Mac Musings

Why Older Users Love Macs

Daniel Knight - 2006.12.04

According to a Metafacts report issued last week, over half of all Mac users quality for membership in the AARP (ages 50 and up). But according to Apple's Bill Evans, "only around 20 percent of Mac users are over the age of 55."

That would be below the 25.2% average for Windows users, which makes you wonder who is right. Are Macs less popular among older computer users than Windows PCs? Or are they nearly twice as popular as Windows PCs?

And how do you explain the huge discrepancy between Metafacts' 46% figure and Apple's "around 20%" number?

My guess is that they're counting different things. Apple is probably counting new Mac sales, while Metafacts appears to be looking at the installed base. Those are two very different things.

What accounts for the discrepancy? A lot of things - the longer working life of Macs vs. Windows PCs, the way Mac users recycle their computers to family members (especially parents) who either have no PC or have an ancient Windows PC, and the fact that Mac owners tend to be value conservatives.

'Value Conservatives'

There are people who will buy a better product at a premium price because they value quality and know it will outlast less costly, inferior products. That can apply to an Acura Legend, Craftsman tools, or Macintosh computers.

The focus isn't on raw horsepower (a faster computer is always just around the corner) or minimal price. It's on long-term computing value.

A lot of Mac users are still using G4 Power Macs, which were on the market from August 1999 through late 2003. Mine is a 2002 1 GHz dual model with 1.75 GB of RAM and a 250 GB 7200 rpm hard drive - and the stock CPU. It's plenty of power for 99% of what I do, and that 1% (video work) isn't important enough to justify an upgrade.

In fact, I've just swapped a 250 GB notebook hard drive for a 2000 450 MHz dual Power Mac G4. It's going to be a backup computer and a home network server. This machine is coming with 1 GB of RAM installed along with the original CPUs, 20 GB hard drive, and DVD-ROM drive. I'll be installing an 80 GB 7200 rpm hard drive and a SuperDrive, but as a "spare" computer, there's no need to upgrade the CPU.

From January 2001 until this past summer, I used a 400 MHz PowerBook G4. Over time I boosted RAM from 128 MB to 768 MB, and I replaced the original 10 GB hard drive with a 20 GB one, and later with a 40 GB drive. (Both newer drives were 5400 rpm models, which made a big difference.)

The PowerBook was a bit overtaxed with Tiger. I probably should have left OS X 10.3.x on it, but that's academic now. I got 5-1/2 years of use out of it, and when it broke (physically), I was able to part of most of it to the tune of about US$300.

Value Computing

Low End Mac has always been about "value computing" - knowing what your Mac is capable of, how it can be upgraded, determining when upgrading makes more sense than buying a newer Mac, knowing how to pick a newer Mac that meets your needs, etc.

We have readers who still love to use a Mac Plus for writing, as the only sounds you'll hear are the clacking of the keyboard and the floppy drive when you save your work. No fan. No internal hard drive.

Others are huge fans of the Quadra 660av and 840av, the first "AV" Macs - and computers that can still do a great job adding titles to videotape or even live video.

There is a cadre of people who love the PowerBook 100, codesigned by Apple and Sony, for its small size. It can be a great writing machine, and if you have a working battery, a great note taker in the field.

Others are still using Performas, pre-G3 PowerBooks, G3 iMacs, and millions of other older Macs, never seeing a need for anything more powerful than what they have.

The Installed Base

For a long time, the estimated installed base was 30 million Macs in use. When Apple was selling 3 million Macs a year, 90% of the machines in use were over a year old. With Apple approaching 5 million units per year, that still means 80% of the Macs in use are from 2005 and earlier - and probably 8% of all Macs in use don't have Intel Core CPUs. Let's assume an installed base of 35 million Macs based on sales growth in recent years.

Let's say Apple's figure of about 20% of new computer buyers being 55 or older. Over the past five years, Apple has sold about 17.5 million Macs. That means about 3.5 million are used by that demographic.

Of the other 17.5 million Macs in use - all over five years old - most are running the classic Mac OS (System 6.0.x through 9.2.2). If 46% of all Mac users are over 55 (approximately 16 million), then around 85% of those using these older Macs are over 55 (12.5 million out of 17.5 million).

That number seems a bit high. It doesn't factor in Macs under five years old that have been repurposed to users over 55, nor does it account for those Mac users who have passed the 55 mark since buying their Mac over the past five years. Nor does it factor in computers with multiple users, some over 55 and some under.

Still, it tells us a lot about the Mac installed base. Most (perhaps 75-80%) OS X users are under 55, probably something on the order of 75-80%. Most Mac users over the age of 55 are using older Macs and some version of the classic Mac OS.

What's Up with the Old Folks?

A lot of you grew up with personal computers. My boys did, starting with a Commodore VIC-20 in the early 1980s. Computers and connectivity are just part of the environment. That applies to pretty much everyone under 35.

Another group of us didn't grow up with personal computers, which only began to come into their own in the late 1970s. We saw the market grow from hobbyists to home users to business users to designers and musicians. We saw screens go from raw text to full color graphical screens with 3D images. We saw the move from cassette tape to floppy to hard drive.

For most of us, we made a choice to join the personal computer revolution. A few opted out, but most of us adopted the useful new tool. This is the 35-60 cadre.

Then there is the previous generation. A lot of them don't own PCs. A lot who do don't have Internet. A lot of them fear the Internet because of all the "bad stuff" out there - online porn, identity theft, chatroom predators, you name it.

A lot of those who have the Internet still use dialup. A lot of them use it just for email or maybe for email and a little browsing. They want to be able to stay in touch with the kids and grandkids and friends via email (rarely via instant messaging) and maybe be able to send and receive photos. A few might like services like MapQuest.

Most, but far from all, of these are not especially Internet savvy. They probably prefer to go to the library to do research rather than fire up Google. And for these low-end users, older Macs are a nearly perfect solution.

Why Old Macs?

The first thing these older Mac users don't have to worry about is malware. To date there are no known viruses for OS X in the wild, and the few for the classic Mac OS have long since been eradicated. No spyware. No secret keystroke loggers. No software to hijack their Mac and turn it into a mailbot.

The other factor is that Macs are simply a lot easier to learn than Windows PCs. Point. Click. Drag. Double-click. No extra mouse buttons. No silly "start" menu. A menu bar that stays put at the top of the screen rather than being tied to an application window. Drag and drop copying and deleting. The ability to easily pick their font and type size in the Finder.

Mac hardware is easier, too. The speakers are built in, so no sound cards and drivers and external speakers. The modem is built in on a lot of Macs, so no need for a third-party modem and its attendant software. Video is standard, so no need to buy a video card - which will also need drivers.

On top of all that, the Mac OS and Apple hardware tend to have great long-term reliability. When's the last time a Windows-using friend had to reinstall Windows? And when was the last time you had to reinstall the Mac OS? When was the last time a friend had a hardware failure in a Windows PC? And how often have you had hardware problems with your Mac?

Finally, it's easier to set someone up with a Mac, walk them through it, and leave them on their own. A lot less hand-holding. A lot more empowerment.

Seriously, if you wanted to hook up a recent retiree with a 1998 Mac or a 1998 Dell, which one do you think they'd find easier to learn (assuming minimal or no Windows experience)? Which one do you think they'll find more reliable year after year? And which one is going to give them the peace of mind of being able to run Microsoft Office (if they want to) and not have to worry about malware stealing their identity or hijacking their hardware?

This is the ideal market for the Mac. Every Mac advantage benefits this class of users, whether we're looking at 2006 Macintel models or 1996 Performas. And that's why, despite Apple only selling about 20% of new Macs to this older demographic, the Mac is disproportionately represented among those over 55.

A lot of us under 55 pick the Mac - including older, low-end models - for exactly the same reasons.

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