There is a story of a journalist who was unwise enough to lay into the hardcore fringe of the Apple Mac world for being a bunch of neurotic fundamentalists, both intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them and, quite possibly, dangerous too. The punch line is predictable - he got hundreds of emails from angry Apple Mac users, some of whom demanded he shut up or risk being put to death in a lonely car park in the middle of the night.

It's hard to understand why people should so identify with a box full of chips – or the company that makes it – that they would cut loose from sanity in this way, but having read The Cult of Mac you at least start to get some insight into the phenomenon. Unlike so many of the mostly fawning books on the subject of Apple and the Mac computer, this one actually has an excuse for its generally positive slant; it's about the fans themselves.

An unusual dichotomy quickly opens up in the Apple world documented by the book. On one side are the majority of everyday people who choose to use Apple Macs for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they see it as superior to the Windows PC, it features inspired industrial design, and the fact that they like the sense of community and history that comes with the brand.

On the other side are those people who have become so psychologically stuck with the subject that they cross a number of conventional lines. This is where the phrases "Mac nut", Mac religion" and "Mac fetishist" crop up frequently enough that you wonder whether they are humorous monikers or should be taken as tinges of a darker theme.

There are the people who collect empty packing boxes from old Mac computers, travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to listen to Steve Jobs every time he speaks. If Apple launches a new computer, they must have it – no matter their current one is not that old. There is even a guy who collects every single press release put out by the company.

The author, himself a journalist, is skilfully ambivalent about what he surveys in the Apple community. On the one hand, he lets them speak of their technological obsession in loving detail, but occasionally he lets others partially hang themselves with their peculiar one-track mindedness. You start off admiring the devotion in a world that clearly doesn't offer up much else that they can cling to as sacred or authentic but end up unnerved by the parodic narrowness.

Cult reflex
If The Cult of Mac does an excellent job of documenting the breadth of the community, it is still hard to tell whether all Apple users are as chuffed with the company as they tend to declare. There are a few things to looks more closely at. Stories abound of insane corporate paranoia ahead of product launches, of Steve Jobs' "control-freakery", and of attempts to stop books even mildly critical of the company from making it to the shelves. This sort of stuff would be more at home in the Roman Borgias than in a company that is supposed to espouse non-conformism, counter-culture chic, and anti-corporate cool.

Perhaps as Apple has become more successful since Jobs returned nearly a decade ago the tensions generated by living up to its history have started to show. The highly designed nature of Apple's more recent products shouldn't obscure its lack of originality on some scores. It had the Newton PDA, but if course it didn't invent handheld computing. The iTunes music download service is a leader, but came after Napster and others pioneered the ideas it has used. The iPod has turned out to be the greatest way to play digital music years after it was first thought of by someone else.

One could go back further to the invention of the mouse, the graphical user interface, the laptop even. None of these came out of the "insanely great" company, despite since having become synonymous with it. Excluding its startling design ethos, Apple rarely does things first nowadays, even if does them better.

Despite its title, The Cult of Mac ends up steering on the right side of the track in not taking its topic over-seriously. Apple is a modern super-cult, and an unusual one at that, but it is not unique. We live in a world of cults and cultishness. Most of them are small and short-lived while others are more resilient but obscure. Apple's has been around for decades and has turned into big business, but its has also been useful for its business. Without the sense of exceptionalism, what is a relatively small computer company would have long since gone under.

The industry doesn't always need the strange psychology that surrounds the company's brand, but it sure as hell needs its ability to re-imagine the future at a time when others are happy to sit on their hands taking in easy money.

The Cult of Mac
Leander Kahney
No Starch Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-886411-83-2