Hallelujah, the Mac is back

Weary of spyware, tired of virus attacks, a nation turns its lonely eyes to ... Apple?

Published January 31, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

Twenty-one years ago this month, Steve Jobs, Apple Computer's theatrical co-founder, launched the company's annual shareholder meeting in Cupertino, Calif., by quoting Dylan: "For the wheel's still in spin/ And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'/ For the loser now/ Will be later to win/ For the times they are a-changin'." Then, after a brief diatribe on the stupidity and villainy of IBM, Apple's main rival at the time, Jobs cast himself as the hero in a near-epic, if ultra-geeky, battle between good and evil: "It is now 1984," he said. "It appears that IBM wants it all ... IBM wants it all, and is aiming its guns at its last obstacle to industry control, Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right?"

Jobs is hammier than an Easter feast, and it's easy to discount his perpetually revolutionary air, but that 1984 shareholder meeting -- at which the company, besieged by IBM, unveiled its radically different Macintosh home computer -- was nevertheless magical. You can read this account by Andy Hertzfeld, a Mac co-creator, to get a sense of the tension and the mania in the auditorium that day, the feeling that this was a moment for the history books. Or watch a video of the event that's recently been making the rounds online: "Chariots of Fire" rises in the background as the Mac is switched on, and the audience gasps as the machine before them actually speaks its name in greeting. And why shouldn't they gasp? Outside of Kubrick films, whoever had seen such an amazing machine before?

If you're into this sort of thing, the clip can give you goose bumps. Isn't it a shame, you say, that Apple hasn't been this cool in decades? And then: Isn't it wonderful that the magic is back?

After all, we've been living, for the past couple years, in Apple's world, a time and place in which the normal rules of commerce no longer seem to apply to the once much-beaten-down firm. The company has seen an extraordinary string of hits recently. The iPod is bigger than Jesus. Apple is literally selling these things faster than it can make them. Now, for the first time in almost two decades, there's a good -- great -- feeling attached to the Apple brand, a haze of optimism that is unlike the sensation we feel for all but the most cherished of consumer tech products. (There's Google, there's TiVo, and there's Apple: Can you think of any other company that has recently changed your life as you know it?)

So, perchance to dream: After iPod, can Apple make a comeback in the world of personal computers? On Jan. 22, the company began shipping the Mac Mini, a diminutive entry-level machine aimed at Windows people. The computer is tiny, beautiful and, at $499, cheap; already, it's receiving generally positive praise from reviewers.

What happens now? The entire effort could fizzle, certainly. Apple releases nice Macs all the time that never spark in the Windows world. There is a theory, though, that this go-round might be different, that the moment may be ripe for the Mac Mini to take off. The landscape of the personal computer market has altered. In recent years, the home computer has increasingly become a digital entertainment center; people use it for the Web, they use it for e-mail, and they use it for photos, movies and music.

The Mac is not just good at these few tasks: It's the best there is. There's simply no arguing that Apple's built-in software and operating system make for the single most powerful photo, music and movie system you can buy.

But the things that the Mac is good at make up just one part of the story. There's a flip side -- the increasingly obvious failings of PCs running Microsoft Windows. Among Windows users, there's a rising feeling -- accounted for mostly by anecdotes and not all that well-measured, but nevertheless important -- that the system is becoming too hard to maintain. Talk to experts at computer security firms and they'll give you some pretty scary straight talk about how spyware, adware and viruses are just killing the user experience on an ordinary Windows PC.

It's not unusual for people to throw out their year-old Windows computers because they've become just too clogged with bad junk, says Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research at the anti-spyware firm Webroot. The Mac, in contrast, simply doesn't suffer such afflictions.

David Gelernter, a computer scientist and tech visionary at Yale, likens today's PC market to the American automobile market of the early 1970s. At the time, Americans were buying American-made junk -- and because they didn't know any better, they were putting up with the junk. "So what happened?" Gelernter asks. "What happened was that Japan started exporting huge numbers of Hondas and Toyotas, and people saw that for a reasonable price they could buy a car that didn't fall apart in two weeks. When you picked it up at the dealer all the parts were in it, the whole thing worked. Until that happened, people were satisfied with the garbage they were getting from Detroit."

Forget the iPod. What if the iPod's just a gateway drug? What if Apple's future is much grander: What if Apple could become the Toyota of the computer business?

Apple's computer business isn't so bad. But it's not the stuff of dreams, either. In the winter of 2004, Apple sold about a million Mac machines. This represented a 26 percent increase over sales from the same quarter in the previous year, but during the course of the year, Apple's numbers zig-zagged between increases in one quarter to declines in the next. Its share of the world's computer business remains dismal. The company now has about 2 percent of the worldwide computer market; its market share in the United States stands at just above 3 percent, a tenth of the share of the top Windows PC maker, Dell.

We won't pause long to chew on the paradox of the Mac -- the mystery over why, so far, the world's best desktop computers are also the world's least popular machines. That's an old chestnut among tech journalists, and it's a lame one, too, as the answers are pretty close at hand: Consider the Mac's (perceived) high prices, the curse of tech-industry network effects, the business missteps and strategic stumbles Apple has made over the years, and the savvy and sometimes criminal behavior of its competitors -- consider all this and it's no surprise that the Mac's not the main machine in town.

Now, many Mac lovers will argue that market share doesn't matter. BMW and Mercedes, they point out, have a small share of the auto market, and nobody frets about that. This may be so, but computing platforms are different from cars. Unlike automobiles, your computer improves as more people use systems like it -- as more developers become interested in your system, you get more and better software, for one thing. It's true that the Mac's not in danger of dying out as a platform, and that the Mac does benefit, in some ways, from its small market share (it's a lower-profile target for attackers, for instance). But do you remember the famous 1984 Mac commercial, the one that argued that this was not just another PC, that it was instead a revolutionary product? The Mac's current market share does not speak well of the fate of that revolution. If more people used the Mac, and if it became an actual threat to Windows, we'd see two gains: Mac users would benefit from a more vibrant platform, and, perhaps more important, all other systems would improve due to competition.

To tech industry observers, the Mac's tepid sales in 2004 were something of a surprise. During the same year, the iPod experienced phenomenal sales; Apple saw a 500 percent increase in sales of the music device in the winter quarter of 2004 compared to same quarter in 2003. In 2004, the company sold several times more iPods than it did Macs, meaning that the device was purchased by millions of people who didn't own Macs. Their only association with Apple came through the brilliant music player, and some analysts and Apple execs thought it was natural to expect some kind of "halo effect" from the iPod -- all those Windows people with favorable impressions of the iPod might consider switching to Macs.

But that halo didn't seem to work. For some reason, in 2004, vast numbers of Windows people didn't look at their iPods and decide to buy Macs. Why not? Perhaps the answer lies in what Jason Snell, the editor of Macworld magazine, says is the essential difference between Windows people and Mac people: Mac people love their computers on a personal, emotional level. Windows people, on the other hand, prefer to think of their machines as office tools, gadgets no more special than the stapler. Windows users don't expect much in the way of quality, beauty or elegance from their machines; if they did, they'd be Mac people. Instead, they expect their PCs to perform a great many tasks, and they've resigned themselves to having to labor over those tasks.

This is not at all how we think about our iPods. The iPod is a consumer electronics device; it does one thing, plays music, and it does that one thing extremely well. The device is also intensely personal: People buy the iPod as much for form, for the way you look when you carry it around town, as for function. Your Windows PC, by contrast, is all function, no personality. Computers are the workhorses of our lives, slaves to the routine and the mundane. You do your taxes on your PC. You pay homage to John Coltrane on your iPod. Thinking about it this way, it seems clear why Windows people didn't look at the iPod as a first step to the Mac: In the mind of the typical Windows user, there's no clear connection between a desktop computer like the Mac and the iPod. The two exist in separate product universes. The iPod is sublime. Your computer is a chore. Why would you ever associate the two?

But the Mac Mini, Snell says, eases the mental transition between the iPod and the desktop machine. Indeed, one way to think about the Mac Mini -- and the way that Apple may be thinking about it -- is as the iPod of computers. Yes, the Mac Mini can do everything that any other Mac can do; it's a full-fledged computer. But "there's a big part of Apple that wants to be a consumer electronics company," Snell says, and the Mac Mini has the look and feel of a consumer electronics device -- a friendly, personal thing that will be marketed mainly for its core functions, its facility with your pictures, movies and music.

"I was visiting some friends this weekend," Snell says, "and they're PC people, they don't own Macs. But one of them was describing going to a friend's house to use iPhoto so she could make a photo book for their daughter's birthday. They loved the Mac, and they were seriously talking about buying a Mac Mini." What's interesting, Snell points out, is that these people didn't want the Mini for its intrinsic computer power; they were going to keep their PC up and running. They wanted the Mini as a household digital hub, as an appliance, rather than a computer, that made it easier to play with their photos.

Windows users often think about the buying of a Mac as a terminal decision. Indeed, you don't just "buy" a Macintosh; in jargon that Apple has popularized, you "switch" to the Mac, you make a change to your life in order to reorient yourself to a whole new platform. Put that way, buying a Mac is a huge decision; it involves learning a new operating system, transferring files, and buying new, expensive software to replace the software on your Windows machine. But if you think of the Mac Mini as an appliance, as a device for photos and making movies, you can conceive of using the Mac without "switching," Snell notes. You can use the Mac alongside your Windows computer, in much the same way you can use an iPod in your Windows home. Stephen Baker, an analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm, echoes this thought. "The whole 'switching' thing isn't the way to look at this," Baker says. "People who are buying these are not switching all their Windows PCs to Macs. As more and more households get more and more kinds of computers in the house, they have a range of PCs for different uses. It's reasonable to expect that the Mac will be part of that range," he says.

Apple has been down this road before. The iMac, which Apple released in the 1990s, was also supposed to be something like an appliance. It was the Internet computer, the machine that made connecting to the booming and then mysterious Web a very painless thing. The iMac was in fact a hit for Apple -- but it didn't reverse the Mac's dwindling fortunes. So why should we expect Mac Mini to have any more success?

Well, for one thing, the Mini's cheaper than the iMac was. It is still possible to buy a Windows machine that costs less than the Mac Mini, but you'd really be scraping the bottom of the barrel, and even if you got something with comparable computing power -- as fast a processor, as big a hard drive, as much memory -- you still wouldn't be getting what you get with the Mini. A comparably priced Windows computer is a cheap Windows computer; a Mac Mini, with its built-in top-of-the-line software, is a digital media appliance that fits on a countertop, connects to your HDTV, stores all your photos, catalogs your music, edits your movies and (if you slap down $100 for the DVD-burning drive) creates your DVDs. Thanks to the Web, it is also now easier to start using the Mac without really going through the hassle of "switching." Key applications -- like e-mail in the form of GMail, or photos with Flickr -- are available on any platform, reducing your dependence on Windows.

But the main reason that the Mac Mini may find more success in the Windows world than the iMac did is that these days, the Windows world isn't doing too well. There are about 100,000 known pieces of "malware" -- viruses, worms and Trojan horses -- targeted at the Windows operating system, says Vincent Weafer, a computer security expert at Symantec. In addition, there are between 40,000 and 100,000 individual bits of spyware (defined broadly) aimed at the OS. Weafer says that by all accounts, the spyware problem reached a fever pitch during the past year. "Judging by submissions and support calls, it was getting a lot worse," he says. "We are also seeing a trend where a subset of the programs are becoming a lot more viruslike -- to hide themselves on your machine, they're using methods like viruses to try to become more persistent." Some people calling Symantec looking for answers to their spyware and virus problems are just beyond help, Weafer says. "They've tried many different things and it doesn't help. They'll end up reinstalling or cleaning it out or buying a new one -- a lot of this stuff is just so deeply embedded, it becomes more and more difficult to get rid of the gunk, the sludge at the bottom of your machine."

Spyware is big business; in the strange economy that is the spyware market, a parasitic piece of software can earn its owner $2.95 per year for every computer it's installed on. "If you want to earn some free money, you infect a million machines and you make almost $3 million a year," says Richard Stiennon, of Webroot. These incentives have caused spyware writers to build quite harmful applications, some of which are nearly impossible to get off your machine. "There are about a dozen pieces of spyware that are installing themselves in such a way that they're pretty much destroying the machine when they get on it," Stiennon says. People who are infected with such persistent bugs will notice the damage. Their machines will run slower, and key applications -- like the Internet Explorer Web browser -- basically cease to function. For Windows users, protecting against this software has got to be a full-time job, the experts say, involving multiple pieces of anti-malware software.

Compared to Windows, the Mac is a Fort Knox of security. There are only about 200 pieces of malware known to attack the Mac platform, and security analysts could not identify a single instance -- not one -- of spyware aimed at the Mac. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the Macintosh operating system is inherently more secure than the Windows platform. As a technical matter, the Mac operating system, which is based on Unix, has a much smaller "surface area" for attackers to target, Stiennon says. Windows, by contrast, "is a really dirty OS that requires thousands of system calls to do simple functions -- and every single system call is an opportunity" for an attacker to get at the system, Stiennon explains.

According to experts, though, it isn't the Mac's better structure that accounts for why so few pieces of malware and spyware are aimed at the operating system -- it's the size of its user base. If miscreants really put their heads to it, they could probably come up with many dangerous attacks against the Mac -- but who would want to? Faced with the choice of disrupting 95 percent of the computer users in the world or just 3 percent, which would you choose? The choice is especially obvious for the purveyors of spyware, who, remember, depend on high numbers of infected machines to make money. If you want to make a killing in the spyware business, you're not going to get far by attacking the Mac.

This is, though, a distinction without a real difference. To the individual Mac user, it matters little why the machine is less vulnerable to attacks. The only thing that matters is this: "If you switch over to the Mac," says Weafer, "you'll be relatively safer."

A couple weeks after Apple unveiled the Mac Mini at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, I called up Andy Hertzfeld, one of the engineers on the original Mac team, to see what he thought about the idea that the Mini could create a new opening for Apple with Windows users. Considering its appeal as a digital-media appliance, and its relative security from malware, wasn't the Mac Mini ideally positioned, I asked him, to take the Windows world by storm?

Herztfeld, who left Apple in 1984, is still a dedicated fan of the company's wares and a keen observer of its fortunes. (He recently published an insanely great memoir, "Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made.") Because he buys just about every piece of hardware the company makes, Hertzfeld had ordered the Mac Mini, and was awaiting delivery of his unit on the day I spoke to him. He planned to use the machine as the hub of his home theater system, and he said he expected many people would use it in similar ways -- as an extra machine, or as a digital media appliance, or just something cool to have around the house. The Mini, he said, was the product of a "confident Apple," a company buoyed by the success of the iPod and unafraid to take the fight to its rivals.

Pleased as he was by the new machine, though, Hertzfeld didn't think it could overturn the Microsoft monopoly. For one thing, he didn't believe that the Mac could really capitalize on its security strengths over Windows. If Apple were ever to take out an ad promoting the Mac's security, "it would only motivate attacks," Hertzfeld pointed out. "Even I have enough of the perverse hacker in me to try something." And certainly as the Mac's market share rose, so would the number of attackers targeting the system.

Hertzfeld believes that the Mac Mini, given the timing and Apple's recent successes, could likely increase the Mac's market share by a bit. If the system did extraordinarily well, if it were successful beyond Apple's wildest dreams, maybe the company would get to a 10 percent market share, he said. But Apple's problem, as Hertzfeld sees it, isn't in getting to 10 percent of the market. The company is smart enough to do so; and if that happened, it would be phenomenal for Apple -- but would it really be a revolution in the PC business? Hertzfeld didn't think so.

The problem with the modern personal computing environment is that, in some fundamental sense, it's a broken business. "There's a poison in the computer industry," Hertzfeld says, "and that is the fact that the common software base is controlled by a predatory software company with a lack of ethics." In case you didn't get the reference, Hertzfeld is talking about Microsoft, which, through Windows, controls the underlying software development base for the PC industry -- essentially, it controls the standards, the keys to empire. "Microsoft is not a good steward of the standards," Hertzfeld says, and if Microsoft is to be beaten, and if a company like Apple is to exert more dominance in the PC world, Microsoft has got to first lose control of the standards. Hertzfeld actually believes that this is occurring; Microsoft is in fact slowly losing its grip on the software development standards, he says. "But I don't think Apple is the driver of that dynamic -- I think the free software movement is pushing that."

Hertzfeld is an ardent believer in the free and open source software movements -- in which software programmers all over the world voluntarily write code that anyone can share, modify or distribute. In the late 1990s, he co-founded Eazel, a company that created a slick file manager app called Nautilus for use on the open-source Linux operating system's GNOME desktop environment. If Apple really wants to change the personal computer business, it will need to do more than release a machine like the Mac Mini, no matter how good it is, Hertzfeld says. It will, instead, need to commit to free software. "Eventually the fix [in the PC business] is for the Windows monopoly to get marginalized by free software, and Apple could make a gulf of difference in that effort" by contributing some of its code, resources, energy and branding power to the free software movement.

Does Hertzfeld have any real hope that Apple, which guards its code just as closely as Microsoft holds Windows, may go the free software route? "I don't predict they will," he says, "but I don't predict they won't, either. They're smart people." What he means is that they may eventually see that it's in their interest to do so.

When discussing the PC business, an important thing to remember is that nothing's quite settled yet. The personal computer is a young product, and the PCs we have today are not the PCs we'll have forever. David Gelernter, the Yale computer scientist, raised parts of this argument in December in an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, published on the occasion of IBM's sale of its personal computer business to Lenovo, a Chinese firm. Gelernter lamented that sale; it indicated, he wrote, that IBM no longer saw potential for the greatness of the PC, and that this "is a shame, even a tragedy -- because the modern PC is in fact a primitive, infuriating nuisance. If the U.S. technology industry actually believes that the PC has grown up and settled down, it is out of touch with reality -- and the consequences could be dangerous to America's economic health."

A conversation with Gelernter is an eye-opening experience. As modern computer users, we go through our lives resigned to mediocrity; this is true of Windows users, but it's even true, he says, of Apple users. The computer can be so much more than the systems we have today. Gelernter wants machines that are "transparent," that are more like appliances than fancy gadgets, machines that put your data, your information, before their own idiosyncrasies. "I don't care about the machine, I care about my documents," he says. It shouldn't matter which computer he goes to in his house, or whether the machine he's on is new or old; he should get access to his life on any machine. And why should anybody spend any time at all "securing" your machine from outside threats, he wonders. Why can't the machine do this for you? "Most people don't want to spend their time to download the latest thing to deal with the latest disaster to strike," he points out. Would we deal with such tediousness for other products we use on a daily basis? "Would anyone ever say, 'Hey, my brakes don't work but that's O.K., I can just download a new anti-lock braking system.'" No; you wouldn't use a car in which the brakes didn't work. Yet we put up with computers all the time in which key functions just stop working, and, routinely, we are OK with that.

The industry desperately needs a new player. Some new company, or new idea, needs to come along to shake the PC business from its foundations. Which company could this be? Well, he knows which firm it won't be -- it won't be Microsoft. "I don't think Microsoft has the freedom to do it," Gelernter says. "If you were the most successful company in the history of mankind, if you were running this moneymaking machine that has done a better job making money than any similar mechanism in history -- if I were that person, I would be far too cautious. Why would I change what I was doing?"

Gelernter believes that IBM or Sun, tech firms that have a long history of research, are two Americans companies that have the best chance of creating a fantastic PC experience. Or, he believes that an unknown Asian company, some firm in Japan or India or China or South Korea that we have not yet heard of, will come along one day and surprise the American PC business in much the same way Japanese auto companies surprised Detroit in the 1970s.

But there's one more American company he thinks has a chance of profoundly altering the way we use computers: Apple Computer. "When we all reluctantly turned off our Macintoshes five years ago, we dived into the PC world, and we haven't looked back," he says. But Apple's recently been building machines that are headed in the right direction, Gelernter says. And God knows they're smart engineers.

"Apple could get a brainstorm," he says.

And Apple's brainstorms, from the Apple II, to the Mac, to the iPod -- and, now, maybe even the Mac Mini -- have a tendency to set the world spinning in directions we'd never thought possible.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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