Mac Loyalists: Don't Tread on Us
By Leander Kahney
There are 25 million people around the world who use Macintosh computers, according to Apple. But unlike ordinary personal computers, people don't simply use Macs, they become fans. They develop a passion for the machines, which can sometimes turn into an obsession.
"Apple is like a strange drug that you just can't quite get enough of," the musician Barry Adamson told the Guardian newspaper. "They shouldn't call it Mac. They should call it crack!"
Mac loyalty is so well-known, it's a cliché. Mac users are routinely referred to as Apple's faithful, Mac zealots, members of the cult of Mac, Appleholics, Macheads, Maccies, Macolytes and Mac addicts. The biannual Macworld conference is often compared to a religious revival meeting, where Steve Jobs is worshipped like a rock star, or a charismatic cult leader.
The Mac community is arguably the largest subculture in computing. Mac enthusiasts -- as a group -- are probably more loyal, more dedicated than users of any other computer, perhaps even Linux. Linux and Unix users are, in fact, switching to Macs in droves.
What other computer inspires fans to get tattoos, personalized license plates, amass huge collections of ancient machines, build Mac aquariums, or proudly describe themselves as Mac fans, Mac freaks, Mac nuts? The Amiga, perhaps, but certainly not Dell, Compaq or Microsoft.
What makes Mac users so loyal?
The answer, of course, depends on who is asked: Marketers say it's the brand, psychologists say it's a social relationship, and Apple loyalists say it's the merits of the machine, its friendliness, its simplicity.
But some common themes emerge: community, the alternative to Microsoft, and the brand, which connotes nonconformity, liberty and creativity.
Mac users are not merely an ad hoc group of people who happen to use the same kind of computer. They represent a distinct subculture, with its own rituals, traditions and mindset.
"If you see somebody in an airport in London, or someplace down in Peru or something, and you see an Apple tag on their bag, or an Apple T-shirt, it's like the Deadheads … you have an instant friend," Chris Espinosa, one of Apple's earliest employees, told Stanford Library. "Most likely, you share something very core to your being with this person, which is a life outlook, a special vision."
One of the defining characteristics of the Mac community is its loyalty to Apple. Through thick and thin, Apple's customers stick by the company. This summer, Apple upset the Mac community by suddenly announcing a $100 annual subscription fee for its .Mac online services, which were formerly free. On top of this, an upgrade to OS X -- the kind of upgrade users usually don't pay for -- would cost $130.
The new pricing policies prompted howls of protest. Websites, online forums and news stories were full of acrimonious kvetching about "gouging" and "bait-and-switch." Long-time users launched petitions, fired off angry letters and for the first time in years, there were lots of threats to leave the Mac platform altogether.
But despite the howling, there's been no mass exodus to Windows. The opposite, in fact, seems to be true. Anecdotal evidence points to more and more people switching to the Mac.
Could other companies get away with this? Probably not. Yahoo and Hotmail, which provide free online e-mail, have started charging for extra services, but supply basic service for nothing. Likewise, Microsoft's latest update for Windows XP is free.
Andrew Lackey, a visiting professor of business and economics journalism at Boston University, said Apple's monopoly in the Mac business allows it to get away with things companies in a competitive market can't.
"With Apple you're a captive, and to some extent they abuse that privilege," Lackey said. "I would have thought Apple would be all folksy, like a Ben & Jerry's kind of company. But in my experience, PC companies are much more responsive."
The loyalty to Apple has led some to describe the Mac community as masochistic, the "punish me harder" brigade in the words of the Register.
"They eat it up," said Matthew Rothenberg, an editor at Ziff Davis and a longtime Apple watcher. "It's like a B&D (bondage and dominance) relationship. There needs to a psychosexual analysis of the Mac community."
Customer loyalty was the only thing that saved Apple during the late 1990s, when the company was in danger of going out of business, according to Gil Amelio, the CEO in charge at the time.
"It's the cult," Amelio told Computerworld. "It's what's kept the damn thing afloat through some of the most incredibly bad business decisions I've ever seen anywhere."
During this time, psychologist Ross Goldstein was commissioned by a rival computer manufacturer to figure out how to appeal to marooned Apple customers if the company went under.
Goldstein, a clinical psychologist with the B/R/S Group, a market research firm, recruited a number of Apple users for a focus group. To qualify, they had to agree they would consider migrating to Windows if Apple went out of business. But as soon as the session started, they all reversed themselves and said they'd never consider switching.
"They were steadfast in their resistance to moving over," Goldstein said. "It was humorous. They were picked because they might switch, but they all said, 'I'll be an Apple user until my dying keystrokes.' The degree of loyalty to the platform, and everything it represented, was so profound. It was fascinating."
Goldstein said participants' left brain, the logical side, was telling them they might have to switch if Apple went under. But the right brain, the emotional attachment to Apple, rejected it. There was a profound sense that Apple was one of them -- counterculture, grassroots, human, approachable, Goldstein said.
"Apple really appeals to the humanistic side of people," Goldstein said. "The image of the brand, the heritage, the experience. It really spoke to who they were."
By contrast, Microsoft was the dark enemy. "It was almost as though they were prisoners of war," Goldstein said. "Microsoft had taken over the computer world and they might have to go over, but they would not do so willingly."
As Goldstein discovered, for a lot of Mac fans, one of the major appeals of Apple is that it's not Microsoft.
To Mac users, Apple represents everything that Microsoft isn't. Apple innovates; Microsoft copies. Apple puts out solid products; Microsoft puts out buggy ones. Apple represents creativity and individuality; Microsoft represents business and conformity. Apple is the scrappy underdog; Microsoft the big, predatory monopoly.
Such is Mac users' derision, Microsoft is commonly referred to as Micro$oft, Microshaft or Microshit. Bill Gates, of course, is the antichrist. There's the common perception that Gates is in business for every penny he can get, while Apple exists to create great technology -- to change the world, in Steve Jobs' words. For Apple, turning a profit is secondary.
"There's a lot of ill will towards Microsoft for a lot of reasons," said Steve Manning, co-founder of
A Hundred Monkeys, a brand consultancy in Sausalito, California.
"Microsoft crams a bad system down peoples' throats. It's the evil empire, big brother, a monolithic corporation. Apple has done a lot of things right in the way they position themselves and the way they speak to the world." Manning said that while he's obliged to use a Windows machine at work, he went out and bought several Macs for his home.
Like a lot of Mac fans, he enjoys the feeling that he's in control of his computer, rather than Microsoft.
"At home, its nice to use a machine that the corporation can't force you to use," he said. "It's mine. It's personal. This is mine and you can't taint it."