9 min read
Next in trending

I’m a Mac, You’re a PC. There really is a difference.

In recent months we have seen the unveiling of Apple’s iPad Mini and the launch of Microsoft’s Surface.

I’m a Mac, You’re a PC. There really is a difference.


In recent months we have seen the unveiling of Apple’s iPad Mini and the launch of Microsoft’s Surface. I want to focus on the latter as I think that it reveals something fundamentally important about the personal computer/mobile computing/mobile phone market that no analysts are really appreciating: the type of person you are really matters. And for that reason, writing and communicating that idea is going to be a challenge for me. Why? Because I’m a Mac.

Let me begin by providing you with a simple test as to whether you are a Mac or not.

When you first picked up an iPad and rotated it, did you spend some time marvelling at how four columns of app icons somehow morphed into five columns?

(And as a qualifier, not if/when you were on some narcotic). If you answer ‘yes’ you are a Mac. If you answer ‘no’ you are a PC. Now to you PC folks, let me explain. If you pick up a Windows PC tablet or a Surface, when you rotate it, and for the Surface this happens automatically, the screen just switches between portrait and landscape. But on an iPad, the apps move and reposition themselves in a smooth movement. If you are the sort of person, i.e., you are a Mac, you notice that animation. It is a pleasant feeling to you. It gives the device its supposed magic. If you are not the sort of person who notices that sort of thing, you are a PC and nothing registers.

Now you might be thinking that I am about to bag PCs just as those famous ads from Apple did a few years back. But I’m not. Because I have noticed that PCs do care about things. They are just different things than I care about. But to you fellow Macs out there, let me try and point one out: the keyboard.

The Surface’s perhaps key feature is its keyboard. Now to a Mac, this seems strange. After all, the iPad has a perfectly functioning keyboard that pops up and is fine, right? And if you don’t like that there are third party keyboards that will do the trick, right? Indeed, you may have forgotten this but Apple felt the keyboard was so important that with the original iPad they released a keyboard dock.* So you think, why is that a big deal for the Surface?

But I have listened to PCs as they write about the Surface and the keyboard matters a great deal (the same way it did for smart phones). They love the fact that it is integrated into the cover of the device and that the main apps they use (notably Office) are optimised for a keyboard experience. Moreover, it isn’t just using the keyboard that is part of the experience, it is about plugging in familiar accessories. Here is what one friend of mine wrote:

I popped it open on my desk, put up the kickstand, and plugged in trackball and keyboard. Presto, NO DELAY, they work.

It should be interesting to Macs to hear this as this was exactly the type of things that we liked about Mac computers. But these days Mac computers and certainly iPads have become even more integrated and have removed the need for third party accessories.

The idea that an OS is optimised for a keyboard runs very deep. Think about to the whole issue of ‘copy and paste’ on iOS. This was late coming to the system and even as it did, it cannot compare with a desktop experience. People like right click and also PCs tend to be well versed in particular keystrokes to achieve things. A touch-based OS, especially iOS, just can’t do this. But give PCs a Surface that is embracing of a keyboard and they are back in their element.

On the Mac-side, they are enamoured with gestures. This is particularly salient when it comes to Android. I’ve tried a Kindle Fire in the store and you feel the money you might save with every swipe and touch. From what I gather the same issue arises with the Surface. Again, this is just a matter of type.

Macs can’t understand the obsession with keyboards in the same way that PCs can’t understand the obsession with smooth animations and a natural feel and experience. They are different people in terms of how they relate to information technology. The entire industry needs to understand and accept that. It really changes how you view prospects and evolution here.

In the past, this wasn’t so stark. In the 1990s, Macs were expensive and there was a dearth of software options that forced people over to PCs. In the post-PC era, for the last two and a half years there has only been one game in town, an iPad. The reason that there is excitement about the Surface is that it is the first tablet to appeal to PCs. Android tablets did not do that. To be sure, they appealed more to I guess we could term them, hacker types, who liked the ability to modify their hardware and software with freedom even if this sacrificed reliability. But Microsoft aren’t playing to that crowd and I suspect that crowd is a fairly small, if not vocal, segment of the global market.

So how does this perspective change things? Well, let’s start first with reviewers. You should read reviewers of IT products that are your type. As a Mac, I related to David Pogue and Marco Armentwho disparaged the Surface. Here’s Arment:

The Surface is partially for Microsoft’s world of denial: the world in which this store contains no elephants and Microsoft invented the silver store with the glass front and the glowing logo and blue shirts and white lanyards and these table layouts and the modern tablet and its magnetic power cable. In that world, this is a groundbreaking new tablet that you can finally use at work and leave your big creaky plastic Dell laptop behind when you go to the conference room to have a conference call on the starfish phone with all of the wires and dysfunctional communication.

To a Mac, I’m with you but to a PC this is completely unhelpful. But compare this with — and this is not easy to find — Boston Herald’s Jessica van Sack:

The Microsoft Surface costs about the same as an iPad, but you get more bang for your buck.
This isn’t a pure content-consumption device that you happen to be able to use to snap great photos: That’s the iPad.
This is a productivity device that allows you to do things such as write tech reviews with the same speed and ease as if you were working on a laptop or desktop.

To a Mac, this is like some foreign language. But to a PC, this review is, I suspect, actually providing the right, balanced advice. And again from my PC friend:

I think I can travel and go around town with Surface alone. Freedom! Goodbye, heavy backpack with laptop plus 2 extra batteries for the cross-country flights!

To a Mac, couldn’t we already do that with a MacBook Air? What do you mean extra batteries and weight? But to a PC, the need to have functionality of particular software outweighs (you’ll pardon the pun) the weight issue. The Surface at last helps them leverage that trade-off.

But there is more to the Mac/PC distinction than things I have mentioned above. Let me give you a key example: collaboration. The iPad has almost completely failed as a device to allow sharing and collaboration. Just this week, a co-author of mine faced a crippling hand problem that prevented her from using a keyboard and mouse. So I persuaded her to build our joint presentation together using Keynote for iPad. I do this a lot but rarely with collaborators. To say it was frustrating is an understatement. You are supposed to be able to email documents to each other but half the time it actually failed. And iCloud was hardly any use. You can’t download from someone else’s iCloud into Keynote on the iPad. I had to log in to her account on a laptop, download Keynote (formatted for the Mac version not the iPad version) and then upload it onto my iCloud. It is completely absurd.

Skydrive allows Windows users to share documents easily (as did, in fact, SharePoint with its awful interface). It just works. You can rely on it. And so many PCs express a frustration with Macs on this point. They want collaboration to be easier. Macs have a greater tolerance for being unable to share things easily.

The point is that if there are really fundamental types of consumers out there, this is great news for product evaluation. You just have to find the same type in reviewers of all products and you are fine. I only wish that reviewers would declare upfront their type. By the way, this is the same reason why MapGate was such a big deal: it was Macs who were criticising Apple.

However, this also suggests that news outlets and mainstream tech blogs have a long way to go. As I read it, they are overwhelmingly Macs writing reviews. That means that there is half the market not being served in product evaluation. The NYT needs a PC counterpoint to David Pogue while Slate needs a PC counterpart to Farhad Manjoo; a person who tried so hard to hate the iPhone 5 but in the end was forced by his Mac nature to fall in love with it instead.

The second thing that comes to mind is a puzzle I heard about at a conference yesterday: why are so few of the million plus user mobile apps on both Android and iOS? Apparently the overlap is just 46%. The reason is that if Macs are using an iPad, an app ported from Android is unlikely to cut it. It won’t look and feel right. So just because there are millions of iOS users out there, does not mean that there are millions of customers for apps designed for Android and vice versa. The app market, because of design, is more bifurcated than many appreciate. And fundamentally so. As a case in point, the hottest iOS game recently, Letterpress, can simply not be designed to work on Android or Windows. It is designed for Macs and that is it. (By the way, if you are a Mac, get that game immediately).

The third issue relates to Android. Android owes its success to its low price and while we might discuss Mac vs PC as two distinct types, affordability can constrain either type from getting what they want. Android currently offers an alternative on that front. But that is where issues arise. Android is said to be disruptive. But it is less disruptive because it offers features targeting a neglected market segment than it is just simply cheaper. What that means is that as people get older and richer, they can buy products consistent with their type and less on the basis of type. In the past, products matching type have eventually been able to come down in price and that has pushed out those products not based on a consumer’s type. In this regard, Android — and products such as the Kindle Fire — have a fundamental issue whereas Apple and Microsoft products do not. Indeed, the fact that both are based on distinct consumer types is good news for both. Analysts who see the Surface as an iPad killer are misplaced. Nothing will kill the iPad and it is unlikely anything will kill Windows. They are optimised for different types and the outlook for both is good.

On that score, Google appears to be a company divided in two. The Google products on iOS are beautiful and for the Chrome browser better than what Apple has delivered. They are made by Macs. And Google is full of those people. Indeed, I have visited there and MacBook usage seems to be dominant. How do those people feel about being pushed towards Android? It has to be a source of frustration; something that will be interesting to watch.

Fourth, this matters for other products. Think about the Nest Learning Thermostat. This was designed by a Mac for Macs. I suspect that PCs will find this product less appealing. I can’t tell you why because I’m a Mac. But there will be some reason. This will happen for many products.

Finally, what about customers who are less strongly Mac or PC? Or those who haven’t really worked out what type they are? There is a very interesting evolution in the market. Because of Microsoft’s past dominance — especially in the workplace — many Macs are using Microsoft products. However, with iPhones and iPads they are being able, especially outside the work environment, able to buy products related to their type. It is for that reason that Apple’s mobile revolution has been associated with an increasing share of Mac usage as well. Similarly, for dedicated PCs, the pressure to adopt iPhones and iPads will drop right off as Microsoft orients themselves towards them. Microsoft will be able to optimise for keyboards and also deliver on sharing and collaboration in a way that Apple doesn’t seem able to do. Again, a type-based view of the world paints a rosy picture for Microsoft.

In the end, it is time for PCs to be proud. We Macs have, for the past few years, gleefully lauded over them our own preferences and the fact that a company was there to deliver on them. But I suspect that is about to change and it will be helpful for everyone if we can just understand that some people are different and there isn’t anything wrong with that.

A variant of this piece appeared at the Digitopoly blog last year. I have, on occasion, worked for Microsoft.

* This has been edited and the phrase “and allowed you to use a bluetooth mouse” has been deleted thanks to an observant commenter. [2/16/13]