One — but only one — reason for Apple’s appeal is that Apple products are luxury goods. (I’ll get to the second reason in a moment.) Apple products compete on design, not price. The Apple stores, with their hardwood floors and wide open spaces, are modeled after a luxury car showroom, and don’t share the convenience store layout and shelving of other computer stores.
Focusing on the high end of the market is a reasonable strategy1. (Sony is trying it with the VAIO.) In an area that depends on third parties to create programs and peripherals, this strategy has a benefit beyond high profit margins. Hardware and software makers are disproportionately interested in Apple’s customers, because these customers have shown themselves to be disproportionately willing to spend money on computer products. This is why Apple can have 1% of the desktop market but — unlike Linux in 2004 — command compatibility from web sites and large software vendors. Selling to Apple customers is like opening a store in Beverly Hills; if the products are good enough to sell there, it’s worth the real estate cost.
However, there’s another appeal to the Macintosh: the absence of choice. When I had thought my next computer would be a PC, I was beset by a number of decisions: laptop or tablet? full tablet or convertible? faster than my old computer, or lighter? or brighter screen? Once a series of viruses2 convinced me to switch to a Macintosh, the whole decision process became simpler: Did I want the big laptop or the little one? By deciding to buy a Macintosh, I had given up even the possibility of buying a tablet computer, an ultraportable, or a honking media monster with a super-bright screen — and, contrary to what I had expected, this surrender was a huge relief3.
This lack of choice, coupled with the quality of the choices that do remain, is something I’ve found all across the platform. There seem to be at least hundreds of times more programs for Windows than there are for the Mac. Most of these programs are crap. For a while I maintained both a PC (my work computer) and Macintosh (at home). When I needed a draw, or chat, or email program, say, the pattern seemed to be this: On the PC, there were a few dozen programs to evaluate. On the Macintosh, there would only be one or two. But the best Macintosh program was comparable to the best Windows program: sometimes a little bit worse, more often a little better4. The real difference was that on the Macintosh, I could skip the evaluation process. Which leads to the other reason that I switched to the Macintosh: despite the greater number of programs available for the PC, the ones that I ended up both being able to find and wanting to use, ran on the Mac.
One could go into why the average program is better on the Macintosh. Some candidate reasons have to do with what the value rankings of people who buy Macintoshes versus PCs, or what motivates someone to develop a program for the Mac versus the PC, or how the nature of ones programming environment affects the kind of program one creates. What struck me instead is the relief of not having choice, or, of having ones choices made for you. It’s like going into, not a luxury goods store, but a boutique. In a luxury store, the brands are better, and the quality is higher, but you’re still doing your own shopping. In a boutique, the owner has picked out one or a few of each item, so that if you trust their taste, you don’t have to choose. (Trader Joe’s is another example of a company that has mass-produced the boutique.) The Macintosh ecosystem isn’t a single person with a single design sensibility. But Apple, through a combination of design leadership and price-imposed exclusivity, has managed to turn it into a boutique.
Focusing on the high end is a reasonable strategy”: “Clayton Christensen warns about the danger of “retreating upmarket”: that as products or their components become commoditized, one is vulnerable to an “attack from downmarket”. This is true for a company operating within a single product category. Apple has shown repeatable success in either introducing or dominating new categories: the personal computer, the high-end laptop, the modern all-in-one desktop computer, the wireless base station, the hard disk music player. ↩
“a series of viruses”: I wasn’t actually infected by any of them until Windows XP Service Pack 2, which destroyed much of the remaining utility of my mostly locked-down PC. ↩
“this surrender [of choice] was a huge relief”: Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice describes this phenomenon. I haven’t read the book yet (I’ve just read the reviews), so I don’t know whether it describes the Macintosh. ↩
“more often a little worse”: I ended up with Thunderbird on the PC, but Apple’s Mail client’s ability to perform offline edits on IMAP mailboxes were a generation beyond this. I was never able to find anything on Windows that compared to the combination of power and simplicity in OmniGraffle. ↩