A Mac for all seasons: Why the Mac has so much staying power

It's always iPhone this and iPad that, but as the sturdy workhorse of Apple's lineup, the Mac deserves some praise.

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Credit: Jason Snell

Let’s hear it for the Mac.

There’s been plenty of ink shed on the meaning and impact of iPhone and iPad sales in Apple’s most recent quarters. In and of itself, that’s no surprise: The iPhone is the company’s biggest product and makes up more than two-thirds of its revenue. The iPad, on the other hand, has been struggling, unlike most of Apple’s other devices. 

But through it all, the Mac has quietly kept on doing steady business, and I think the sturdy workhorse of Apple’s lineup deserves some accolades. Not only has the Mac entered its fourth decade—impressive for any piece of technology—but it’s seen tremendous success and even growth in an era where all anybody can talk about is smartphone this and tablet that. 

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Don’t call it a comeback 

The Mac’s success is especially heartening for someone like me, who grew up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the platform was a target for jeers and the company seemed to perpetually appear with that good old “beleaguered” adjective in every news story. No matter how much we asserted the merits of the Mac, we were told that it was nothing more than a niche product, okay for creative use, but not sufficient for real work.

Twenty-some years later, and the worm has certainly turned. As Tim Cook is fond of reminding us on every quarterly conference call, the Mac routinely experiences growth despite the contraction of the overall PC market. 10 years ago, Apple was selling 3 or 4 million Macs in a year. In 2015, it topped 20 million. While it may be only a small chunk of the company’s overall revenue, the Mac has maintained an upward trend for the last decade. 

It’s hard not to attribute much of that success to the so-called “halo effect,” the fact that sales of other Apple products—first the iPod and now the iPhone—have encouraged users of PCs to switch to Macs instead. And there has remained a certain cachet in the brand that has probably attracted younger folks when they purchase their first computers. 

The era of the Mac 

But given the longevity and success of Apple’s personal computer line, I think there’s something more at work here. By and large, the mission of the Mac hasn’t changed for 32 years: Computing made simple. As much as we get done with our smartphones and tablets these days, and as much as we may get done with our VR goggles or smartwatches in the next couple of decades, the computer remains a compelling device. 

I’ve said before that the iPad is unlikely to dethrone my Mac as my daily work machine, and while a lot of that may be due to the muscle memory of a device that I’ve been using regularly for twenty-five years, I think it also speaks to the Mac’s continued relevance.

More than ever, popular apps and services are built to work with the Mac first, not as an afterthought, and more than that, creators of those products have internalized the cues first pushed by Apple years ago when the Mac debuted: Good design, pleasing aesthetics, simplicity, and user-friendliness. 

The Mac may not rack up the sales of the iPhone, or even the faltering iPad, but it has to be acknowledged that the Mac laid the groundwork to make those devices possible. The overall philosophy of the Mac has, in the end, emerged victorious. 

Long live the Mac 

I also can’t discount the power of emotion. I love my Macs—always have. And despite the fact that I carry my iPhone with me everywhere I go, I’ve never quite developed the same attachment, in part because I trade in my iPhones nearly every year. By contrast, my iMac, on which I type this, is nearing the five-year mark. There’s an old Blue & White G3 sitting next to my desk. Somewhere in the mess that is my office is my PowerBook G3, one of my favorite Macs of all time—and the first laptop I ever owned. 

Nostalgia is a powerful force, and given that I’ve spent the majority of my life using a Mac, it’s no surprise how many memories are tied up with the platform. From typing my first stories as an elementary schooler, to writing papers in high-school, to editing videos in college, the Mac’s been there at every stage of my life.

During my tenure at Macworld, people used to suggest with reasonable frequency that the name was obsolete, and the publication would be better off as something more topical: “iPodworld,” “iPhoneworld,” or even just “Appleworld.” The former seems positively archaic these days, but even the latter strikes me as potentially transient in the grand scheme of things.

32 years later, the Mac is still chugging along, and while it’s occasionally been eclipsed by the meteoric success of its newer, flashier siblings, it’s never really fallen out of favor. The Mac has proved its staying power, and if the past three decades are any indication, it’s got plenty of life left.

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