Hints of change

Sometime around the beginning of 2007, I sensed a change in the air.

The first whiff came when Microsoft’s “No fooling, this thing really is an iPod killer” Zune laid a big stinker during the 2006 holiday season. Then, in January, when Macworld Conference & Expo took place on the same week as the massive Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, guess which one got more press? (Hint: It wasn’t the show keynoted by Bill Gates.) Since then, there has been a steady stream of stories about the iPhone, the Apple TV, and Apple in general.

What was unusual about that coverage was that—for once—it didn’t portray Apple’s products as pretty but overpriced and Apple’s customers as artsy-fartsy kooks. Rather, the press seemed willing to entertain the notion that Mac users might be savvy consumers seeking quality and ease of use in an attractive wrapper.

As someone who has followed Apple for the better part of two decades, I’ve seen the company go through plenty of highs and lows—from the introduction of the Mac Plus and the bungled opportunities to deprive Microsoft of its too-close-for-comfort Windows operating system, to the successful advent of the iMac, Mac OS X, and the iPod.

Through it all, one theme remained constant in the coverage of the company: Apple and its customers were an anomaly. This was frustrating. Knowing what the Mac was capable of, seeing how god-awful clunky Windows was, and glancing at the declining rate of Mac adoption, I’d wonder, “What am I missing here?”

It’s that disconnect between how I see Apple’s products and how the mainstream media portrays those products that’s changing.

On a roll

Apple’s numbers are up. The Mac’s share of the personal computer market is a full percentage point higher than it was last year. The iPod has helped. Independent data suggests that Mac sales have indeed improved because of the iPod halo effect. Those consumers who’ve previously shunned Apple products now take a second look at Macs because they like the iPod. Glory be, some of those switchers are members of the press who previously couldn’t write the name Apple without a preceding beleaguered.

It also helps that Apple hasn’t made a major mistake in a long time. The company has had plenty of opportunities to fall flat—the transition from OS 9 to OS X, the jump into the music and media business with the iPod and the iTunes Store, the launch and growth of Apple retail stores, and the switch from PowerPC to Intel processors. Yet each move went smoothly. Since Steve Jobs returned to Apple, only the Power Mac G4 Cube and the round mouse spring to mind as clear missteps.

Microsoft, on the other hand, stumbles around as though someone tied its shoelaces together. When the company initially talked up its upcoming Longhorn (now renamed Vista) operating system, it claimed that the new OS would be the same kind of built-from-the-ground-up effort as Mac OS X. After years of delay, Microsoft eventually released four flavors of a tarted-up version of Windows XP that even Windows enthusiasts find to be slow, bloated, and bug ridden.

Then the Zune came along, trailing a cloud of negative publicity. In a sign that even Microsoft recognized the Zune’s failings, Bryan Lee, the corporate vice president of Microsoft’s entertainment business who oversaw the development of the Zune, stepped aside after the product’s dismal launch.

The negative publicity—and Apple’s continuing success—seems to be getting to our good friends from Redmond. Bill Gates was recently quoted in Newsweek opining, “Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit; your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine.”

Hang on a sec, Bill. Let me just look cross-eyed at my Dell box for a bit… and…right, completely taken over.

Rather than take offense at Gates’s fatuous statement, I take heart. In the past, Microsoft has seemed to think of Apple as an amusing but manageable annoyance. Things haven’t been going so well in Redmond lately, and computer buyers are starting to catch on. Maybe they don’t have to put up with Windows’ bugginess and insecurity. Maybe they’ll think to themselves, “There must be a better way.”

As an admitted Mac advocate, I’m happy to show it to them.

[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]

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