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The Changing Mac Community

by Derrick Story

Late last year I published a newsletter titled The New Mac User that was picked up by MacCentral, which began an exploration beyond anything I had planned at the time. Now, more than 500 emails later, a couple of user group meetings, an O'Reilly conference on Bioinformatics, a Mac Show Live interview, lots of online reading, and many, many informal discussions, I'm ready to report on what I've learned.

My intention is to understand the changes that Mac OS X is having on the Apple community. This is a community that I've been a part of since 1988 when I took a job as a graphic artist for a company that was switching to desktop publishing via 9-inch screen Macintoshes.

I learned about the Mac in an environment where technical support meant that you asked your coworker, not some anonymous voice on the other end of the phone, how to make a document print correctly. The help was close and hands on. The acronym, "RTFM" (read the flippin' manual or man pages) has never really meant anything to traditional Mac users because there weren't any man pages ... that is until Mac OS X.

Mac OS X has certainly broadened the landscape of our community. And now people who haven't been able to use the Mac for years can once again accomplish their work on this Unix-based platform. Through my experiences at O'Reilly, I know these people, and I can tell you they're a good bunch.

Terminal Window
Many new Mac users have Unix backgrounds and are comfortable working in the Terminal. Others aren't so sure.

Not everyone feels as positive as I do about integration. Some believe that OS X has dehomogenized the Mac community. When I was a kid, my Mom used to combine the partially filled boxes of Rice Krispies and Special K into one container to save room in the cupboard. Yuck. Now many long time Mac users feel like their Rice Krispies have been invaded too.

In letters I received, some people were asking, "Who are these command-line junkies typing madly with two fingers on dark Terminal screens displayed on their iBooks? Who even knew the iBook had a Terminal?"

Some traditional users were complaining, "Why do I need to care about root user, crontab, log files, and permissions? Isn't that the world I left behind years ago?" Many feel like these "smart guys" are crashing their party and making them feel like strangers in their own home (directory).

Ironically, many of these new iBook-toting whiz kids were Mac aficionados years ago. Some had to abandon the platform because of their job, or to meet a need that the traditional Mac couldn't satisfy. They may have left the platform, but often their hearts stayed behind.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he was a different man than the one who left. Truly he was the prodigal son who explored the world and developed a passion for Unix. And when he returned home, Unix came with him.

The traditional Mac community saw Steve as someone who could stop the bleeding inflicted by years of bad corporate decision-making. But many didn't realize that Steve was about to change the entire community as we knew it, and all the prodigal sons and daughters who had to leave to explore other platforms were welcomed home again.

So now we're all sitting around the table staring at one another. "Is it OK to launch the Terminal?" one is thinking. "Do I dare double-click?" ponders another.

And since we're not allowed to serve alcohol at this party, I thought maybe a few real-world comments from folks who love the Mac might get the conversation rolling.

Because if I came away with nothing else during the course of all these interactions, I learned that this is a great moment for Apple, and for all of us involved. As this talent comes together--both traditional and new, artist and geek--it will create a powerful force that the computing world has never seen before. And if you think the Mac has been cool in the past, well, buckle up.

But First, the Envelope Please

Now that you've read what I think, let's get to the good stuff and see what readers across the globe are writing. During late November and through early December 2001, I received 523 email comments on the subject of Mac OS X versus Mac OS 9, how the new operating system might impact the Mac community, and the overall possible effect on market share.

Most of the letters were positive about Mac OS X, even if the writer had no immediate plans to switch. We'll get to some of those reasons why later in the article. In a handful of letters writers stated that they felt betrayed by Apple and they will be switching to Windows. But about twice as many former Windows users said good riddance to XP and they are moving happily to OS X. So Apple appears to be gaining some ground in that arena.

Already we're seeing a blending of the traditional Mac with the new Unix. iPhoto is a Mac OS X-only application that is appealing to all types of Mac users.

Of the respondents who stated which operating system they were using *right now* (in Nov/Dec 2001), 54 percent had switched to Mac OS X for at least part of their work. Many of the 46 percent who said they will continue using OS 9 solely were doing so primarily because of legacy applications, drivers, and plug-ins. (My guess is that today we'd see a shift in those percentages toward Mac OS X now that Photoshop 7, GoLive 6, and Norton System Works 2 have been Carbonized.) A small percentage said they hated OS X outright.

Mac OS X seems to have an overall favorable rating among Mac users who responded, even with those who can't switch yet. My guess is the people who read the original article, "The New Mac User", are progressive users themselves, and are probably more inclined to embrace change than the community as a whole.

To bring these numbers to life, I'm listing actual comments below because when it comes right down to it, these folks can state their positions a whole lot better than I ever could.

Trouble in Design City

Not surprising, the segment of the Mac community that felt most strongly about sticking with Mac OS 9 was the design community. Users in this traditional Mac stronghold have large investments in software, and even if all of their applications and drivers were ported to Mac OS X today, they would still be looking at a sizeable financial reinvestment.

"A reason for the slow adoption of X, I think, is that its main competition is pretty stable and quick, and works well in the production environment. I'm not, of course, talking about any of the various flavors of Windows (although my personal experience with 2000 has been very good), but the later iterations of System 9. It's both less filling and tastes great. I can get the work done and make money with it without too much grief and woe. That's the bottom line." BL

"I'm a graphic designer, and from my perspective, I don't like to keep changing to new OS's or new programs. For example, even if I've got the new Illustrator 10, the printing-press people are not ready to handle those files yet." M

But the *nix Guys Love It

All you have to do is look around at an O'Reilly conference to see that Macs are back in the geek community.

Comment on this articleThis was just the ice-breaker. Lots of things have changed since the emails in this article were originally written. What are your views today?
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"As a "new" Mac user, I bought a powerbook g4 this summer because I'm a college student/developer who needed a light, powerful notebook that could do just about anything. I looked at Dell's and Gateway's and the myriad of other PC offerings, but none did everything that the powerbook could. And then, Mac OS X was here. I'm a desktop Linux user and I enjoy having the freedom of having good development tools, a rock-solid OS, and a community. I add community to this because there is a Mac community, and a Linux/Unix community, and the Windows mob :)

So, I went to my campus bookstore and had a look at OS X. It was BSD with candy coating! Here I had a wonderful user interface, with a BSD cousin as an OS, and apple announces that they're releasing the dev-tools for free (*gasp*). I'm sure code warrior is awesome (so I've heard), but I use gdb and gcc in other environments, and now it's on the powerpc! Not only that, wrap it into a beautiful, easy to use IDE like project builder and I've become a Mac advocate :).

I love toting my tibook everywhere and getting looks, or when I went to the ACM student conference at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, just opening it up and watching a DVD would grab the attention of just about anyone there." JB

"OS X's interface is beautiful to work in and easy to use, but also has the ability to run under the "ugly" command-line interface, and it has all that geeky, Unix power beneath the surface. OS X is like a marriage between an engineer and an artist. And the Mac community will reflect that marriage. It will just take some time." RA


Not everyone in the Mac community likes Apple's current direction. In fact, some feel that Apple has abandoned the very customer who supported it during the tough times.

"Mac OS X is not as elegant and not even remotely as intuitive as Mac OS 9. Also, with the change from 10.0 to 10.1 as an indicator, it will certainly never get there. Mac OS X was designed and written by the guys from NeXT (who never really "got" the Mac in the first place). They created an OS that they thought Mac users *should* want. Mac OS X *does* appeal to Unix geeks who have always secretly wanted their software to run on a mainstream platform. In college, I was exposed to Unix and I ran screaming from computers until I encountered the Mac. Now the Mac is dead." RB

"It is very hard dealing with people who six months ago put us down, yet now are now adopting this new OS." RM

"I have been a Mac user for years. I remember the original Lisa technology in the late '70s. I have ignored all the criticism from the PC Community at work when they wouldn't support the Mac--it is my platform of choice. But, right now I am disgusted. I went to OS X and it was such a hassle I asked my tech-support folks to put me back to OS 9.2 and I think that is where I am going to stay for awhile. Who needs it?" WJS

Newfound Joy

Related Reading

Mac OS X: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue

Just because a whole bunch of folks use Windows, that doesn't mean that they're happy with it. Mac OS X and current Apple hardware have lured more that a few people away from their PCs.

"I've used almost every version of MS-DOS and Windows since DOS 2.11, except Windows for Workgroups and Windows ME. One day when NT 3.51 blue-screened me for changing the desktop background I went on a quest to find a real OS ... I enjoy using my new G4 PowerBook with OS X 10.1.1. Over time I intend to fully understand all aspects of this OS from development to applications." DT

"Something happened last year. The woman who runs half of the not-for-profit really needed to start using email. I had tried for five years to get her to use a PC notebook or at least email ... no luck with WinCE, not 98, not PocketPC, not 2000. We tried very nice notebook PC's and subnotebooks and palmtops.

Then I saw the new white iBook. I started researching Mac OS and what was happening with OS X and all the iApps. My task was ... the lady co-director absolutely had to get into using email and calendaring ... so long story short... she has never really listened to anyone about computers and I had tried patiently and compassionately to feed her PC and all she really needed was a little Apple, Mac to be exact.

She is now using the iBook 'unconsciously.' I was dumfounded!" AS

"With Mac OS X I feel I am heading back to those early Mac days when every new little program was an adventure in itself and the software world was not yet dominated by the big guns. I don't regard myself as a geek, my (technical) knowledge of computers it too basic for that, but I like playing around with programs and finding out all the little details and attention that programmers put into them." MB

Feeling Philosophical

Like any creative community, the Mac ecosystem has its share of philosophers.

"The jump from System 7 to 8 was a big deal, but it had true backward compatibility. The jump from Mac OS 8 to OS 9 was rudimentary. The jump from Mac OS 9 to OS X is, well, a leap of faith." JA

"I remember the uproar from Pentax users when it switched from screwmount lenses to bayonet type because all the connections needed for auto exposure, auto focus, and the like couldn't be as reliably implemented with a screwmount. A few people still have their old cameras and are happy with them. But for the people who wanted the flexibility of the modern Pentax, the old gear had to go. There was a time when you could pick up screwmount lenses at the used counter of your favorite camera store, but hardly any are around anymore. My guess is that the same thing will happen with the move to OS X." PW

"So far a I am quite happy with OS X. I found that the secret to this OS is to avoid "Classic" as much as humanly possible." JC

"Those who need or want the new and are willing to do without the old move forward, the others do not. Never before have there been so many good reasons to upgrade and never before have there been so many reasons to not upgrade." MAK

Confusion Says ...

Many long time Mac users find OS X just plain confusing.

"Mac OS X is leaving a lot of older Macintosh users somewhat confused. These are the people who love the classic Mac OS for its ease of use, and generally stick to one system for several years. They do not care so much about how well the OS does its work, they simply want to get their work done." MS

"And to be quite honest, I hate the Aqua interface, the dock makes me feel like I'm a newbie." MM

"As for OS X, I loaded it on the new Cube, got a bit confused, found the manual to be borderline useless, and went back to 9.1 for both my wife and myself. I'm sure I could figure it out, but I didn't want to spend that much time. I liked what I saw on the screen. I've ordered two books on OS X, Mac OS X: The Missing Manual by David Pogue, and MacWorld OS X Bible by Lon Poole and Dennis Cohen. When I get those and go through them, I want to move both of us to OS X.1 (I have the upgrade), but I want to know what I'm doing without honking up my system." MED

Parting Shots

One thing I noticed as I was reading hundreds of these letters is that the Mac community, even those who aren't happy right now, are looking forward. I know this seems like a small thing, but think about it for a second. People are assuming that the Mac will continue to survive; the question is, in what form. Four years ago I think the assumption was that Apple was near extinction.

"I have been under the opinion for a few years, since I learned Unix, that the first company that comes out with a good GUI shell over Unix will win. My bets were on Apple and they have done it. It may take a few years, but when the power of Unix begins to be implemented in applications, business users will love it. That's what it is going to take to increase market share--business users." SH

"Years back we were Mac users until Windows 95 and then converted to a PC running office 97. The tremendous amount of software and peripherals available for a PC was intoxicating, while Apple remained an obscure little section in the back of a CompUSA or Circuit City. When Apple opened its local company store we saw the platform demonstrated as never before and were blown away immediately by the platform's benefits. We purchased an ibook-600mhz to stick our toe in the water. We hope the ibook, when it arrives, will be a good neighbor with our Dell 4100 desktop. Once both are up and running, whichever platform becomes the favorite, will be our next machine." BDL

"Frankly, aside from the promised stability, all I have seen about OS X is that it still exhibits a lot of Unix eccentricities, rigid directory requirements, and so on, without the promised, vast increase in speed from a "native" PowerPC OS. If I want rigid and inflexible, I can pick up a Dell box for a song. Time will tell." LM

"As long as they stay on top of things- I'm staying with Apple." KM

One Last (Highly Subjective) Thought

Whether you're a big fan of Mac OS X or its most ardent critic, think about this: Do you remember how life in our community was before the return of Steve Jobs, the iMac, and Mac OS X?

What I remember was: the sneering PC establishment, bad newspaper headlines, huge quarterly losses, and doggone-it, beige boxes just as ugly as the Windoz garden variety. In the case of Power Computing, even uglier.

Now we're on the cover of Time magazine, have three of the coolest computers of all time, we're maintaining profits in a terrible economy, and arguably, have created the most exciting, controversial operating system ever implemented on a broad scale.

Recently, I heard former basketball coach John Thompson say this about Kobe Bryant while commenting on a Laker game, "He's so exciting I even like his misses." Seems to me that Kobe and Apple have a lot in common these days.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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