A long time between Macs

I used to be a Mac zealot.

At school, I saved for nearly three years working nights, weekends and holidays to buy my first second-hand Mac. I wrote my first articles for Mac newsletters and magazines. I had Apple’s location pinned on a map of Silicon Valley on my bedroom wall.

Then I lost my religion.

Apple strayed from the faith. They shafted Steve Jobs and with every release drifted further and further away from what had made the Mac special.

Until one day the Mac just didn’t seem so special any more. When I started editing a PC magazine, my Mac found itself shunted off into a cupboard, no longer a computer for someone technical, but the sort of computer you get for newbies and arty people who don’t know really know any better.

But then something odd happened. It was nearly four years ago, about the time I bought my last trusty Toshiba notebook. I started noticing developers at technical conferences doing their sessions and presentations on MacBooks running OS X. I found myself quietly wondering if I should get a Mac. But I didn’t. I dismissed the idea quickly and bought my 17in Toshiba for a ridiculously low cost. Macs have always been more expensive for equivalent hardware. PCs had gotten cheaper and cheaper. Macs stayed expensive.

At first I didn’t think much of it – a couple of Rails and web developers here and there surely didn’t mean too much. And corporate developers were still either running Windows and doing .net or running Linux and doing Java.

But lots of smart developers are drawn to languages like Python and Ruby, and the fact they were suddenly using Macs made me question my bias. By then it was a bias. Macs sucked. As a developer, they were a pain to support. Life would be better if everyone just ran Windows XP and IE. That bias stopped me from seeing that something had changed.

It wasn’t just that the impact of Steve Jobs’ return had percolated through Apple’s culture and it was making sexy consumer products. The iMac, iBook and iPod had been beautiful pieces of industrial design and engineering for sure, and game-changing consumer products. But there was more to it.

As Paul Graham noted in Return of the Mac four years ago, the fact that OS X is built on both Unix and on the user experience foundations from NeXTSTEP is a big deal. Here was brains and beauty. Sexy and geeky. Sleek and powerful. All smoothly working together and humming in harmony.

And Paul Graham isn’t the only one to note the change. Smashing Magazine ran a story earlier this week on the top five reasons developers are switching to Macs.

For the first time since I was at school, I found myself going into computer stores just to play around on Macs. And what stores! Apple’s Stores are shining, glorious retail temples. They are magical. Truly, inspiringly magical. And the Macs they sell have some of that same magic as the original Macintosh 128K. It’s not just the startup sound or smiley face icon either. There is magic in the entire experience of using a Mac again.

So when my aging Toshiba laptop died a painful death, I’d already made up my mind that I’d have to somehow convince @mediamum we needed a Mac more than a car or health insurance or groceries, and to help me scrabble together whatever cards and cash we could and — for the sake of our startup — find the cheapest deal on a Mac possible. It was a real and genuine struggle to get this thing, and even with an incredibly cheap deal it hurt us at the moment when we’re struggling to build a startup, especially when a decent PC would have been much less.

But there is another subtle reason too why having a Mac matters with a startup. The two most important things for any startup are the ability to make stuff, and to pitch it. Pitching on a PC sends a subtle signal of dowdiness and “unsexy”. I don’t think that should be the case. But I’ve watched a lot of pitches and reactions, and the Mac thing matters. It’s definitely elitist. It’s not part of the “computer for the rest of us” ethos. I think if anything Mac users suffer from a “the computer for the best of us” mindset. But little things make a big difference.

When you’re throwing heart and soul into making something, you want to use the best tools you can to make it as good as it can be. And when you pitch it as something important and, yes, sexy and hot, you want to make the best impression you can.

So here I am, tapping away on a MacBook keyboard, working with Ruby and Rails and Eclipse, feeling nearly as darned downright excited about the computer I’m using as the first time I lugged home that original second-hand Mac in its big beige carry bag. Between my Ubuntu dev box, and the MacBook I’ll be living on, I find myself only running Windows in a virtual session or through a remote desktop.

I’m glad to be back in the cult, and feel strangely at home again, as though I’ve found a favourite book that was lost, or unpacked a toy from when I was a kid that’s been packed away in storage.

If there’s anything worse than a reformed zealot, then it’s a zealot anew. I’m afraid that a zealot I am once more, and glad to be so.