• The Mac Hardware Report: How Old is Old?

    February 12th, 2005

    If you’re the type who buys a another Mac whenever a new model comes out, it probably doesn’t make sense to read any further. Very little of what I say will interest you, and I just hope you have enough money to support your habit. In any case, I have always begun to feel my computers are getting a little long in the tooth after two years or so, but that’s a consequence of the kind of work I do. It won’t apply to many of you, simply because you rarely have reason to feel your Mac is out of date that quickly.

    Just the other day, I visited a client, a retiree in his late 70s, who wanted a memory upgrade for his bondi blue iMac, a so-called Rev. B version. It had been in regular use since the fall of 1998, but the client began to feel of late that he’d like to be able to run more applications without running dealing with the performance hit caused by virtual memory. No, he hadn’t switched to Mac OS X, although he asked me about it. Since my visit and the cost of the memory represented about the limit of what he wanted to spend, I urged him to think about the future instead, about a time when he would want to buy a new computer.

    His vintage iMac was kept in great condition, other than the usual broken connection panel cover. Despite the typically dusty Arizona environment, the iMac’s chassis was pretty clean, with hardly a trace of dust. It hadn’t been opened since he purchased the unit, at which time the dealer installed some extra memory in the upper slot. That memory was removed to make way for the 256MB module I ordered for him.

    In a few minutes, everything was up and running, and I noticed that the software lineup hadn’t changed since it was purchased, except for the addition of Microsoft Office 2001 and the upgrade to Mac OS 9. After spending a few moments with his iMac, the client said he felt the memory upgrade had done the trick, and seemed content. No, he didn’t intend to make any further investments in computers for a while, although I suggested the Mac mini and a low-cost display as an ideal upgrade when he was ready.

    To him, his iMac, now over six years old, had plenty of mileage left, and I tended to agree. For Internet access and occasional word processing chores, it was the perfect computer. Now some of us may feel Mac OS 9 was dead and buried, but to him it didn’t matter. He was accustomed to it, and it would probably be a bit of a chore to convert him to Mac OS X, although that time would eventually come.

    The longevity of this particular iMac isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s quite normal, and, except for a major hardware failure, I’ve seen Macs purring along for as much as a decade or more. In the PC world, that’s very old, and I rarely see a Windows PC hold up that long before being consigned to the hall closet. The longevity element is missing in most of the reports you read about the state of the Mac’s market share. Yes, it may be less than three percent when you use current sales as a guide. But those figures don’t take into account how long Macs remain productive in homes and offices. Over the years, Mac users like you replace computers far less frequently than your Windows counterparts. You’d almost think that the cheap boxes from Dell and others are designed to become obsolete real fast, perhaps like the $50 VCR.

    Go ahead and do the math. Now if a Mac, for example, remained in use twice as long as a Windows PC, and that’s probably a good estimate, a market share in the low single figures isn’t all that bad. I wish it were better, but the Mac user base seems to stick at around 25 million, give or take a few. So it really isn’t getting any worse. Last I heard, the number of Mac OS X users amounted to about 14 million, which is pretty good when you consider that a large number of those older Macs aren’t capable of running the latest and greatest operating system. Or at least, not officially.

    Bear in mind that the early generation iMac I worked on could Mac OS X Panther with acceptable performance. For the type of work that client performed, he probably wouldn’t notice any significant change after the operating system upgrade. Now take a six year old Windows box and tell me how well it’ll run Windows XP, assuming the installation was successful, and that isn’t always predictable.

    Of course, Apple would rather have my client buy new Macs a lot more frequently, and perhaps hand off that iMac to his grandchildren. These days, however, Apple’s best shot at growing market share is to convince Windows users that they’ve had enough grief with malware infections and that it’s time to wake up and smell the roses.

    During one of the interviews on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I predicted that Apple would sell as much as five million Mac minis during its first year. Most of those sales will not go to existing Mac users, unless you need an extra computer for your home or office. No, it’ll go to Windows users who were exposed to Apple’s technology courtesy of that hot-selling stealth fighter, the iPod.

    As far as that bondi blue iMac is concerned, I expect it’ll keep on ticking for years to come. And that is definitely a good thing.

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