The Mac Webb

How OS X Is Growing the Mac User Base

- 2002.05.22

About three times a year, Mac fans begin to anticipate the latest release from Cupertino. Speculation regarding the next Apple release floods across the Internet with speed and energy rarely equaled.

It is a tribute to Apple design sensibilities and Apple fans that this phenomena occurs. I know of no rumor sites for Compaq, Gateway, Dell, or HP. Few message boards discuss the latest Wintel hardware in depth. Only Apple builds computers which capture the imagination of users.

This month is no different. With the World Wide Developers conference over the last year, the Macintosh user base has made a slow but amazing change in overall makeup. At this time in 2000, the Macintosh audience was dominated by those who simply needed to "get things done." They cared little about the inner workings of the OS; they simply wanted to be able to sit down at a computer and perform the task at hand. Apple was putting out some wonderful systems, as always, and continuing to dominate in the education and creative communities.

A funny thing happened on the way to 12 o'clock hour for OS X. The Macintosh faithful, ever the standard bearers for simple GUI computing, have become command line power users. I am amazed by how many of my friends in the Macintosh community have found that the command line is nothing to be feared. Not only have they learned terminal commands to better understand OS X, they have had enough interest piqued to install Linux distributions as alternate OSes.

I have always considered myself a power user, capable of handling most any task or trial thrown at me by Windows and the Classic Mac OS. I could work the Windows command line as needed and still remember the great pains it took to get DOS games to run back in the day.

With my transition to OS X, a whole new world opened up to me. I suddenly had the computer equivalent to a tutor, giving me access to as much of the command line as I wanted. I suddenly found myself interested in running FTP commands without a GUI, trying SSH, and setting up sendmail. The wonderful thing was that I did not have to learn the command line, but I could do so at my leisure without fear of making a total mess of things. OS X helped me learn a few pieces at a time, without requiring the total immersion of Unix or Linux.

My traditional Macintosh friends are suddenly using the keyboard as often as they used the mouse. And then, something even more interesting occurred. A new group of users appeared on the horizon. Apple found a large group of extreme power users who spent the last years using nothing but command line and gave them something they never had - the ability to buy Unix-based product at the local mall. This group could now depend on Apple support and enjoy Apple style while still getting the job done on the command line. I know of a handful of my Unix-based comrades who are suddenly sporting iBooks, PowerBooks, and soon Xserve machines. They love the superior craftsmanship coupled with the newfound Unix core.


The strangest aspect of the change in audience is how well these groups seem to integrate. Attend your local user group meeting, and you will see users from the most varied of computer background discussing their love of the OS. Teachers ask questions about Apache with Unix power users, graphic artists discuss the benefits of moving swap files to improve performance, and business users discuss the use of OS X on corporate networks.

Never before has such as disparate group of computer users come together. Apple seems to have found the holy grail in computing, an OS that appeals to the entire spectrum of computer users.

The transition that allows the new users was not without its casualties among the older Mac fan base. Many prefer Classic and feel much of the charm of the old OS has been lost. High system requirements for OS X have kept others from taking the plunge. Additionally, many users - no longer scared of command line - have moved to Linux and its promise of open source and free applications. This loss is natural, as change this drastic rarely pleases everyone.

The key to Apple's success is in growing the user base. For the last decade, Apple has sold new systems to existing users, never really growing the core audience. With the transition to OS X, Apple has welcomed the addition of Unix fans and new developers to the fold.

Assuming Apple maintains its strength in education and creative markets, the ability to add users from previously unreachable sectors will only help grow the important user base. This will strengthen the developer community and insure strength in our beloved company. Ironic that all of these changes come from the addition of something Apple once vilified, the command line. LEM

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