Why the Mac is Poised for the Mainstream

August 23rd, 2007

As much as the Mac has been marketed as “the computer for the rest of us,” their definition of “us,” as often or not, was regarded as the well-heeled through much of the company’s history. Indeed, the progenitor of the first Mac, the Apple Lisa, cost roughly ten grand, way beyond the budgets of most people who might have been the product’s target audience.

Even at $2,500, the first Mac was considered a costly machine, considering that it came with very little software, and limited expandability. They say first impressions count for everything, and it’s quite possible Apple’s reputation for selling overpriced, underpowered hardware began then and there.

To be sure, after Steve Jobs was bounced from the company, executive greed resulted in keeping Macs expensive, so businesses seeking commodity hardware were easily shut out. Microsoft was only too happy to convinced them buy a cheap PC clone and struggle along with the various and sundry attempts to make the Windows “shell” function on its MS-DOS foundation.

I don’t want to say that Macs were necessarily bad way back when. I owned a number of them during the early days, and no other personal computer was as user-friendly, reliable and productive. And that’s before the mass market’s acceptance of the Internet, and the malware plague that engulfed the Windows platform.

Yes, some home users and most content creators came to adore their Macs, but you could hardly call that a mainstream audience. Apple’s bad rap over the years remained the same, that Macs were expensive playthings for the wealthy and there wasn’t enough software available. Business users? No company in its right mind would ever consider a Mac except for the eccentrics in its graphics department. They aren’t meant for “serious” work, such as spreadsheets and word processing.

One of the most important changes that Steve Jobs made when he took over as Apple CEO a decade ago was to get rid of the dead wood. As many executives were apt to do when fixing a troubled company, Jobs moved Apple back to its core business. Forget digital cameras, printers and even the Newton. Build the best personal computers on the planet and make them affordable for regular people.

So, in 1998, you could consider the first Bondi blue iMac, listing for $1,299, as quite affordable for an all-in-one computer, although it would take years for Apple to lose most of its reputation as building premium-priced hardware. Even today, some still believe the Mac is necessarily more expensive than a comparably equipped PC, but that’s no longer true.

For a time, though, it seemed as if the best Jobs could do, with all his pomp and circumstance, was to deliver flashy products and essentially keep Apple from shedding any more market share, although it did continue to drop for a while.

However, there has been a confluence of events that has made it possible for the Mac to, at long last, become a genuine mainstream product. I can’t say whether this was what Jobs and his cohorts at Apple planned this all along. Sometimes things just happen, and a smart executive will know how to take advantage of a good opportunity when it arises.

In this case, the opportunity came in a roundabout way, first with the iPod. Did Apple know they’d sell 100 million of those things in the space of a few years and come to own the digital music player market? Was that something they planned all along? Well, maybe they had hopes that it would ultimately expand to the Windows platform, and that iTunes would overtake the market and become a top-tier music retailer. But nobody is that smart. They were in the right place at the right time.

The iPod also gave PC users a direct exposure to Apple technology, and they were able to compare those gadgets to the growing misery of keeping Windows running properly. Microsoft also did its share to shoot itself in the foot, taking years to build Windows Vista, which has garnered a well-earned reputation as being slow, resource intensive, and unusually buggy. Many businesses just won’t touch it until the SP1 update, in the hope the most serious defects will be addressed. And, in fact, many customers order their new PCs with Windows XP, and will absolutely not accept Vista, at least for now.

In contrast, Macs seem to just purr along. Yes they’re far from perfect, but most of the ills that engulf the PC platform rarely occur on Macs. Spurred by extraordinary demand for Apple’s note-books, and growing demand for its desktops, the company has reportedly moved just behind Dell and HP in U.S. retail sales recently, and few are suggesting that Mac sales have reached a plateau.

Current expectations call for sales of over two million Macs in the current quarter alone, and calling them mainstream is no longer a pipe-dream. It’s a reality.

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3 Responses to “Why the Mac is Poised for the Mainstream”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    There are two possible drawbacks to Macs becoming mainstream. First, it is maybe not entirely clear yet whether the Mac is relatively immune to viruses, security intrusions, etc. etc. because Unix is genuinely safer than Windows or (as is claimed by Symantec, who admittedly has a financial stake in the matter) because as long as the Mac was a niche product it didn’t attract the attention of virus-writers, etc. If the Mac gets a larger market share, we are going to find out which is the true reason. Second, federal, state and foreign regulatory agencies have been so intent on going after Microsoft’s monopolistic practices that they haven’t paid much attention to Apple’s business policies (except for EU objections to the i-Tunes Store distribution model). They have probably seen Apple mostly as a welcome counterbalance to Microsoft. This too will change, and some of Apple’s policies will probably get a lot closer scrutiny: for example, Apple’s control of the price of a Mac at the wholesale level is not monopolistic, but I am not so sure about its control of the price at the retail level.

  2. John says:

    Actually, the Supreme Court this year overturned 96 years of precedent and now allows manufacturers to set minimum prices for products. So much for that issue.

    While it is likely that OS X is not perfectly safe it is definitely far safer than windows. This has been hashed to death elsewhere. Partly it is the lack of legacy code which haunts windows. Partly it is because Apple ships OS X with most dangerous options turned off. Partly it is the use of Unix.

    This only affects people who try to be safe. It does not stop people from opening email attachments they shouldn’t nor protect them from so called social viruses.

  3. The Mac is a Marine. Windows is a pudgy tourist with a video camera hanging around his neck and a wallet dangling from his back pocket. There is one Marine on the street and nine pudgy tourists. Who’s wallet are you going to steal? Conversely, there are nine Marines on the street and one pudgy tourist. Who’s wallet are you going to steal?

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