What if Macs Suddenly Became Popular?

January 8th, 2005

When it comes to the little corner of the world we occupy, we live in strange times. You and I have become accustomed to the fact that Macs are considered niche products, ignored by most PC buyers, but incredibly popular when it comes to getting a lot of great press. But there’s a strong feeling that things are poised for a change, and that change may begin with the announcements emerging from the Macworld Expo next week.

But think about the unique status of the dedicated Mac user. I mean, how many people run Web sites devoted to the latest and greatest from Dell? How many even care? You’d probably show more concern about the newest toaster oven from Black & Decker. Does Michael Dell even have a fan club? And if so, why?

It has become comfortable to be different. When I first began using Macs in the 1980s, I remember trying to buy new software, only to discover that Mac compatible products were relegated to a shelf or two at the rear of the store. Even then, the titles were covered with dust, and usually out of date. What would have happened if Apple began its chain of retail stores way back then? In retrospect, probably not a lot. The confluence of forces hadn’t occurred, and the chain would probably not have done any better than Gateway. Better to be late to the party than an early loser.

In a sense we’re lucky. By dominating the PC market, Windows became the target for malware. Yes, there have been Mac viruses through the years, and some of them were downright destructive. In fact, if virus authors targeted the original Mac operating system for major infections to anything near the level that they target Windows, we wouldn’t be sitting here laughing at the situation on the other side of the tracks.

Being a niche player has its advantages. But what will happen if the new products expected from Apple really appear? Yes, I suppose those lawsuits confirm the details, and expectations are so high that Apple would probably be forced to introduce them even if it had other plans. For example, a cheap iMac, eMac, or whatever would likely cut right into the heart of the low-end PC market. Why pay $499 for a Dell when you could get a genuine Macintosh, complete with all the great iLife software, Mac OS X and all the rest, for the same price?

The timing is perfect. How many Windows users are really happy with their computers these days, what with all the pitfalls? While IT people may enjoy the overtime, if they get overtime of course, the rest of a company’s staff either try to ignore the problems or just tolerate them as perfectly normal behavior. We live in such a dangerous world, that a dangerous computer isn’t so surprising, although a highly infected PC almost seems to be a living creature, one bent on wreaking mischief whenever it can.

While I don’t expect to see the Mac take off as rapidly or as thoroughly as the iPod, those market share percentages are surely going to increase by a fair degree. Consider the cottage industry that’s grown around the iPod, and given mainstream status to companies that used to be tiny players in the business. Now imagine Macs with double or triple the market share. Imagine sales people in consumer electronic stores actually encouraging you to buy a Mac rather than one of those anonymous PC boxes.

A dream come true, or a sad end to our unique status in the technology universe? Possible a bit of both. But there are probably downsides to all this joy. For one thing, some of the hazards faced by Windows users may, in part, migrate to the Mac universe.

Now even though Mac OS X is less vulnerable to computer viruses, it isn’t immune by any means. There are security leaks from time to time, which is why Apple releases occasional updates to close those leaks. Take the past as a guide, and don’t be surprised if a sudden spate of viruses appears. Spyware? Well, possibly. While applications can’t install themselves under Mac OS X without your express approval, some less experienced users might fill out password prompts without thinking. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility to see a Mac inundated with all the pop-ups that PC users routinely confront.

Today, most Mac users ignore virus software, or Internet protection programs. But if the Mac’s market share began to return to 5% or even the magic double digits level, it would become a compelling target. Yes, the computing world will be a whole lot better, but there will be a few hazards too, and it wouldn’t be hurt to be prepared.

You may even long for the good old days.

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