Yet More on the PC vs. Mac Wars

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 4:45 PM EDT

In my post this morning about why Apple lost the personal computing battle, I noted that a big part of the reason was the much lower cost of PCs vs. Macs. Matt Yglesias tweets back:

Actually, they did in a way. The original version of Windows was designed to work with the first CGA color adapter, and in order to keep costs down that adapter only supported 16 colors. Later adapters supported more colors, but Windows retained a considerable amount of backward compatibility with old hardware for a very long time. Thus, even as late as the early-90s, versions of Windows were still using logos that rendered properly on ancient hardware.

If everyone will indulge me in a bit of nostalgia, I want to make a broader point here. To understand why PCs beat Macs, you have to understand the era in which the battle was fought. And in that era, the 80s and early 90s, the personal computer world was controlled almost hegemonically by business customers. It's hard to overstate just how overwhelming this dominance was: corporate customers probably outnumbered home users by three or four to one, and even at that, a lot of the home users bought PCs mainly because they wanted to bring in work from the office. It was this corporate domination of the market that drove its early evolution. Here are a few of the ways this played out:

  • The IBM imprimatur. This was absolutely key to legitimizing the business market. Corporate IT managers just flatly weren't going to buy a million dollars worth of personal computers from their corner Radio Shack or from some shaggy-haired guy in Cupertino. They had lots of IBM gear they needed to interoperate with, they had IBM networks they needed to plug into, and they had IBM service contracts already in place to cover their maintenance needs. Initially, the only way they were going to buy PCs was if they came from IBM, and later on only if they were compatible with all their existing IBM PCs.
  • Backward compatibility. Home users get annoyed when new software isn't backward compatible. When I upgraded to Windows 7, I lost the ability to play my favorite computer Yahtzee game. Boo hoo. But corporate IT managers are absolutely rabid about backward compatibility. This isn't because they want to play Yahtzee. It's because they have huge fleets of hardware, some of it quite elderly, and they want new software to work on it. What's more, tucked away in various corners of the company there are people running ancient custom applications that are mission critical and absolutely can't break when the OS or the network software is upgraded. Companies like IBM and Microsoft take this very seriously, and it drives a lot of their design decisions. This is why you end up with bloated operating systems and oddities like ugly Windows logos.
  • Portability. As I said earlier, laugh all you want at the original Compaq portable that was the size of a sewing machine, but in 1983 it was a big deal. Ditto for the clamshells that debuted later in the decade, weighing in at a svelte 8-10 pounds. But big or not by today's standards, they were portable. And since business people travel a lot, having a portable machine you could take out to a client's site was a godsend. Apple just didn't have anything to compete here.
  • Business applications. Unless you were there, it's hard to explain just how thoroughly Lotus 1-2-3 was the killer app of the early 80s. Everyone used it, and it was available only on PCs. Likewise, lots of serious business apps ran on top of databases like dBase or R:Base, and those were available only on PCs.
  • Networks. Printers were expensive, so IT managers needed PCs to be on a corporate network. Novell and Banyan networks were designed with PCs in mind, and only the very courageous tried to make a Macintosh work on a PC network. It wasn't impossible or anything, but believe me, you were a lot better off sticking to PCs on the networks available back then.
  • Flexibility/Expandability. For a few years in the 80s I was the product manager for a very sophisticated communications board for IBM PCs. It allowed corporations to build specialized apps that used X.25 or SDLC or things like that, and it wasn't available for Macs. Why? Because Apple didn't allow you to plug boards into a Mac. PCs did. So if you needed a specialized piece of hardware, you could get it. Or if you just wanted more serial ports or more memory, you could pop in an AST 6-Pack and you were good to go. This was a big deal for corporate IT guys. Apple didn't offer it.
  • Low cost. Nuff said about that. Thanks to intense competition, PCs were just way less expensive than Macintoshes.

Back in the 80s and early 90s, if you wanted to buy a bunch of personal computers for your company, you'd ask around. And your financial analysts would tell you they used 1-2-3, so you'd better buy PCs. Your IT guy would tell you the corporate network was all built around PCs, so you'd better buy PCs. The CFO would tell you your project budget was a million bucks, so you'd better buy PCs. So guess what? You bought PCs. That's why Apple lost the market share war.

Why this walk down memory lane? Just to explain the environment that got us where we are today, an environment that's largely fading away. But it existed 30 years ago. Business buyers didn't buy PCs because they were mindless drones, they bought them because they really, truly had excellent reasons for preferring them to Macintoshes. And when you bought a PC for your home, it made sense to get one that was compatible with the PC in your office.

This created a virtuous1 circle: corporate customers preferred PCs, and as a result, when Microsoft set their development priorities, they listened to their big corporate customers. And given a choice between a clunky but functional mail merge function or a snazzier user interface, those customers voted unanimously for the mail merge function. And they voted for low cost, backward compatibility, network functionality, and portability. So that's what they got.

Today, software has so much functionality that it makes sense even for business users to start thinking more about ease of use and design esthetics. But back then it really didn't. So, quite rationally, you got frenetic development of new features even if it sometimes came at the cost of reliability and ease of use. That environment may be long gone, but it explains a lot about why Windows PCs look and feel clunkier than Macs but still rule the roost nonetheless.

1Well, a circle, anyway. You can decide for yourself if it was virtuous.