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Whither the PC elite?

June 16, 2006

As someone who occasionally finds it impossible to avoid attending a techie conference, I know one thing with certainty: The Macintosh's market share among the technological elite is far, far higher than its share among the unwashed. In fact, in Silicon Valley at least, the Mac's share of the market must be up around 70 percent, maybe higher. There are many reasons for this anomaly, but here are two related ones: The PC elite can't stomach Microsoft, and the PC elite, like most elites, is an image-obsessed conformist clique that defines itself by material tokens - in this case, the gadgetry it wields. A Windows PC is the machine of the commoner; it has no place in the court.

There are suddenly signs, however, that the Mac may be losing its exalted place on the laps of the tech monarchy - not to Windows (perish that thought), but to Linux. Earlier this month, long-time Mac user Mark Pilgrim announced that he's now using a Lenovo machine running Linux Ubuntu (a defection that occasioned a fascinating, tortured reply from Mac scribe John Gruber). Today, Tim Bray says that he may well follow Pilgrim's path, jettisoning the Mac OS for Linux.

Both Pilgrim and Bray point to Apple software's lack of openness as the primary cause for abandoning the Mac platform. But I'm less interested in their particular reasons than with the potential that such high-profile switches may set off a broader shift, with the Linux PC coming to displace the Mac as the PC elite's machine of choice. It's emotion, not reason, that ultimately determines these things. The tipping point for the behavior of elites tends to be set very low - a few top dogs move in one direction, and then all the rest of the hounds follow in a great yelping pack. If that happens in this case, rest assured that while everyone will talk about the technological or social advantages of open-source software, the real motivation will be the need to conform to the proper image.

Now, here's the twist. An abandonment of the Mac by the PC elite will be interpreted as a bad sign for Apple. But I think the opposite's the case. The main reason the elite despises Windows is because it's so damn popular. A move away from the Mac would, in the same way, signal that the Mac has become too popular - that it no longer signifies status. The price for gaining the mass is the loss of the elite. Bet on it: The more Linux PCs you see in Silicon Valley, the more money Apple will be making.

Comments

nick,

while i very much appreciate your independent view point on many matters i think you are totally lost on this one.

linux already is the commoners' OS, and by far!

so what if these people are truely in for the openness, what if they really care about social context in web and software development?

throwing dirt at people in this manner is going to hurt your reputation as an independent voice not twisted by personal ire. and when it comes to fighting illiberal and undemocratic practices on the web, every decent voice counts.

best regards,

Posted by: deconrockz [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2006 06:01 PM

Nick,

Very nice post. I like the sociological twist you gave to the subject. That being said, I believe that the elite will actually go beyond that and claim that the OS does not matter to them anymore. It will adopt Office 2.0 (http://office20.org) services and switch from one OS to another many times a day. In other words, status will be shown by displaying a Mac laptop running next to a Linux desktop while carrying a PocketPC-powered smartphone on the waist.

Best regards
-Ismael

Posted by: Ismael Ghalimi [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2006 06:21 PM

"linux already is the commoners' OS, and by far!" Thanks poster, for the unintentional comedy!. Trying to print something on Linux? . Actually Nick's explanation makes complete sense, the only reason anyone would want to work with Linux, given it such a goddamn nightmare from a users' perspective, is "like most elites, is an image-obsessed conformist clique that defines itself by material tokens - in this case, the gadgetry it wields". Time to buy Apple stock.

Posted by: Naveen Palli [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2006 06:43 PM

Interesting thoughts. So I'm going to think out loud here. I could be totally off the mark here with my thoughts, but, being as I don’t exactly believe them myself, I could live with the heartbreak of them being torn apart by some other, more astute person.

So as you say yourself, the elite does likes its image. Mac's success could be partially attributed to its adoption by the “elite” group, many of who just so happened to have quite influential voices and opinions in the technological industry. But part of the elite’s reason for adopting Mac, though, is image – Macs do look good, there’s no denying that. So while being able to say that Macs were more open, secure, etc, it does also just *look good* and look ‘cool’.

So my question is do you think that, despite the fact Linux right now is certainly nowhere near as "good looking" or as "trendy" as Macs are (most people associate Linux with a faint whiff of ‘bad’ geekiness, and the Linux OS itself, as a general rule, doesn’t look spectacularly good), it could still be the next focus? I’m not sure if any amount of ranting about the other benefits, open source, social, etc, could make it desirable while it still didn’t *look* that trendy. I might be overestimating the vanity aspect here, but at the very least I’d expect it to hamper the effects.

On another point, I think there was something vaguely like the ‘elite effect’ with the adoption of Firefox. If you used Firefox, immediately people saw you as more intelligent, more smart and look more "computer savvy" because you ‘supported’ open source, used a ‘more secure’ browser, and were basically part of the ‘revolution’ (as it becomes more mainstream, this effect wears off). Even so, as the browsing experience isn’t THAT different (a website is a website) it is pretty easy to switch to Firefox from IE and gain 'street cred' with the ‘technological elite’ crowd without having to do much more than download Firefox and use it. I don't mean to say that Firefox or indeed any other competing browser has its success entirely based on ‘looking smart’, though. It’s pretty much a given in anything. Either way, aesthetics certainly weren’t involved with Firefox’s vague adoption by the ‘elite’.

Posted by: K [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2006 07:10 PM

Just how technologically elite do you have to be to not realize from the git-go that the Mac OS and the Mac platform is as closed and proprietary as a 1980s-era IBM mainframe running MVS? No, wait, that's not fair...I actually had well-documented source code, and systems manuals stacked to the ceiling, for my mainframe systems.

What makes these people elite, anyway? Their mock turtlenecks?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2006 08:21 PM

deconrockz: "so what if these people are truely in for the openness, what if they really care about social context in web and software development?" I certainly think that's the case with Bray and Pilgrim, and that's great, but what I'm talking about here is the dynamics of a status-conscious group. As to linux already being the "commoners' OS," you must hang out with different commoners than I do. And as to my being "totally lost on this one," you may well have a point.

Ismael: You're at least one step ahead at me.

K: I agree that the superior design of Macs has been part of its appeal, but I think it's possible than other criteria could trump aesthetics in the future. Think of the trendiness of the Prius in Hollywood, for instance.

Scott: I suppose you could characterize my refrigerator as "closed and proprietary," but it works, and for most people that's what's important.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2006 11:52 PM

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