Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Cult of the Mac

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about the Cult of the Mac – a slightly flippant look at the way Apple’s Macintosh computer is winning more and more converts around the world.

Macintosh computers have gone from being a marginal choice from an esoteric company that was about to go under, to the automatic choice of a high proportion of people who just love using computers. Macs have a reputation for being easier to use and more secure, and there’s little doubt they are better-looking than their competition.

Did I conclude that Mac worship is a cult? Read on. As always, there are links at the end.

Q: The cult of the Mac – I assume you mean the Macintosh computer – are you serious?

A: I’ll leave that for you to judge. But let’s define a cult first, shall we?

Q: And how would you define a cult?

A: I went hunting for some definitions by typing “define:cult” into Google. I’ve got a few definitions – let’s work through them and see how the cult of Mac stacks up. Good old Wikipedia came up with: a cohesive group of people devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture or society considers to be outside the mainstream.

Q: Does that sound like Mac people?

A: It certainly does! Macs tend to make converts who get all evangelistic about their new-found machines – you hear people say things like: my Mac has opened my eyes so I can see that computers can be so much more, my Mac lets me have my music collection in all its fullness, my Mac has saved my Internet experience.

Q: People who have Macs do seem to like them…

A: Quite so. Now that could just be down to a natural human tendency not to admit to a mistake, but Macs do seem to have a very loyal following with people who have bought one continuing to buy them. Macs have always been beloved of people who do design and publishing, because they got the whole thing about designing pages on screen before PCs did. But these days they are being marketed as an alternative to a PC for general users. In fact, in the US, Apple sold one in twelve computers in the US last quarter, and one in six laptops, and their numbers are growing strongly every year.

There’s another group of users who are strongly Mac – that’s computer geeks who are short of time – which is most geeks. The Mac operating system is built on open source and that appeals strongly to most technical people. When I go to conferences and meetings, it’s really noticeable that the designer people and the technical people all turn up with those gorgeous aluminium Mac laptops.

Q: Mac computers are designed more…elegantly than PCs

A: They really do look as though someone has spent a lot of time thinking about how they should look, don’t they? And using the machine is like using something that has been well designed, as well. The Mac is a package. You buy the hardware and its operating system together, from the same manufacturer, and you can’t just open the box up and add things to them like you can with PCs. That’s a strength and a weakness – it’s a strength because Apple can control all aspects of your experience from receiving the rather elegant box your Mac comes in to every aspect of use, and they do make it very natural and easy to use. It’s a weakness because there is little competition on the platform – you are stuck with whatever Apple decides to give you and you can’t go to a third party if you don’t like it.

Q: And do you buy into the cult when you buy a Mac?

A: It seems that way, doesn’t it?

Q: You said you had more definitions of “cult”.

A: Ah yes. I got this next one from a rather esoteric website about planetary consciousness: the organisation that develops around an abusive guru, and which enforces the abuser’s authority

Q: Are you calling Apple abusive?

A: I’d better tread carefully! I’m not saying that, of course, but there are some parallels, especially with the ‘guru’ part. Apple is led by Steve Jobs who is extremely charismatic. He was one of the two founders of the company, back in the 80s. Jobs was forced out of the company in the late 80s and Apple began to go through some bad times, which only ended after they brought him back in the 90s. Apple was extremely innovative in the 1980s, it produced the first commercially available graphical user interface – that means the computer draws pictures on the screen and you communicate through a mouse – and most Mac diehards will tell you that all the ideas for Microsoft Windows were copied from that. Anyway, the Mac first came out in 1984, a year or two after the hilariously expensive Apple Lisa, which pioneered the graphical user interface for Apple.

Q: So Apple invented the graphical user interface?

A: No, that goes right back to the mid seventies and Xerox, who had this research shop that was fantastic at inventing things, but they never seemed to be able to commercialise. Apple picked it up and started doing well with it, then some companies started building similar things on PCs – GEM and TOPS were the name of two – but the one called Windows has got rather more famous!

Anyway, Steve Jobs is famous for setting the agenda by a combination of superb design and compelling videos where he displays the latest products. But Apple also does things that really annoy people.

Q: Like?

A: The iPhone – great phone, but it’s tied to AT&T’s network. The rumour is that Apple, not satisfied with the big price of the phone, is taking a cut from all the calling that’s done on iPhone which is why they have locked it down. Various clever people – I don’t like the word hacker, but both senses of it suit quite well – have succeeded in unlocking the phone and people are getting to use it on other networks, like Vodafone’s. Apple hates this and keeps trying to shut down unlocked phones by pushing software updates which kill any that have been unlocked. There’s a game of cat and mouse going on. That’s pretty hardnosed behaviour in my book.

Q: OK. Another definition of ‘Cult’?

A: Right. From Godweb: a derogatory term used to express disapproval for those who hold beliefs other than one’s own.

Q: That’s pretty cynical.

A: Isn’t it? And in Mac terms, that’s the pushback that people give Macs for being different. You will almost never see them as corporate machines in banks or government departments, because IT departments almost invariably standardise on Microsoft.

Q: Why do they do that?

A: It’s the old ‘no-one ever got fired for buying Windows’ effect. Microsoft is seen as the way things are done and anything different has to be justified. But there are signs that’s changing – Microsoft’s latest iteration of Windows, called Vista, is doing badly at penetrating the corporate environment and is attracting a lot of bad press.

Q: Why?

A: People are saying it’s huge and slow – and they thought the previous version of Windows, called XP, did everything they wanted and now Microsoft is trying to push this thing on them. A New Zealand security researcher, Peter Gutmann, blasted Vista for the way it has digital rights management – what I talked about last week – built right in to it, and called Vista “the longest corporate suicide note in history”. Although he’s been blasted for saying that, the signs are there – perhaps Peter Gutmann is a prophet! For instance, Dell – which sells Windows computers – was finding that, since Vista was launched, people just weren’t buying its computers any more until Dell introduced the option of buying them with XP, the old version of Windows, rather than Vista.

Q: Any other definitions of ‘cult’?

A: One last one – The veneration of a saint expressed in public acts, local or universal, and formally approved by the Pope. That’s from the Catholic church.

And you can see that in the way the Mac faithful buy so much product from Apple. There’s a name for the way that people who have bought iPods go on to buy Macs – it’s called the halo effect. Really it is, I didn’t make it up to suit my metaphor!

Q: Apple have been pushing something lately, haven’t they? Since the iPhone?

A: they’ve had a lot going on, with new iMacs – that’s the Apple desktop machine which is the same size as everyone else’s computer screen. Apple just builds the entire computer into the back of the screen, which somehow doesn’t seem any thicker than everyone else’s computer screen, then Apple gives it a beautiful design to match. And Apple has refreshed the iPod range. But the real thing going on at the moment for Apple is the launch of a new release of its operating system, called Leopard (they are all big cats, the last one was Tiger, don’t ask me why) which comes out tomorrow.

Q: So how is that better? Will they get the same problems as Microsoft Vista?

A: Apple hopes not! But, then, it hasn’t been hyping Leopard like Microsoft hyped Vista. Leopard is supposed to be faster than its predecessor, rather than a lot slower like Vista was. It does a lot of interesting new stuff without forcing everyone to learn new ways through the system, which Vista did when it completely changed the way people use Windows at a stroke. And that’s a problem when you have a lot invested in staff training, which is probably another reason why Vista hasn’t been taken up by corporates.

Leopard is supposed to have a lot of new features. A lot of them amount to eye candy, but Apple has proved again and again that eye candy done well is compelling and people will buy it. It’s got some innovations that go deeper than that, of course, like a backup feature that automates backup and restore functions – we all backup our computers, don’t we! – but backing up can be tedious, and even harder to get files back from the backup when you really need them. And Leopard does other useful things like letting you organize your desktop clutter. It’s got a lot of improvements that look like they will just save time organizing your files, your contacts and your calendar. It’s smart enough, for instance, to spot addresses and phone numbers in your emails and add hem automatically to your address book. And to figure out if you are using email to make an appointment and load it into your calendar. That will save time and maybe the odd embarrassing missed meeting. And the video chatting application looks to have got very good indeed. And its got some really good security enhancements that I don’t have time to go into now.

But the main thing is – no-one has seen Leopard yet. It doesn’t hit the stores until tomorrow, and Apple hasn’t been giving away advance copies to reviewers, or to anyone else it seems. So we are relying on what Apple says about its own product. But Apple is so venerated by its converts that people are buying Leopard up anyway, sight unseen.

Now I have a final quote on the subject.

Q: And who is this from?

A: The writer Umberto Eco. It’s a bit old, this quote, because it refers to DOS which came before Windows, but it’s rather good even so. Here goes:

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation. DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment. You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counterreformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It’s true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions… And machine code, which lies beneath both systems? Ah, that is to do with the Old Testament, and is Talmudic and cabalistic.


As always, discuss this at

Google’s list of cult definitions.

A decade ago Apple was supposed to be doomed.

Wikipedia’s history of the graphical user interface.

People keep buying more and more Macs.

A video guided tour of Leopard (warning – large files – broadband only!)

posted by colin at 10:50 am  


  1. “The rumour is that Apple, not satisfied with the big price of the phone, is taking a cut from all the calling that’s done on iPhone which is why they have locked it down. ”
    Unsubstantiated rumour, you should have said, with absolutely no evidence to support it. And Apple has said it will sell unlocked iPhones in France in the new year — as French law requires.

    “Various clever people – I don’t like the word hacker, but both senses of it suit quite well – have succeeded in unlocking the phone and people are getting to use it on other networks, like Vodafone’s. Apple hates this and keeps trying to shut down unlocked phones by pushing software updates which kill any that have been unlocked.”
    Apple has put out one software update that broke all third party applications and temporarily shut down some unlocked iPhones.

    “There’s a game of cat and mouse going on. That’s pretty hardnosed behaviour in my book.”
    Yeah, right. One disabling update doesn’t sound like much of a game of cat and mouse to me, particularly not in the light of Steve Jobs’ announcement that a full iPhone SDK will be available in the new year.

    Comment by WhiskyPriestSteve — 25 October 2007 @ 11:21 am

  2. Rumours are unsubstantiated, that’s part of the definition of rumours. But it seems a pretty likely explanation for the locking – if I were an Apple shareholder I’d expect Apple to get some revenue from that. I’m hardly the only person to write this – check out for instance – that makes it a rumour in my book. :-)

    As for the cat and mouse game – hear Steve’s words on it:

    Comment by colin — 25 October 2007 @ 5:57 pm

  3. The Cult of the Mac…

    As a Protestant Mac user working part-time at a Catholic theological college where everyone uses Windows PCs I found last Thursday’s technology section on Radio New Zealand National : Nine to Noon (Thu, 25 October) fairly amusing.
    You can find th…

    Trackback by Greenflame — 27 October 2007 @ 5:25 pm

  4. […] can find the full transcript over at » The Cult of the Mac, and at the end of it Colin Jackson quotes a chunk of Umberto Eco’s 1994 article The Holy War: […]

    Pingback by mac vs windows vs catholics vs protestants « Onwards and Forwards — 27 October 2007 @ 7:29 pm

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