We who are not Apple devotees can only look upon them with wonder and awe as they mourn their beloved corporation in the days of its dying. We may sympathize with the grief they feel over the huge losses, sinking market share, and major layoffs at Apple Computer Inc. Certainly we pitied them last week when Steve Jobs of Apple announced, to the boos of the faithful at the Macworld trade show in Boston, that he had capitulated to the enemy, Bill Gates, and accepted Microsoft as an investor and partner. We might even feel compassion for the despairing Macintosh user who argued recently on the Internet that the company, "undervalued by an ignorant society," should simply commit suicide, disband rather than suffer more public humiliation.
But on the deepest level, we cannot understand. Certain emotions naturally arise in computer use--I, for instance, have learned to love the crazy, rich, unpredictable anarchy of the Internet (the biggest library in the world, but run by drunken librarians). Even so, I can't imagine developing affection for the appliance by which I reach it--that would be like having feelings for a telephone. But then, I work with Windows 95 on an IBM PC, and am therefore by definition cold and methodical, cut off from the deep rivers of passion and imagination that flow toward Macintosh owners.
Those who love Apple have turned its demise into a morality play. As Rob Pegoraro wrote in the Washington Post on Friday, true believers see this story as "Us versus Them, Good versus Evil, Art versus Commerce." Like most Mac users, he was at most only half kidding. They actually think that way. Somehow, a company dealing in billions of dollars, having made great fortunes for its founders, has become lodged in the popular imagination as an institution that is not on the side of commerce.
Apple gives new meaning to the term "brand loyalty." Even the outlaws of the business are attached to it. The San Jose Mercury News, deep in Silicon Valley, reported last week that hackers, who take pride in acquiring new software free by illegally copying it, are actually paying money for the new Macintosh operating system, as a matter of principle. "Apple needs every penny," remarked one sentimental hacker in an on-line discussion. Another said that the computer underworld has found its conscience.
Apple, of course, has many virtues. Few experienced users deny that the Mac works best for designers, and there's no doubt Apple was far ahead of its competitors in the mid-1980s. But the pro-Apple party goes much farther than that--much farther than good sense justifies. In fact, Apple's reputation demonstrates the triumph of romantic mythology and clever advertising over reality. It appears to stand for individualism in a world of rigid conformity, but its corporate behaviour has been (until recently) jealous and possessive. It guarded its proprietary rights, refusing to open the business to newcomers by licensing its systems. Microsoft and IBM, on the other hand, rented their technology to a multitude of small companies--and these companies, not Apple, drove the price of computers down. Naturally, those events did nothing to alter Apple's image.
Its followers are unshakeable. They are besotted. They have discovered enchantment, and even a whiff of moral purpose, in a device for organizing and transmitting data. There have been infatuations with consumer equipment in the past: people were loyal to certain automobile manufacturers, occasionally to the point of fanaticism, and high-fidelity fanatics of the 1950s drove their friends crazy by demonstrating the sonic range of their equipment. But these passions never approached the levels of commitment and anger we can find in the world of Apple. Devotion to Apple is unprecedented in the history of technology.
But elsewhere in history, precedents abound. In 1994, Umberto Eco, the Italian critic and novelist, wrote in the magazine Espresso that the division of the world between Macintosh users and those with DOS PCs is essentially religious. It's just like the division of Christianity: the Macintosh is Catholic, the PC is Protestant. The Macintosh, he argued, "tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step....It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation." On the other hand, the Microsoft DOS system used in PCs is Protestant, even Calvinistic. "It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions...and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself..." A truly Protestant idea. But how does Eco deal with the fact that Microsoft Windows adopted the icons used by Macintosh? "Windows," he acknowledges, "represents an Anglican-style schism." It provides "big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions; when it comes down to it, you can decide to allow women and gays to be ministers if you want....."
If the analogy with institutionalized Christianity seems too grand, try Elvis Presley instead. A colleague of mine works in Memphis, and sometimes is asked to take a visitor to town on a tour of Graceland. His opinion of Presley's music has never been more than mildly enthusiastic, but he's discovered that at Graceland he feels curiously exalted. "You can't go there without being changed somehow. It must be something like Lourdes. It's not the house, it's not Presley himself, it's the strangers you see going through, people from Japan or Sweden or almost anywhere. It's their need. They are hungry for something, for connection." Some find it at Graceland, others on the screen of their Macintosh.