Mac popularity soaring – and here are four reasons why

Macs have always inspired a fierce loyalty in their users. Now, thanks to PC compatibility, an improved OS, great ads and better tech support, more users are feeling the love for shiny eye-candy tech and simple user interfaces.

“Apple’s had a university/educational focus for 30 years,” says J.P. Gownder, analyst at Forrester Research. “Their primary focus is “We build products that individual users will enjoy to a great extent.”

Apple has brought its unique brand of richness and simplicity to servers.

At Oregon State University, more faculty members are experiencing that enjoyment, say Tammy Barr, director of technology services at Oregon State University and Dave Nevin, IT manager for college community network. Here are four reasons more folks are switching and some of the consequences of that move:

1. PC Compatibility

Macs don’t comprise a majority of the computers that Barr and Nevin support at Oregon State. Not even close. Barr estimates that Mac users represent only 5 percent of the 3,000 computers that her team supports (so about 150), but the number of Macs is rising, she says. One reason: “Macs are more friendly to PC users than they used to be,” says Barr. She’s talking about Parallels and Boot Camp, which enable Mac computers to operate Windows XP on their machine.

2. An Improved OS

Support of Macs during the mid and late 90s was tough, recalls Barr. For example, Mac users would often get the system bomb error -21, and troubleshooting what that error actually meant was time-consuming and difficult. That reputation of being riddled with operating systems errors and being difficult to support “kept a lot of people away from Macs,” she says. “Now Macs have a much more stable operating system.” Barr and Nevin primarily support Mac OS 10.4 and 10.5 (with a few Mac OS 10.3 clients) and are currently working to transition to Leopard.

3. Mac vs. PC Ads

Nevin believes Apple’s marketing has also contributed to higher rates of Mac adoption. Those ads brought personification and mass appeal to a subject that only geeks could love previously. Using layman’s terms and appealing to the “cool” factor, the ads build a case for choosing a Mac over a PC. “The Mac vs. PC ads are very compelling marketing; and I think they’ve had sway,” says Nevin.

An outgrowth of mainstreaming Macs is a lessening of the emotion and fervor surrounding them. Macs have always enjoyed a quasi cult-like status, say analysts such as Gownder, and along with that, the attendant religious fervor and smugness. But both say they think Mac use and ownership is becoming “less emotional.” The Mac vs. PC question “almost used to be a religious battle, and I see that disappearing.”

4. Support

Greater Mac familiarity combined with more reliance on the Web apps. “Since I went to a Unix base, it’s become easier to find people who are familiar with the core of the Mac OS,” says Nevin. “So support is getting simpler because of that familiarity,” He adds that Macs are faster to deploy than PCs and training users goes more smoothly. That said, PCs on the whole are easier to support since updates can be created centrally and rolled out to users automatically, but not as yet with Macs. That may change as the number of users justifies expenditures on Mac server support.

And one trend is making that centralized support less important-the increased use of Web-based applications. Traditionally, most applications were client-server based, so centralized support was mandatory for cost-efficiency. But with the ability to go to the Web for more and more needs, the type of operating system a user has becomes less important, says Barr.

All that said, neither Nevin nor Barr see Mac adoption coming close to the number of PCs at Oregon State or in businesses more generally.

“The key factor is Mac. Apple is not targeting the enterprise market effectively,” says Nevin. “Until they do I think you’ll only see piecemeal adoption instead of grand scale shift.”

Gownder agrees. “Apple is not trying to create holistic systems the way Microsoft would; Apple is designing to the end user.”

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