It’s Time to Stop Talking About the Apple Cult

Why a decades-old stereotype is less relevant than ever.

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Thirty-seven million iPhones. Fifteen million iPads. Fifteen million iPods. Five million Macs. A million Apple TVs. No matter how you do the math, that’s a boatload of gadgets–and it’s how many Apple sold in the final three months of 2011. The company’s profits–$13.06 billion–were the second-highest in the history of American business, after ExxonMobil’s last quarter of 2008.

But I don’t care about Apple’s bottom line. What I find fascinating about these big numbers is what they say about the size of Apple’s customer base. It’s enormous, and still growing. And the larger it becomes, the weirder it gets that some people reflexively dismiss Apple owners as empty-headed, style-obsessed cult members.

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If you need a refresher on the case for Apple cultism, kindly consult Simon Mills’ “Why I Hate Apple, the infuriating cult making people smug bores” or Hugo Rifkind’s “Apple cult really makes me shudder.” You don’t need to read both of them: They say similar things about Apple fans’ scary obsession with the company’s products and tendency to be duped by its slick marketing. So do countless other pieces, such as this one. (For all the quickness with which Apple haters accuse Apple fans of simple-minded uniformity of thought, they’re the ones who all seem to share the same brain.)

When the notion of Apple fans as cult members began–it dates at least to the mid-1980s–the company’s customers were indeed a small, obsessive group, at least in comparison to the teeming masses that used PCs running Microsoft software. Even a decade ago, when the company was still recovering from its near-death experience of the late 1990s, it sold a relatively piddling 746,000 Macs in the last quarter of 2001, or one-seventh as many as it did in the last quarter of 2011.

Back then, the fact that there were relatively few Apple enthusiasts, clinging to the products of a company with a questionable future, was supposedly evidence that they amounted to a cult. Today, there are vast quantities of Apple fans, buying products from a wildly successful Apple. Mysteriously, that too is proof that they belong to a cult. It’s almost as if the whole theory wasn’t grounded in fact or something.

Condescension is core to the cult argument: The person making the point is always a more discerning sort than the poor, deluded saps who make up Apple’s customer base. Both Mills and Rifkind briefly interrupt their rants to say that they have nothing against Apple products personally. They even respect them. It’s only when somebody else likes Apple that it’s a sign of stupidity.

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Shortly after Steve Jobs passed away in October, two of the leading lights of open software, Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond, were both moved to accuse Apple’s customers of having willingly given up their freedom in return for a cool jail cell. The prisons in question were Apple products–especially the iPhone and iPad, I assume, since both devices get all their software via the App Store that Apple runs as it pleases.

I happen to admire both Stallman and Raymond. I appreciate that they’d be miserable if they were forced to use Apple hardware and software rather than the free, freely-distributable applications which they helped create and popularize. I respect their opposition to Apple’s sweeping control over its platforms, and wouldn’t try to convince them to change their stance.

But I don’t understand why they’re so sure that Apple users are freedom-surrendering ninnies. Freedom doesn’t sound all that liberating if it involves avoiding products that displease Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond.

Stallman and Raymond, I’m afraid, are unable to process the possibility that intelligent folks might make a rational decision to select Apple products. They’re confounded by the fact not everybody shares their priorities, and assume that it’s a sign of a weak will. That’s the bottom line with most people that believe that Apple users are cultists: There’s something about someone else wanting something that they don’t want that confuses and upsets them.

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Like a Republican who thinks all Democrats are faux-European socialists, or a Democrat who believes all Republicans to be warmongering money-grubbers, the people who are sure that Apple owners are cultists don’t seem to have formed their impressions by actually rubbing elbows with many Apple owners. They should try it some time. With Apple Stores everywhere these days, it’s easy.

They shouldn’t go on the day that a new iPhone or iPad is announced–the people camped out at 3 a.m. are nuts, or at least very, very enthusiastic about Apple products. But the ones shopping and consulting the Genius Bar on ordinary days, when I’ve hung around and eavesdropped, look like America to me. They include serious geeks and clueless newbies, young trendsetters and old-fashioned grandmas, bohemians and working stiffs. Some of them look like they might not be able to identify Steve Jobs on sight, which makes it unlikely that they’ve been deluded into worshipping him and his products.

Speaking of Jobs, the fact that he was a control freak and a spellbindingly charismatic public speaker did tend to help out proponents of the cult theory. They were able to cast him as the all-powerful, hypnotic leader of it all–Apple’s Stalin, its Kim Jong Il, its High Priest. These days, however, the most prominent guys on the stage at Apple’s product launches are CEO Tim Cook and marketing honcho Phil Schiller, neither of whom is exactly a Svengali. Accusing either one of them of mesmerizing anyone is going to be a tough sell.

(MORE: Isaacson on Jobs: Should He Have Been a Nicer CEO?)

Even so, I doubt that the Apple-as-religious-sect trope will entirely vanish anytime soon. Once a stereotype is in the wild, it tends to fester. But I hope that nobody who’s paying attention takes it seriously. It says more about the people who spread it than it does about Apple–and what it says is that they’re devoted to an idea that’s increasingly detached from reality. Would anyone be offended if I compared them to a cult?

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on