Hidden Dimensions -- Why Apple Has Not Advertised Mac OS X

by John Martellaro
March 15th, 2006

Many theoretical physicists believe that we live in a ten (possibly eleven) dimensional space. There are the familiar three dimensions of physical space plus one of time. But there may be extra dimensions, hidden and unseen, that are required to support the unification of gravity, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics. The hidden dimensions are required for a complete understanding of these laws of physics. Without them, we cannot begin to build a complete model of the universe.

The reason I'm taking this approach is because, in my experience, Apple executives and decision makers seldom, if ever, have time to read articles about Apple, its products and decisions. Even less do they take advice and constructive criticism seriously because Apple managers uniformly have more and better information at their finger tips to make decisions. Plus, they know the product roadmap and strategic plans. Quite simply, they live in a different decision space than anyone outside of Apple.

Very little of this information is exposed to the public for competitive and business reasons. As a result, without knowing much about the Apple decision process, Apple's actions are often misinterpreted. Of course, constant misinterpretation and confusion leads to Apple's contempt of the general Macintosh Web.Instead, Apple prefers to work with a few very high profile and respected journalists at large and influential publications who will work with Apple and generate informed, balanced and positive press.

Accordingly, this column will never be directed at Apple. Instead, it's designed to help you, the reader, better understand why Apple does what it does. At least to the best of my ability. And that's why the subtitle of the column is Informed Perspectives on Apple. With a little bit of extra dimensional insight, a better understanding of Apple's products and decisions is possible.

So let's get started with the first project.

Many writers and readers have wondered why Apple has not advertised Mac OS X on television or in print. They argue that the inherent superiority of Mac OS X compared to other operating systems is so obvious that Apple is crazy not to advertise it. Typically, a long laundry list of failed technologies in Windows is compared to successful technologies in Mac OS X. Its Unix roots and better resistance to malware and viruses is touted. Candidate ideas for 30 second TV spots are outlined. And when all is said and done, many end up suspecting that Steve Jobs must have struck a secret deal with Bill Gates to keep this far superior OS under wraps and a secret from the world in exchange for some concession.

From my perspective, things are quite different. Here's why.

A computer operating system, an OS, is a very abstract concept for most modern users. Especially those not-so technical users who are new to computers. Today's operating system does all kinds of marvelous and complex tasks: creates segregated memory spaces for applications, loads them into memory and handles the start of execution, moderates the communication between applications and between applications and the hardware, manages users and their privileges, and generally exposes a user interface to the user. It is only through this user interface that we come to know the OS because so many of the tasks are abstract and hidden.

In fact, Dr. Donald Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) was once a consultant to Apple in the 1990s. He was so antagonistic to the UNIX shell (command line) that he successfully steered Apple away from Unix for years. That led them astray because the issue wasn't that the Unix command line wasn't fit for human consumption; rather, it was "what are the virtues of Unix that merit putting a great UI on top of it?" That's just one example of how difficult it is to characterize an OS, even by a corporation and its expert consultants.

Even with an elegant GUI, such as Mac OS X's Finder, (or better, CocoaTech's PathFinder) there is a huge gap between what the OS does -- here's the key -- and seducing a non-technical customer into making a purchase decision. After all, Mac OS X, Windows and Linux all have the WIMP interface: windows, icons, menus and a pointing device. To the untrained customer's eye, they all pretty much look alike. So while we know all the technical details from years of studying these OSes, few potential customers do. It's like telling a customer considering a new car that she should buy a Toyota Camry instead of a Brand X because the Camry has dual overhead cams instead of hydraulic lifters. She wants to know the price, the gas mileage, and how much room it has for kids and groceries. You're not on her wavelength with even the simplest tech-speak.

As a result of this understanding of the product profile of an OS, it's very, very difficult to create -- in a 30 second TV ad or a print ad -- a compelling and appealing set of images that create appreciation and then demand for a particular OS.

In stark contrast is the aesthetic understanding of how people respond to the appearance, specifically the industrial design, of a product. Apple understood this during the design of the first iMac. In 1997 Apple was in a difficult financial state. Mac OS X (nee Rhapsody) was years away. Something needed to be done fast to create a product that people desperately wanted to own, to touch, to admire, and to be proud of. The Bondi blue iMac ran an obsolete OS, but it was so simple and beautiful, so desirable, and it was so easy to connect to the Internet (Remember Jeff Goldblum's "There is no step three!") that those aesthetic factors alone determined its commercial success.

You could show the iMac on TV, rotate it around, simplify the ugly wires of the PCs of the day, and people would stand in line the next day to own one.

Basically, in 2006, there is no such aesthetic that can motivate people to buy a computer based on its operating system. And it is this deep and abiding belief in physical aesthetics that drives the design and advertising of Apple. The iPod and MacBook Pro are the perfect example of that philosophy.

To be sure, many have proposed clever commercials that showcase widgets. Or Spotlight. Or transparency. Or Bonjour. But how do you present these rather technical concepts in a commercial? Especially when you have about five seconds or less to convince a viewer that he should keep watching a fraking TV commercial instead of heading for the refrigerator?

Now I will admit that there may come a day when a future version of Front Row running on an LCoS HD screen driven by Mac may create that compelling image, but Apple isn't there yet. Even so, Mac OS X as an OS still isn't the star of that stage.

Some have suggested that Apple simply state that Mac OS X is more secure. After all, AOL and Earthlink have been making a big fuss about their security services designed to protect their customers. But if Apple were to spend enough advertising dollars to make an impression that Mac OS X is safer than other OSes, the corresponding result would surely be that the international community of thieves, a $3B annual business by the way, would simply respond with new techniques to attack all those Apple customers who've developed a false sense of security thanks to Apple's own commercials. Puts a big target on Apple's back. I won't even mention liability issues.

The bottom line is that, given the current state of computer OSes, the technology of 2D TV commercials, customer viewing habits, and the aesthetic forces that drive a customer to make a purchase decision, it is very difficult to devise a suitable ad for Mac OS X that can differentiate non-technically, create demand, and also be a good return on investment. At least not to the satisfaction of the few decision makers at Apple that matter.

The situation could change in the future, but that's why I believe Apple has not yet advertised Mac OS X.