possible.

And port iSync over and use it to coordinate the data among the various pieces of hardware. All of these would make it much easier for those who use both platforms.

Left Behind

There's still another issue: software that exists for both platforms but doesn't provide the same functionality. This seems to be especially true with instant messaging software, such as the Mac version of Yahoo! Messenger that seems to work just fine - until you see how many more features the Windows version has.

This is something I hope to write about more in the future, the way we're often treated as poor relations to our rich Wintel cousins. The solution is evangelism, both by Apple Computer and Mac users, to convince developers that Mac versions should offer as many features from the Windows version as possible.

Push the Mac Advantage

We're making the case that Macs can do the same thing as Windows PCs, so it's important to have feature parity in software. We've also come up with a strategy to address the gaping hole in Apple's product line with a consumer Macintosh G4, which I'd guess would add a million units a year to Apple's hardware sales.

We're promoting the Mac as a platform that works and plays well with Windows PCs, a very important strategy since most of the installed base runs Windows. If we don't make it easy to network the platforms, share files, and just work together simply, we'll have a hard time convincing Windows users to switch or even add a Mac as their next computer.

Tomorrow we'll look at another Mac advantage that helps Mac users be more productive.