Daring to be an Apple Computer Inc. devotee in a world dominated by Microsoft Corp.s Windows may seem quixotic, but just about any Macintosh user will tell you that despite some disadvantages, theyd never turn to the "dark side."
So why choose Apple? And why are Mac users so incredibly loyal?
It doesnt seem to add up. Apples share of the computer market hovers around 3 percent to 5 percent, with nearly all of the remainder using Windows.
The total number of Mac users worldwide is estimated at 25 million, dwarfed by the hundreds of millions using Windows.
Critics point out that Macs cost more than Windows PCs, have slower processors, run far fewer programs and arent compatible with industry standards.
But Mac users tirelessly combat these perceptions, which arent as black and white as they seem. They maintain that, while Macs may cost more, they usually last longer; that processor speed isnt necessarily the most important feature of a computer; that Macs interact with Windows PCs far better today than they did 10 or even five years ago; that almost any software the average user might need is available for the Mac.
Most Windows users cant figure out the extraordinary affection Mac folks have for their computers; in the Windows world, the prevailing attitudes toward computers tend to be indifference, if not irritation.
While a few bona fide Mac-haters exist in the PC world, the typical owner of a Windows PC considers the Mac a nice-looking computer suited mainly for schoolchildren and artists.
Mac users, on the other hand, consider Microsoft in general, and its Windows product specifically, as an evil that must be fought. To bring a Windows user over to the Mac camp is akin to saving their silicon soul.
What is it about Macs that elicits such sentiments? As a Mac user myself for the past decade, I offer these reasons:
First, theres a conviction that Mac is a better-integrated, more intuitive computer -- partly because of Apples attention to detail and in part because Apple makes both the hardware and the software. This results in easier-to-use machines with fewer conflicts than their Windows counterparts.
Second, theres the siege-mentality factor. With such a large percentage of the world dismissing Macs, belittling them or just ignoring them, Mac users feel compelled to join forces to defend themselves.
Third, theres definitely a cachet to being in a group that refuses to conform to the "standard." Apple even capitalized on this concept with its four-year "Think Different" advertising campaign that just ended this summer.
Finally, theres the friendly "Mac community," a loose term that describes the camaraderie between Mac fans everywhere. Mac users form an instant bond with one another, wherever they meet: at work, at a cocktail party or, most typically, on the Internet.
For a platform seemingly so tiny relative to Windows, there are a staggering number of Web sites devoted to the Macintosh -- dozens and dozens.
Some are devoted to general news and commentary, some to rumors, some to troubleshooting, some to games, others to specific types of Macs (yes, theres even a site devoted to the short-lived Cube , discontinued less than a year after shipping began), and several to the new operating system, Mac OS X.
The so-called "Mac Web" provides a virtual meeting place to exchange information, to get advice and to vent anger over a range of Mac-related issues.
Many sites sponsor forums where users can ask one another for help or post observations. Im always amazed at the depth of knowledge in these forums. Its often a better way to find an answer than consulting Apples own online Knowledge Base.
For instance, I once downloaded iCal, the latest in Apples series of free "iApps" software the day it was released, but the program crashed each time I tried to launch it.
A trip to the MacFixIt site had a helpful tip from a reader: "If youve removed or deactivated with a font-management utility, the HelveticaNeue font, you need to reactivate it or put it back in the Library/Fonts folder."
Apples Knowledge Base didnt have that tidbit for two days.
Even fan sites operated by a handful of people can provide staggering amounts of information. And most sites are updated daily, some several times a day.
The most amazing is Mike Breedens Accelerate Your Mac site, a mind-boggling trove of data, hints and tips, much of it the fruit of Breedens own laborious testing.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Mac Web, however, is the vehemence that can greet developments in the Mac universe, especially announcements from Apple Computer.
Since Mac users commit themselves to Apple, they expect that loyalty to be reciprocated. When Apple behaves like the corporation it is, rather than the benevolent shepherd some imagine it to be, some feel betrayed.
When Apple chief executive Steve Jobs said during his keynote address at the MacWorld New York trade show in July that the previously free iTools service -- which included an e-mail address and 20 megabytes of storage on Apples servers, as well as a few minor benefits -- would become the $99-a-year .Mac service, the digital backlash came quickly.
Forums filled with posts from irate users. Most swore theyd never pay the fee, although existing iTools members get their first year for half price, and Apple upgraded the service with several new features.
But many questioned why Apple didnt offer a bare-bones e-mail address for $19.95 a year, or for $9.95 -- or even free as a promotional tool.
A few started online petitions of protest, one of which has collected more than 30,000 signatures. Meanwhile, a handful decried the rest as whiners and defended Apples position, which basically is that Internet services arent free anymore.
But two months later, many Mac users begrudgingly have accepted Apples decision, although a Sept. 17 announcement that 100,000 users already have signed up for .Mac set off the whole debate again.
Eventually, though, almost every angry Mac user will forgive Apple. Why? Because the alternative, buying a Windows PC, is unthinkable.