Anti-Buzz: Mac vs. Windows (Again), Part 3

newface-620x461So I will wrap up talking about the Macintosh brand by discussing what I think the appeal is to the average user. Since last week I found this article detailing why developers might prefer a Mac, and I think it is very good read. A lot of what I have already said is in there, and it offers a very balanced view of what is and isn’t good about Macintosh computers – read it if you have found yourself wanting more detail about the things I have already discussed.

Before I go much further, I should make certain I don’t lead you astray: I don’t think Macs are a good option for a dental office. The above article lists some drawbacks for Mac and two of them are very relevant to your situation: price, (which we’ve already discussed extensively), and software. You simply don’t have the software options on a Mac, and you’re paying extra money to boot. There are real advantages to using a Mac, but few of them will provide much value to a dental office.

The article doesn’t fully address the exodus among casual users. In fact, searching the Internet for an explanation of why casual users might prefer Macs yields unhelpful results as most of what is out there is essentially just propaganda either for or against the brand. I had hoped a few Mac users would show up here and help explain the allure. In their absence, I’m going to do my best to speak for them.

When I’ve had occasion to ask a Mac user, especially one who had happily transitioned from using Windows, why they preferred the brand, answers have landed in one of three buckets.

  1. Bromides: “It’s just easier” “It just works.” “Less hassle.” “More intuitive.” etc.
  2. Support: Customer service is much better than it was when using Windows.
  3. Software: The user enjoys a specific piece of software, and it is not available in Windows.

I’m going to immediately brush aside bucket #3, as it’s the only one that does not apply broadly. There is some Mac-exclusive software that might be very good at what it does, and it may even be that a particular user is enjoying such a piece of software, but as a general rule there is no niche for which the Macintosh offers more versatile software options than Windows; in fact, availability of software is the primary argument for Windows. There are some platitude left over from 20 years ago that may leave some people assuming that Macs are somehow inherently better at graphic design or film editing or [insert pet application here] and its simply not true. As machines, there’s nothing “more graphicsy” about Macs. If there is a software suite that is Mac-only and you find it preferable to anything on Windows, that’s great but it’s not a particularly strong argument for devotion to an entire platform. There’s nothing to prevent your favorite software from becoming discontinued, (or ‘updated’ into something you don’t like anymore), and nothing to prevent the competing Windows software from adopting whatever design or features you find preferable. Resting your brand-loyalty to something as temporary as niche software superiority is fool hardy.

The other two buckets are more realistic – yes even the vague bromides. The customer support claim is simple enough to understand, because it is plainly true. Apple customer support is pretty terrific. I know people who love the fact that if anything is troubling them with their computer, they can just head down to the Apple store and get some free help. You don’t get this experience with anything other than Apple. End of story.

The bromides however, might seem irksome. What’s troubling about listening to a Mac user talk about how their machines is “less hassle” is that it’s vague. It doesn’t quantify anything about the experience of using Windows or Mac OS X. The truth of the statement is hard to verify without some months of uncynical Mac use. Worse, simple bromides do little to assuage the notion that Mac users are just dazzled by the branding and their preference has little objective merit. In truth, branding has a lot to do with the mass appeal of Macs, but not in the way you might think.

A key difference between Windows and Apple is that Windows is an operating system and Apple is a brand. Microsoft is a company that develops Windows, an operating systems that appears on machines built by Dell and Lenovo and Acer and Toshiba and many others. Apple is a company that makes Apple computers. Apple controls the entire product and your entire experience. There are disadvantages to this, but the advantages are that Apple gets to make certain that your experience is consistent and nice. The aforementioned customer support illustrates this well. You can have a centralized support experience because only one company is responsible for the product you are using. If you buy a Dell and are having problems, Microsoft might not be able to help because of hardware decisions Dell made, and Dell might not be able to help because of software decisions Microsoft made.

So, uncynically, yes the Apple brand is one of the major appeals to the common user. It is appealing to use a product designed from one source, instead of cobbled together by committee. Exacerbating this is the plain fact that many manufacturers take liberties with the systems they deploy. Microsoft has little control over what Dell or Acer do to your machine before they give it to you, and it is pretty common practice for manufacturers to add bells and whistles that “brand” the machine as a Dell or Acer or Lenovo. However, this branding more or less amounts to slower boot up times, slower performance overall, constant balloons and reminders that you are free to pay a monthly subscription fee for advanced customer support if you want. In the end it all reeks of planned obsolescence – many Windows machines are slapped together by people who want you to hurry up and get sick the computer already so you buy a new one. So, yes, in a very quantifiable way, Macs are less hassle. Users of some skill are capable of either building their own machine or “unbranding” their prefabs, but when casual users make the switch, they often go from a brand that they have to constantly trip over to a brand that gets out of their way and lets them use their computer.

The final push comes from the fact that Apple doesn’t offer any low-end models, (which has more to do with their unwillingness to fight over low profit margins with all the other manufacturers than any snobbery), and many Windows refugees are coming from low-end Windows machines. Someone who dumps their $700 Dell for a $2,000 Macbook is undoubtedly going to have a better time; they just bought a better, newer computer. I’m not certain, but I imagine that some people conflate the power of their Mac with the power of all computers in a higher price range.

My final thoughts on the matter are that I find it somewhat amusing that people can have such fierce brand loyalty. There are people who fiercely prefer Coke to Pepsi, but there is little talk of how annoying Coke snobs are. Your preferred brand of computer requires personal investment from you, and impacts your day-to-day productivity, and you want to feel you made the right choice. If a restaurant doesn’t serve Coke, the Coke snob’s happiness is effected pretty negligibly, nor do they feel the wisdom of their brand loyalty under attack. Mac and Windows users can be defensive about their choice, and can sound like they are arguing about the merits of their religion when they get to arguing. The issues at stake are your time and your productivity, and if you feel you are making the correct decisions in regards to those things, angry brand loyalty is never required.

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