Sunday, October 21, 2012

What's the deal with Apple Computers?

I recently received a Macbook Air from my new job.  I started using my first Mac when I was in diapers but I haven't owned one since I was 14 (incidentally this time period roughly coincides with Steve Job's period away from Apple).  Since becoming a Windows (and later Ubuntu Linux) user I had developed a minor disapproval for Apple Computers as well as their business model, since using my new Mac I've had some new thoughts on what makes Apple so distinct.

Most customers have some brand loyalty toward the products they buy, Apple is an example of a company that inspires fierce brand loyalty in its customers.  Apple consumers are so loyal that they are willing to spend more for Apple products than comparable non-Apple products, PC World Magazine estimates the cost between equivalent PC and Mac computers to be between $300 and $500.

Apple products are well designed, innovative and all work well together.  But unlike most other products, it can be hard to switch from Apple to another brand.  I've spoken with many Mac/iPhone users who feel that they couldn't adequately learn to use a new system and thus can't switch to a new device.  Most people manage to transition to using Apple products without much trouble, so it seems as if Apple usage can only grow, perhaps justifying the company's impressive stock price.

At a fundamental level, there isn't a difference between Mac computer and other computers (or between iPads, iPhones and iPods and all the other phones, mp3 players and tablets/ereaders).  All these devices have ways of displaying information, input devices to receive information and ways of computing information.  The screens, keypads/touchpads, and operating systems make the devices look and feel different, but below the surface, where the actual computing occurs they are about as similar as Pepsi and Coke.  So, why are Apple users willing to pay so much more for their devices?

Henry Ford is alleged to have said that his customers could have a car in any color they wanted as long as it was black, which was efficient because black paint dries faster than any other color.  So Ford saved some money in producing his cars, but since customers are willing to pay extra for products that look good and are easy to use probably lost money by denying customers a choice in color.  Manual transmission have many advantages over automatic transmissions: they cost less, they generally get better gas mileage, they are easier to fix and they give the driver more control over the vehicle.  Despite these advantages, manual transmissions are being produced less and less within the US and may eventually only be available on sports cars or large trucks.  The reason why is clear, they are harder to use than automatics.  It's not incredibly hard to drive a manual, in some areas outside of the US the majority of cars are manuals.  In most of those countries, cars are more of a luxury.  The suggestion the history of car user interfaces suggests for the future of computers is a trend towards computers which are easier to use at the expense of efficiency and affordability.  So the important question isn't why are Apple consumers paying for more for their computer but why aren't Apple's competitors using Mac OS and paying more attention to the design and usability of their computers?

Mac products exist within what technologists call a walled garden, Apple controls the interactions between Mac products and third party software and hardware.  This explains why their software is generally of better quality (but also why much software, some of it very useful isn't available for Macs).  Additionally, this policy is partly why viruses infect Windows machines more than Macs (which is suggested by the sterile appearance and hospital-white color of Apple products).

Microsoft took a different approach to distributing its software than Apple did, there are limitations to how third party software and hardware can interact with Windows and Microsoft products, but these limitations are not nearly as stringent as Apple's.  Microsoft made a large effort to make all computer hardware compatible with its operating system, in doing so it almost became a complete monopoly but it allowed businesses to exchange information without having to worry about different data formats.   Microsoft applied same philosophy to software, it's relatively easy for a software developer to create a product which windows user can download and use (though some of these products will be viruses).  Though some form of the  windows operating system is on about 90% of computers (and it is possible to install Windows on a Macintosh computer), Microsoft doesn't manufacture any of the computers that use its software.

Apple manufactures both software and hardware and instead of trying to get its software onto other manufacturers hardware it actively prevents them from doing so.  Their goal is to have 100% of computers running the Mac OS to be manufactured by Apple.  Independent individuals create 'Hackintoshes' with regular hardware and the Mac OS to avoid paying the $300-$500 premium, but when Psystar (a Miami based computer company) tried to sell Mac OS on computers they'd manufactured themselves, Apple filed a legal injunction preventing them from doing so.  Apple's walled garden policy has also led to their devices having cables which are different from the standardized PC cables (and naturally cost more).

Mac products are better designed and it is easier to use them for elementary tasks, but in a world where digital literacy is increasingly important, Apple is doing a disservice to its customers.  When I got my first Windows machine, I spent a lot of time figuring out how it worked, there were some things that I couldn't initially figure out how to do but I persevered and learned lessons about how my machine worked.  Discovering how to use a computer is a frustrating yet educational process, but Apple's walled garden policy prevents users from understanding much of how their device works.  Linux/Unix machines are even more frustrating and educational than Windows machines, but since their source code is openly available, you can modify them to your heart's desire and distribute your modifications to whoever you want (you need to be computer savvy to do so).  The flexibility of Unix led Steve Jobs to use the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) branch of it to recreate the Mac OS, by adding aesthetically pleasing design he was able to charge costumers for what they could get for free.

Since I've used my Macbook Air for a while, the initial appeal has worn off I've had several complaints about its design:

  • the sharp edges of the computer give me wrist pains as I type
  • whenever I alter the volume I hear an annoying beep, interrupting whatever I'm listening to
  •  the lack of a screen protector has left dust on my monitor that I can't clean easily with my finger 
  • the white body of my computer makes the minor specks of dust much more visible
  • the lack of the traditional pg up, pg dn, home and end keys make navigating documents harder
  •  the lack of a delete and backspace key makes editing mistakes slightly less convenient(Macs just have delete, which does what backspace does on PCs, the delete function should let you remove characters to the right of your cursor rather than the left)
  • The single button mouse prevents me from doing what I could do on another system 
  • The scrollbar isn't always visible.  
  • There's no easy way to see all the programs I have without opening a new program (Mission Control)
  • There's no CD/DVD drive so I can't play movies or install certain software
So the race to design a perfect user interface for a computer isn't over just yet.  Apple may be in the lead, but there's still a long way to the finish line and it Apple's competitors would realize the importance of design and take some risks and deviate from the standard black box-like machine running Windows, they might become even more successful than Apple.