You know you might be a Mac user if

- by Paul Murphy -

What differentiates a Mac user from a PC user, assuming the usage decision is uncoerced by an employer?

My wife, a reformed PC user (always the most merciless of evangelists), answered that question with a list straight from Jeff Foxworthy:

  1. You think virus protection is what you get a flu shot for.

  2. You actually make a conscious choice in selecting your web browser and presentation software.

  3. You have suppressed a smile at the sound of another user rebooting their computer for the fifth time that day.

  4. You dress up in a black turtleneck and jeans to go out at Halloween.

  5. You've never sworn about a service pack.

  6. You have a Bush-Cheney sticker on your Volvo.

Ok, one of those is a ringer - but the question itself is interesting: what individual characteristics differentiate the two communities?

Back in October of 2000 a guy named Michael Munger published a column titled "Why The Heck Do We Use Macs Anyway?" on the Mac Observer which I thought was mostly hooey but contained one absolute gem. To a typical Mac user, he wrote "doing something is not enough. Doing it right is what we want" and I think that pretty much sums it up.

The typical business only Mac user is, at least in my experience, fundamentally uninterested in the computer. To him, or her, the machine is a tool: something that's supposed to work, and does. The hobbyists, in contrast, can be as enthusiastic as any self proclaiming PC geek - but even they tend to focus on whatever it is they do with the thing, and not the Mac itself.

Get past the assumption that you're a PC user with a message long enough to ask a typical business Mac user to tell you about their computer, and they'll usually talk mainly about the application software they use. Ask a PC user in that same community the same question, and you usually get about equal numbers of people who first tell you which Windows variant they have and people who focus on the megas - whether bytes or hertz.

Ask a grade school teacher who has Macs for her students to tell you about the school's computers, and the chances are good she'll be a bit defensive to start with and then tell you what the students do with the computers -things like what sites the kids use or what teaching software she finds most useful. Ask that same question of a teacher who prefers to work with PCs and the chances are about equally good that you'll get a dessertation about the use of computing labs in education or a complaint about the lack of funding for security, networking, or upgrades. Either way, however, the response will be mostly about the the school's commitment to computing.

So what's really fundamentally going on here? Listen to the people who made the PC vs. Macintosh decision for themselves and it's pretty clear that the PC people get heavily vested in their knowledge of the machine and whatever Windows variant they have or aspire to, while the Mac people tend to assume the machine and talk about what they do with it. That's a very big difference, but what's behind it?

One idea is that the Mac user's focus on the applications is reasonable, and that the PC people whose focus is on the machine or the OS are really suffering Stockholm Syndrome -investing in the machine and emotionally bonding with the PC community rather than the professional one defined by the application as a survival strategy for the persona.

Another idea comes from Maslow's "Theory of Human Motivation" (Psychology Review, 1943). His idea was that people act to satisfy the highest unmet need in a hierarchy of needs with the basic physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Thus his way of looking at the difference in behavior would be to say that the Mac user's basic physiological needs have been met -after all they can assume that the thing works- and so their focus can move to meeting self-actualization and other higher level needs more closely tied to the person's professional interests.

Well, maybe. But since I, at least, really am a redneck, how about letting the real Jeff Foxworthy -in his persona as proud new father- have the last word on both explanations? "You have to change those diapers every day," he says lovingly, "When those directions on the side of the Pampers box say, 'holds 6-12 pounds' they're not kidding!".

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.