Are Apple Customers Gullible?

Steve Denning over on Forbes has some excellent articles around myths about Apple and Steve Jobs, and his latest is around the myth that Steve is hard to replace (and includes links the to first two related articles). One thing that keeps coming up in the comments section, though, is the implication that people who are buying Apple computers and tablets are “gullible”, that they are mindless consumers making poor purchasing decisions. This is, needless to say, a common theme in many posts and articles about Apple and its products. They put forward the stereotype that Apple customers are either “fanbois”, mindless sheep or image-conscious hipsters. Of course, these sample comments imply that people choosing Windows for PCs and Android or others for mobile devices are somehow “wise, intelligent and highly informed”.

Sorry, but I call BS on that one. The average consumer buying any kind of computer, be it Mac, Windows or Linux, is no more informed and no wiser than the buyers of any other kind of computer. Let’s face it, the average consumer doesn’t really have deep knowledge on a lot of the products they buy, and nor would I expect them to. This doesn’t just apply to PCs or tablets, but includes TVs, cars and houses. If anything, the average PC buyer is actually more of a “sheep” than a Mac buyer, because most PC buyers are going to go with what they know, what they are familiar with or what has been recommended to them by someone else. Most Windows PC buyers will get a Windows PC for home because of one of 3 reasons.

First, it’s what they use at work. But, it is the computer of choice for most businesses only because other businesses use them. And they use them, because of yet other businesses. It becomes a virtuous (or vicious?) circle, going back to the late 1980s. Prior to 1988 or 1989, there were dozens of “personal computers” running any one of a half-dozen operating systems (MS-DOS, PC-DOS, CP/M and MacOS were the most notable, and AmigaDOS, GEM and others had their brief day in the sun). However, once businesses saw the value of these systems, the first ones to gain real traction at mid-sized and larger companies were IBM-branded personal computers (because you couldn’t lose your job recommending IBM). That meant more people started to have usable skills on MS-DOS PCs than other computers, so other businesses adopted them because there was a growing pool of talent with those skills, and a growing catalog of software they expected to use. Once people saw some value in having a computer in the home, their first choice was often driven by the familiar, namely what was sitting on their desk at work.

The second reason most people will choose a Windows PC is because it is recommended by a friend, family member or co-worker. Simple probability says that they are more likely to know and be familiar with a Windows PC than anything else. It’s the same when someone goes to buy a new car: they’ll ask the friends they know that have some car knowledge, and will use that as some part of their decision. Most consumers aren’t going to go out and research the gory details on Windows, looking carefully at the way it handles multithreaded code or how a particular model’s bus and architecture makes for higher throughput. The average person is going to rely on people they know and presumably trust to get a recommendation. That recommendation will sometimes come from biases sources, though: again, because a lot of people use one at work, they’ll recommend one for the home. There are plenty of people who claim to be technologically informed, but really only know one platform well. So, even using a so-called “expert” results in skewed information. This doesn’t just apply to Windows users. Someone whose closest friend is a Mac fanatic could get equally biased information. Being biased and having incomplete or incorrect information isn’t limited to a single platform.

The last reason is usually price, although intangibles like “it looks cool” will also come into play. Yes, Windows PC’s can be had for a lower price than the cheapest Mac. That doesn’t make it better, it just makes it cheaper, and it doesn’t make the decision smarter, it just means that the economic equation is important. It also doesn’t make the PC purchase decision any dumber: some people either can’t or won’t exceed a certain budget figure, and that can exclude all kinds of options as a result.

Mainstream consumers aren’t buying something primarily because it is “hip”. They are buying it because they perceive, right or wrong, more value for what they are paying (and I will admit that “hip” and “cool” are part of the value equation). That value can be in the form of “more features”, or could be in “better quality” or simply “it was a good price”. I use quotes there, because it may only be perceived, and not real value. Toyota, from about 1985 until just recently, traded largely on their quality, real or perceived. Toyotas were reliable. You hardly ever heard a story from someone who had a problem with them, but then again, some people may have not spoken up because of the pressure to be seen as making the right decision. Toyota’s quality is now perceived to be less than it was in the past, when in objective terms, it is largely unchanged. A Toyota today is pretty much as reliable as a Toyota you would have bought 10 years ago, when Toyota’s quality was considered at its peak. What has changed is the perception, and when it comes to consumer products, perception can be reality.

Most personal computer buyers, in the end, aren’t any more informed or “smarter” when they buy a Windows PC than when they buy a Mac. They aren’t any less informed, either. Most simply don’t want to bother with trying to understand the details and nuances about the state of the art of PC technology. Unless they have some interest in it, I wouldn’t expect them to. They have other interests and other things that they need to focus on. I’ve made recommendations to family members about computer technology for years now, being the resident computer scientist in the family. In some cases, I’ve recommended a Windows PC, not because it is better than a Mac, but because it would better suit the person in question and what they needed from a computer. I have one family member who kept asking if they should get a PC, and I always asked them what they would use it for. It turns out that, for what they needed at the time, a typewriter was a better use of their budget (and this was about 6 years ago). They just didn’t have a need for a PC at the time, nor did they have the inclination (or the time) it was going to take to make it useful to them. None of these people are “gullible” and they certainly aren’t dumb. These are very smart people, they just don’t know a lot about computers, don’t want to and don’t need to.

In the end, consumers are going to buy what they are going to buy, and the do so for a variety of reasons. It isn’t about making “smart” or “wise” decisions, it isn’t about being gullible, and it isn’t about being sheep. It is about people making decisions with the information they have at hand, and the biases that can be built into that information. As long as someone is happy with the outcome, then I figure they’ve made a good decision, even if I might disagree with it.