August 15, 2008 § 3 Comments
Two years ago, my grad school department loaned me a Mac laptop for use during my time at school (a very nice perk, indeed). However, as a dedicated Windows PC user, I was hesitant to make the switch–dreading it a bit, really. I was dreading it because I didn’t like how controlled the Mac environment is, how a user can’t easily dig in to the hardware, make upgrades, or build their own. There were a lot of other little things, too, seemingly inconsequential things, but I didn’t like how the x-out for a window is in the upper-lefthand corner. It just felt all wrong.
At the beginning of this foray into the world of Mac, I voiced these concerns to an Industrial Design professor when I said, “I don’t like how I can’t really work on a Mac, tear them apart, build my own, things like that.”
He quickly replied, “The bigger question is, ‘Why should you have to?'”
And a very dim lightbulb flicked on in my head. “Interesting.”
During my next two years in design school, I thought about this quite a bit. Had discussions about it with fellow designers and other computer folks. And what became clear was that Apple works under a different business model metaphor than a company like Microsoft does.
Think: GM 1985 vs Honda 1995
Which one do you think is GM? Which one do you think is Honda? Why?
The reason people will likely point to first is aesthetic. But really, this isn’t as true as it once was, not with Sony and others making good-looking computers. (And while we’re at it, this metaphor has nothing to do with speed or power or anything like that.)
The deeper reason is in the consumer experience. Apple manages their entire product and service from head to toe, completely vertically integrated. They do this because they want the consumer to have a certain experience when they buy the computer, when they use the computer, and when they need to fix the computer. For Apple, the only thing a user should ever really worry about is using the computer. Just like owning a new Honda.
On the other hand, PCs (and Microsoft) are like GM. There are many different makers, sellers, and suppliers, you can modify it, you can work on it, you can have anyone else work on it, and if you’re really good, you can even build it from the ground up (not that you can build a GM car from the ground up, but you get the idea). Sometimes, you can even use GM parts on non-GM cars. Pretty remarkable, really.
And you can follow this metaphor all the way through, from the different Mac models and specs, warrantees, Mac’s outsourcing of production all the way to typical resale values and on and on.
But people love to argue about the merits and costs of Macs vs PCs without considering this difference and its deeper implications. Some of the more common refrains are that people who own Macs are snobby morons who don’t know anything about computers and end up overpaying for them. And the Mac people complain that PC users don’t know what they’re missing and that the user experience of a Mac far exceeds that of a PC, something PC users underestimate the value of.
While both of these arguments may have merit, what always seems to be missing in these arguments is this question: If you are a general consumer of computers, which 75% of us are, why should you have to know anything technical about your computer to make it work? Shouldn’t it just work? And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t there be a place for you to take it to get it fixed? Just like if you bought a brand new car?
Yes, Apple asks a premium to be paid for this. Not just in dollars, but in total freedom of computer choice. For Apple, though, these are deliberate decisions, part of reducing consumer stress, streamlining the process, designing the experience, and getting you in the seat of a brand new car. What you get in return is a high-quality computer that needs little maintenance, a long shelf life, a generally high resale value, and if you ask most Apple users, a better user experience—something that’s hard to put an exact value on.
So ask yourself this: Are people who drive Hondas smart or dumb?