More than ninety percent of the personal and business computers sold in the world today are designed to use Windows, an operating system first developed 15 years ago by the American software giant, Microsoft. But Microsoft's dominance of the market has not prevented another company, California-based Apple Computer, from competing head-to-head, by maintaining a small but durable market share for its distinctive Macintosh computers and operating system.
Since its legendary start in 1977 by two young engineers working out of their California garage, Apple Computer has made a business out of being a little bit different. Part of that difference lies in how the company's computers are made and how they function.
Before 1984, most computers relied on text-only commands to run programs. Microsoft's DOS, or Disk Operating System, was the standard software, and required users to type every coded command into the computer. In 1984, Apple changed the face of computing forever with the introduction of the Macintosh, the first affordable personal computer to use a mouse and a graphics-based operating system. To launch the Macintosh on the market, Apple ran a critically acclaimed TV commercial during the 1984 Superbowl, a championship American football match watched by tens of millions of sports fans.
The commercial shows an athletic woman running from soldiers in a futuristic setting. Against the gray, sterile background, her colorful clothing stands out. She is wearing red shorts and a white shirt that features a picture of a Macintosh computer on the front. The woman is running towards a room with a large movie screen, where hundreds of men are seated in rows watching like zombies, as if they are being brainwashed. With the soldiers still chasing her, the woman hurls a sledgehammer towards the screen.
"1984" is a reference to George Orwell's famous novel of the same name, set in a bleak future where "Big Brother", the government, uses technology to help control the population and prohibit individual expression. The commercial raises the question, who really is Big Brother?
Ted Friedman is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Georgia State University, who's written about Apple's image and media campaigns. "Certainly I think that just about anyone who was plugged into computers at the time who saw that ad, would have assumed the bad guy represented more or less, IBM," he says. "When people worried about this 'Big Brother' computerization, people often thought of IBM, the sort of punchcard, labcoated, bureaucracy of IBM, because IBM had been a monopoly that was regulated by the government."
Mr. Friedman says the lone heroine in the commercial also provided a powerful symbol for many viewers. "In some sense, she's a computer user and represents this young, athletic, in-control, computer user. In another sense, she's the Mac itself. The [new] computer user is a kind of challenge to the traditional stereotypes of the computer user being this lab-coated man. I think in a lot of ways it really challenged traditional notions of what computers were, in ways that were very effective," he says.
Even though the first Macintosh computer was just a small beige box with a 20-centimeter black-and-white screen, Mr. Freeman says its lines were more rounded and pleasing to look at than IBM PCs or any of the clone computers available at the time. To Mr. Friedman, that design choice for the Macintosh represented a computer that anyone could use and feel comfortable with.
In the years since 1984, a lot has changed in the computer industry. IBM did not become the 'Big Brother' of home computing. Compaq and several other companies were able to produce their own DOS-compatible computers for less money and outsold IBM. Instead, Microsoft became the dominant force in home computing, by making the software on which most IBM compatible computers run. With the release of Microsoft's Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, the company started to include graphical user interfaces similar to the Macintosh. The lines that once set Apple apart from the crowd were beginning to blur.
While Windows-based PCs now had a graphical user interface, Apple still claimed that they had one up on the competition.
At the time this advertisement aired in 1999, the Macintosh G4 computer was equipped with Motorola's G4 processor chip, and the U.S. government had determined that it was capable of achieving supercomputer speeds.
Today the tables may be turned yet again. Apple computers have lost some of their speed advantage to Intel's Pentium 4 chips, the processors that power most Windows-based computers. Robert Arthur Morgan is a computer consultant and long-time Mac enthusiast. On his website, barefeats.com, he runs tests to see how the current crop of Macintosh computers perform against their Windows PC rivals.
He is disappointed with the Mac's current performance. Most of the test results on his site suggest that today's Windows-based computers are faster at most real-world applications than Apple computers. "I think that all the Mac users feel that way," he says. "I'm sure there are a few diehards that would debate me on it, but the consensus is that Apple has fallen behind and that these new models are not helping the situation. Part of the frustration has to do with what appears to be Motorola's priorities and their willingness and their ability to produce something that's equivalent to the Pentium Fours and the dual Athlons."
However, Mr. Morgan says that the decision to buy a Macintosh comes down to more than raw speed. He believes that while it may be a little slower for some tasks, the Macintosh is a much finer piece of computing equipment. He prefers the look, feel and usability of the Macintosh to Windows PCs.
According to Apple's most recent ad campaign, many former Windows users agree with him.
Apple's latest campaign is called, "Switch." As the name suggests, it is aimed at getting Windows users to switch to the Macintosh. The company says it is letting real people vent their frustrations and point out how much simpler and more reliable Macintosh computers are compared with Windows-based machines.
While Apple's corporate office wouldn't comment directly on the campaign or its effectiveness, the company did let us visit the place where most of this "switching" is happening: Apple stores.
While many other computer stores carry Apple products in addition to more common PCs, the purpose of the Apple Store is to give consumers the whole story about their computers, from people who use and understand them. Like their computers, Apple Stores have a decidedly different look and feel.
The Arlington, Virginia location has contemporary rock music playing in the background, which is frequently interrupted by more music and other sounds coming from their computers. The store's design features stylish hardwood flooring, modern track lighting, and artsy chairs and desks. It looks more like a trendy coffee shop than an electronics store.
The sales people are decidedly different as well. David Livingston is a charismatic middle-aged gentleman with a ponytail. He's dressed in a way that makes him appear more like a customer- no stuffy uniform, no pretense, just an average person. He's on the front lines of the "Switch" campaign. "A day doesn't go by that I don't talk to at least four or five people who are currently Windows users, who are interested in switching," he says. "I get to talk to them and point out differences. I don't think any of us are trying to hard-sell anybody on switching or what not, but we certainly present the Mac, what it can do, features, what it ships with and all that kind of stuff. It's nothing to worry about, because it pretty much sells itself."
Part of Mr. Livingston's job is also to give technical support for Apple products. This couple from Maryland recently switched to the Macintosh and came to the store seeking some advice.
Customer:"It's been a hard switch you know, switching operating systems and computers, but it's definitely been worth it. This is the second Apple Shop we've been into and every time we actually get help, as opposed to Best Buy and having some pimply-face kid kind of like, 'I don't know.'"
Livingston: "Are you saying we almost know what we're talking about?"
Customer: "Yeah it's really cool. It's exciting."
Livingston:"Listen, I'll give you my Mother's phone number, you call and tell her, 'Your son knew what he was talking about.' Okay here's that disc image I told you about..."
Even if Apple's "Switch" campaign is a success, most experts in the computer industry agree that Apple computers are unlikely to become the largest segment of the home computer industry, at least in the foreseeable future.
However, that's not necessarily a bad thing: one thing that draws many people to Apple is the feeling that they belong to an exclusive club. Here's one example: Apple Pi, a forum where Mac users can become acquainted and help each other with technical questions. To David Ottalini, the user group's vice president, Apple ownership and the concept of community go hand in hand. "There's a camaraderie there and just a feeling among Mac users that we're using something more than a personal computer. Everybody has a little black box on their desk of some kind, but when you have a Macintosh, you're special and you are doing something a little differently, a little better," he says. "Maybe there's a high calling there among Mac users. There is just a much bigger sense of community among Macintosh users than you will ever find with folks using PCs. "
But questions linger about the future of Apple and its Macintosh computers. Slumping sales and mismanagement almost sank Apple in the mid-1990s. The company might have collapsed, had it not been for a $150 million investment from their largest competitor turned ally, Microsoft.
Apple's current president and co-founder, Steve Jobs, has reinvigorated the firm and spearheaded the launch of fabulously successful computers like the iMac, the best-selling personal computer to date. Some industry analysts predict that IBM, a former Apple rival, will design a new processor chip for the next generation of Macintoshes. That new chip could put Apple back in the speed race with Windows-based computers. Other analysts are trying to guess what new products and technologies Apple will introduce next.
Many experts agree that one key to Apple's continued success is to remain unique and innovative.