Do People Who Don’t Know How to Use Computers Choose PCs?

by Chris Howard May 02, 2007

It seems that people who don’t know how to use a computer buy PCs. Maybe that’s a generalization, but I was just struck to wondering this recently when I encountered a person who’d worked with both Macs and PCs but ended up preferring PCs because of the whole compatibility thing. (Although this person makes a living from using computers so is no novice. However, this person certainly doesn’t know much about the computer beyond the applications used.)

Now, I’m not talking 1996 here. This person switched to Windows in 2004 when the compatibility argument should have been pushing up daisies.

Problem is though, its ghost still haunts computerland. As do a couple of others.

If you hang around Mac forums long enough, you could get the impression Macs are made for the lowest common denominator. Mac users love to brag how “anyone can use a Mac!” Yet those anyones keep choosing PCs.

It’s a conundrum. Certainly you can throw a veritable truckload of examples at me of computer illiterates who have embraced the Mac. However, it’s not just these folks I’m considering. It’s also the ones who do use a computer regularly but only know the applications they use and their sum total knowledge of troubleshooting is: reboot. Those folks look at you blankly when you mention Windows Control Panel. Ironically, these are the people who would like using Macs most.

Recently a fellow student was in the market for a computer. For reasons of local support for the local PC vendor, she finally chose a PC over a Mac despite using Macs at school and having no existing computer at home.

The nearest Apple retailer of any sort is an hour away from me, and add half an hour for her. The nearest full Apple shop (though not Apple owned) is nearly three hours away.

Would she have bought a Mac if an Apple retailer was closer, say only 15 minutes away, or even five minutes? I don’t think so.

The only people suggesting a Mac to her were classmates and teachers. Whereas anyone she spoke to outside the classroom would have been saying “PC!” To someone who’s a relative novice on computers, there’s much security in knowing you’re using a computer most of the population uses.

That’s one area—security—where the PC wins hands down over the Mac in many parts of the world. The security of knowing that local support from the person you bought the computer from is only five minutes away.

Or so you hope.

I know my main local PC retailer has a poor record of after-sales service because they’re literally too busy selling computers to service them. It’ll be interesting to see if my classmate experiences the same problem with the retailer she purchased from.

So where does all this leave Apple? And the Mac? Market share is increasing but it would be interesting to get a breakdown of the computer literacy of the switchers. I think we Mac users might be disappointed to find the majority know their way beyond a couple of regularly used applications.

Getting back to the original proposition: my experience is certainly that the less a person knows about computers, the more likely he or she is to choose Windows “because everyone else uses it.”

I’ve tried getting people to switch before but (believe it or not) using Windows is a comfort zone for them. It’s the old story (albeit slightly edited): familiarity breeds content. And part of that familiarity is carried by friends and family who “all use PCs.”

So how does Apple win over those people who actually would benefit from the Mac most? Is the “Get a Mac” campaign convincing them to leave their comfort zone? Or is Apple simply picking up the easy converts? And will that well dry up?


  • You put your finger on the biggest obstacle to Mac market share growth.  The availablity of ‘free’ technical support from friends and family.

    That’s why Mac market share growth is a long hard slog.  The physical model we should be looking at is diffusion rather than rapid propagation. 

    Mac adoption usually starts with one brave and thoroughly frustrated PC user who finally got tired of the whole security rigmarole that PCs entail and decided to try out a Mac.  He then finds the experience quite good and gets his family and friends to switch to PCs.  Which they will do only on condition that he is willing to babysit them through the whole process, which includes calls at odd hours of the day. 

    In short, aside from the few fearless pioneers, most people will buy a Mac only if there is someone whom they feel comfortable mooching for free and abundant tech support.

    The thing is, people take a long time between computer purchases so the switch to Macs goes very, very gradually.
    In my case, I bought my first Mac in ‘03 and will never ever buy a Mac, but I still have two PCs at home and just bought our second Mac this month to replace the older (8 yrs) PC.  So it will take about 8 years before our family becomes Mac-pure.

    tundraboy had this to say on May 02, 2007 Posts: 132
  • during the days of DOS and MAC it made a huge difference what was simple to learn. Not any more!. Put any one who never used a computer on a PC and teach him/her they will learn. Put the same people on a MAC they will learn. It does not make any difference.

    Yes support is critical. If I have to go hunting for a mac shop forget it. Take the case of all the G4 machines we have. You need a DVD drive it is night mare - compatibility. Take any PC 10 years old and you are bound to find any key parts readily available and I might add cheap as well.

    Recently I started using GOOGLE spreadsheet online. I think the line is blurring where the OS is no longer important. With a good browser I should be able to do the basics of what almost 60% of the population use PC for ie mail, documents, spreadsheet and dbase - has not changed much since wordstar, visicalc and dbase were invented.

    I am still using my powerbook G4 and I will continue to use it for the foreseeable future.

    hodari had this to say on May 02, 2007 Posts: 4
  • We’ve all recommended Macs to someone who eventually bought a pc based on a friend’s recommendation.

    I am sick of those new pc users calling me when their PC ‘friends’ are nowhere to be found. Sorry, I don’t do windows. My wife (has never used a PC) has a soft spot for these folks and has actually become pretty good at fixing their laptops.

    I just keep quiet…

    rrfrey had this to say on May 02, 2007 Posts: 1
  • I’m one of the fearless Pioneers, frustrated when a nasty little virues literaly wiped out my sony Vaio, I never had any “compatibility” problems so many PC users use as an excuse to stay within the Windows Comfort zone.

    I’ve tried to talk a few people into buying a Mac and they ended up buying a low-end Dell laptop with crappy performance, their excuse; “Compatibility Issues” when all they use their computer for is web browsing, MS Office, e-mail and that’s about it. So so sad when they realize Macs do all that and MORE.

    Nemin had this to say on May 02, 2007 Posts: 35
  • The nearest full Apple shop (though not Apple owned) is nearly three hours away.

    Over Christmas holiday, I tried to get my mom to get a Mac.  But the nearest Apple store was two hours away and she wanted to try before she bought anything.  So she ended up getting an inexpensive laptop from Wal-mart.

    Here’s the consistent bottom line I’ve noted as a Mac user:

    Macs are a premium product.  They are therefore NOT for “everyone.”  Not because they are easy or difficult to use, but because they are a) hard to come by if you’re not in a major city, b) often an expensive solution, and c) rare among most people’s peers.

    My mom just wanted the internet, photo printing, and a couple of casino games.  While a Mac would easily handle her needs, it also is difficult to justify paying $1200 for a Macbook when a $600 laptop at Wal-mart will do the trick.

    By FAR the most common users I know are people in the film and TV business.  I personally know no one outside of that community who uses a Mac, and I live in LA.  I’ve observed a few other people using Macs and discussed Macs with people on this forum who use them, but this is obviously a self-selecting group.

    The other observation is that Macs, for the totally novice user, are no easier to use than a PC.  My wife is pretty much a novice (she sort of knows Word and how to use a browser), and the number of questions she asks me about how to do something has not gone down since I switched her from XP to OS X.

    Finally, I don’t think there’s any question that that hardware compatibility, while not the issue it once was, is still an issue.  Just go to a big box store and compare the hardware options for a PC with those for a Mac.

    I tried buying a USB wi-fi adapter for my Mac mini not too long ago.  There are none.  NONE.  To get wi-fi on my Mac mini would cost me $80 at a specialty shop to install an internal wi-fi card.

    Meanwhile, the USB wi-fi adapter I just got for my rendering PC was about $35.

    That’s not strictly Apple’s fault, and for the most part compatibility is not a huge deal anymore, but there are still frustrations out there.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 02, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • I disagree with the premise of your argument. For God’s sake, look at the picture you included.

    Those Mac ads throw up two stereotypes: a corporate suit and a slacker. Between the two, the smarter one has got to be the one who showers regularly.

    I was also in a local Border’s one day overhearing a conversation between two cotton-tops. One of them was looking to buy a new computer, asking for help from the clerk as to any good books he might recommend. The woman standing next to her piped up saying, “Oh, you’ve got to get an Apple. They’re just sooo easy to use.” I can’t argue with her recommendation, but the reasoning is clear, don’t you think.

    That from a guy (me) who really, really wants to get a Mac but could never justify the excessive pricing for a machine my kids use in school.

    keidalgrim had this to say on May 02, 2007 Posts: 2
  • Beeb, I found an Aussie one from dlink but you’re right, they are hard to find.

    MacGlee said “Why does everyone think its more difficult because its Mac?”

    Ah! See, a Windows user who could swap his drives and RAM to another PC, is just the sort of person who would be confident switching to Mac.

    Macs are not more difficult - as you say - however, it’s those PC users who wouldn’t swap disks and RAM who are the ones my article refers to, those who would be least likely to switch.

    keidalgrim, yeah sorry, that image is somewhat counter to the premise. Which is interesting. Based on what I’ve suggested, does that mean “PC’ is a prime candidate for switching?

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 03, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • How do PC-ignorant people chose their PCs? A very good question, indeed Mate!

    I once dabbled in the PC servicing and consulting biz as recent as 2003 and I can tell you the most pervasive rub on the truth is:

    1. Bang for the buck (or the appearance, thereof) which means how much hardware I will get for $500 big ones.

    Most newbie folks these days just want to try out the “net” thing they’ve heard from coworkers over many lunches. Therefore, the cheapest “PC” always wins out - ease of usefulness, intuitiveness, or coolness be damned!


    2. PC-clueless folks, as proven human trait, like to stay within the Comfort Zone of knowing friends who are using what you are about to spend lots of $$$ on.

    It’s the Monoculture Effect. The iPod is a great example and no it isn’t just because it looks so damn cool!

    And CH, you are right, and if I may add, this reason alone will make the adoption of OSX for the rest of the 90% extremely difficult.

    It is not entirely impossible to convert many more to reach 30% share but this process will take a long time.

    Evangelism, as we Mac loyalists often do, can only go so far.

    Robomac had this to say on May 03, 2007 Posts: 846
  • See, a Windows user who could swap his drives and RAM to another PC, is just the sort of person who would be confident switching to Mac.

    Also, the ability to switch out the DVD drive and the hard drive are for the Mac Pros only or older power Macs.  And I think it’s safe to say that the Mac Pro users are not in the “demo” you’re referring to.

    Although I suppose one could argue that switching out the optical or HDD on a Mac mini or laptop (which I’ve done) is for the even more tech savvy. smile

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 03, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • Sadly, today another classmate decided to buy a PC when I told him he couldn’t buy a Mac locally.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 03, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • Clearly, it’s still more difficult to get a Mac (from a local vendor) outside the USA than it is inside, but you can be in a similar pickle if you live in a rural area.

    A lot of people have touched on problems with obtaining Mac peripherals or replacement parts (ie - DVD drive), or other issues that we of the “power” user set can encounter.

    But we are not the majority of computer purchasers. Most computer buyers, buy a CPU and monitor (and sometimes a printer) and that’s it, until they replace the machine with a new one. So the availability of parts and peripherals doesn’t play a part in their decision.

    To this day, I still get questions from acquaintences like “Can I use Microsoft Office on the Mac?”

    Where the hell do these people get their computer information that they wouldn’t know the Mac can run Office or other productivity apps?

    To them, the Mac OS is like some foreign land where you have to learn another language. They don’t know the natives actually speak English (like Australia, for instance. ; )

    It is my impression that people are often too lazy to actually do the research when making these purchasing decisions, even if it involves $1000 - $2000. I’ve also read articles that people actually don’t do much research when buying a car, which is a much larger purchase—they pick cars based on their gut feeling.

    As others have posted, Windows is familiar. Even if a consumer not very computer literate, the chances are they’ve used Windows before, so they’ll pick the familiar. It’s the “easy” or “obvious” choice because so many others that they know have made the same one.

    This is the single largest marketing hurdle Apple faces with the Mac—to get people to try a less familiar product, outside of their normal confort zone.

    vb_baysider had this to say on May 03, 2007 Posts: 243
  • PS—on a slightly unrelated note, my company hosts a number of websites of a number of different companies with whom we do consulting.

    We’ve recently switched to a new stats package that tracks all kinds of stuff to help our ecommerce clients. I’ve noticed that the visitor sessions are tracking 8 - 10% Mac users.

    While the total number of sessions are still somewhat low for a good sample size, so far they have remained consistent. It would seem to imply the the installed base percentage of Macs is significantly larger (ie- at least double) than the reported market share based on new PC sales.

    Just an FYI.

    vb_baysider had this to say on May 03, 2007 Posts: 243
  • vb, talking about your Office example, it was funny coz this guy yesterday (who’s decided to buy a PC), also asked me if “these programs run on Windows computers”. The programs are the the Adobe Creative Suite. smile

    It was so tempting to say no. smile

    It makes me wonder where Apple and Adobe would be today if Adobe never ported Photoshop to PCs.

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 03, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • It makes me wonder where Apple and Adobe would be today if Adobe never ported Photoshop to PCs.

    An intriguing question, Chris.  But I think if one assumes that the iPod would not be nearly what it is without PC users, it’s more viable to suggest that Photoshop would have remained a niche product rather than Apple being catapulted into a significantly larger market share.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on May 04, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • Woohoo! Good news! Sort of. The guy I mentioned in comment #11 who said he’d buy a PC, was in an Apple store in the city and saw a 24 inch iMac and couldn’t resist it. smile

    Why “Sort of” good news? Coz he’s got a 24 inch iMac and I haven’t!

    Chris Howard had this to say on May 09, 2007 Posts: 1209
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