How The Mac Has Changed The World: The Gift of Time
October 1st, 1999

An ugly world

Ugh. The world without Macintosh. Pretty frightening, eh? While I think it likely that Microsoft would have eventually developed Windows one way or another with or without the Mac, I imagine the world would just now be getting something on the level of Windows 3.1. The voices of Amigaheads, OS/2 nuts, and whatever other GUI/OS combo fans there are out there can start screaming now, but I personally believe that Microsoft would still dominate the computing world, though perhaps more absolutely than they do today, if that's conceivable. What an ugly world that is.

Steve Jobs' initial vision of a computer "for the rest of us" showed the world that it didn't have to settle for "good enough." He showed us that computers could be there to help us do our work, and to make new things possible and existing tasks easier. He showed us that using a computer could be relatively transparent (we aren't there yet, but the Mac is closer than anything else before or since) and that we didn't have to be slaves to the machine. This was a novel concept.

And I think this is where the Mac has had the most influence on the world. I believe that its ease-of-use, through direct application, and through its influence over the rest of the computing world, has bestowed the gift of time to almost all of us, even those who have never touched a computer.

The background

I am going to risk offending economists and others who may be more learned than I, by delving into some armchair economics. Please forgive me.

We work X amount of hours each week, day, or month, depending on how you wish to look at it, to pay for the food we consume. We work another X amount of hours to pay for our electricity, our housing, our clothing, etc. Of course, you can't forget taxes, which account for the first several months of each year's work. What's left over after paying for those basics translates into savings, recreation, additional material gains, or whatever you decide.

Let me give an example. Let's say that you have to work 10 hours every month to pay for your electricity. Now, let's pretend that the company that supplies your electric company fuel discovers some new method of developing or delivering that fuel in such a way that they can afford to charge 2/3 less while still earning a profit. Now let's pretend even further that this allowed your electric company to charge you 3/4 of what they did before (and pretend, too, that they chose to do so). You would suddenly only have to work 7.5 hours each month to pay for your electricity. That's 2.5 hours each month that you can work for yourself or toward some other expense.

The same thing goes for companies. Companies, no matter how small or large, have to pay their employees for X amount of labor hours to produce enough goods to cover salaries, rent, electricity, insurance, R&D, etc. In a nutshell, what's left over is profit. So in a pretend and over-simplified manufacturing company, each person on the assembly line may have to work 5 hours of each week to pay the salaries of the people in the HR department (who produce no direct revenue). Then maybe they work another 4 hours each week to pay for the accounting department. Add in another 2 hours from each assembly worker to pay the salaries of the people performing secretarial duties and in our pretend and over simplified company, that's 11 hours each week that each assembly worker is working to pay for these other sectors of the company.

Imagine that the introduction of WYSIWYG word processors and GUI spreadsheets, as well as other innovations made a reality by the Mac, made it possible for those secretaries, accountants, and HR personnel to get the same job done in fewer hours. That would translate into fewer employees and lower costs. Imagine that because of these reductions each assembly worker only had to work 7 hours each week, or 4 hours less, to pay for those other employees. That's 10% of each assembly work week in our pretend company. This will translate into higher profits, more R&D, lower prices on the company's goods, or some other economic benefit.

And don't feel too bad for the newly unemployed secretaries and accountants, either, because this same thing is happening at the same time all around the corporate world. That, in effect, makes it cheaper for all of us to buy our goods and services. This, in turn, means that we have "excess" money with which to buy more things, save, or invest in more companies. From this, other companies grow, and still other companies are born, making plenty of jobs available for all of those recently unemployed HR people, accountants, and secretaries.

Please understand that I am oversimplifying this issue to an absurd degree for the sake of this column, and I am only talking about this narrow aspect of labor costs as one factor of pricing. There are certainly plenty of other factors that have nothing to do with our discussion.

In another example, let's look at the publishing and advertising world. This is one industry where the Mac made a direct contribution to increased productivity. The Mac (and the LaserWriter) made it possible to create and publish magazines and newspapers in a fraction of the time that it took before. That saved time translated into saved money. A magazine might charge X amount for advertising with the first 20 cents or so (work with me, I am making up numbers here) going to pay for production costs. With the Mac, many publishers were able to lower their costs as well as their advertising rates. Those that didn't often found themselves faced with new competition anxious to take advantage of those "high" prices charged by the old guard. Lower advertising costs made it possible for those companies in my earlier example, now flush with cash due to their own lower labor costs, to spend more on advertising and increase their market share, or even to grow new markets.

And this is exactly what has happened during the last 20 years. Increased productivity at an unprecedented rate has fueled the most remarkable economic expansion the world has ever seen. While computers in general have been responsible for much of that economic growth, the Mac in particular helped take it to a higher level than DOS ever could.

Without the Mac, a usable version of Windows would have been long in coming as there would have been nothing for Microsoft to compete against or against which to measure their success. Even if I am wrong about Microsoft's dominance (I am not wrong), and the absence of the Mac would have actually allowed some other GUI or company to take over the computing world, the fact is that it was the Mac that was the driving force in the real world. It was the Mac that taught the world there were easier ways to compute. It was the MacOS that became the standard for GUIs. It was the Mac that was the muse for Windows 95.

The Gift of Time

Whether or not you care for Windows, it can not be denied that Windows 9x represents a vast increase in usability over Windows 3.x and DOS. Through Windows, the Mac exerts the same influence in the Wintel world as it does in the sane world where people actually use Macs. While their productivity increases do not match the kind of increases that Mac users enjoy, Windows 9x users are more productive than they would have been in a DOS world. That effects all of us.

Everything combined, the Mac and its influence has contributed greatly to the fact that today we pay less for a carton of milk and the other things we need or want than we otherwise would have. This in turn leads to us spending less of our working ours each week paying for our basic needs (or wants). The bottom line is that the Mac has changed the world by giving us the gift of time, all thanks to Steve Jobs and his computer for the rest of us. Thanks Steve!

Your comments and hate mail can be sent to [email protected].

[Editor's Note: This marks the second of a special series of editorials about how the Mac changed the world. The first of this series was by Del Miller, a columnist from MacOPINION. His column is titled "How The Mac Changed The World: Telegraph Road." You can read more of Del's excellent work in his column called The Difference Engine. Next week we will be joined by John Martellaro.]