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ATPM 13.04
April 2007





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by Wes Meltzer,

They Hit the Snooze Button

Am I now Rip Van Winkle, asleep for 20 years under a shady tree, only to wake and find that in my absence everything has changed?

When I went to sleep, in July 2006, “serious” computer users were still running around claiming that Macs weren’t “open” enough, or “not business-like” enough. An insider’s tip, readers: any time there’s enough new material for me to write a whole a column about something, that means a lot of people are chattering about it. Mark Pilgrim, Tim Bray, and Ted Leung are some big-name figures. Now, in March 2007, it seems like the only hater left is Charlie Brooker. (More on him later.)

What happened?

Well, Microsoft released Windows Vista. And instead of changing the world, a lot of those same important computer users are talking about moving to OS X, or “downgrading” to Windows XP. It seems—as I mentioned last month—that Vista’s not exactly wowing its users with its ease of use, ease of installation, panache, or, um, compatibility.

We’re living in the Bizarro World, and I know it. Microsoft isn’t innovating at all anymore, and Leander Kahney can write a column for Wired about how everything is going Apple’s way—without stretching to find examples.

Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome (whose search box’s label is C:\PIRILLO.EXE) starts us off with a litany of complaints about how Vista is failing him. This is from a man, I’d like to remind you, who has been happily using Windows XP, the operating system that I’d rank somewhere between a colonoscopy and a root canal. Anyway, he says, the onboard software’s buggy, hardware and software support is limited and problematic, there are too many options to tinker with, and just using it seems to require sacrificing productivity in ways that drive him up a wall.

He continued, later in the same day, to expound on the topic. You see, it seems that everyone in the Windows community turned on him for daring to expose the emperor’s limited clothing:

Tell ya what: I’d rather run Vista in a virtual machine on an XP desktop than vice versa. I realize there are always going to be hassles, but when those hassles cause me to pause my own workflow…they become more than hassles, they become obstacles. I have to start thinking around my operating system instead of my operating system doing the thinking for me. If you want a real, tangible fact…I rely less and less on desktop-based software and more and more on Web-based apps.


Believe me, nobody feels worse about this decision than I do. I’ll still be running Vista on my laptop (despite recently having to reinstall the OS after something went awry with a Windows Update procedure), but my primary desktop will soon be XP again.

Thomas Hawk, writing about Pirillo’s series of posts, notes that it’s really time for Pirillo to get a Mac. He says, he stuck by Windows for 16 years, but at some point, he got tired of being “hit in the side of the head with a shovel one too many times,” as he put it. He hasn’t exactly regretted it, to say the least. Hawk wrote, cheerily:

[I]t has been the most positive thing to happen to my computing since. I live with my computer. It’s a big part of my life. I use it upwards of 20 hours a day. And although there was about a 72 hour learning curve and I had to ask Kristopher some really dumb things like “how do I rename a folder,” after this short learning curve it was over and done and now I’m far, far more efficient with my computing than I’ve ever been.

Programs don’t freeze. Everything with a USB connection I’ve ever stuck into the thing has just worked. It wakes up when it’s supposed to. In three months of heavy, heavy use I’ve probably only had to restart maybe three times. Photoshop goes faster. Bridge goes faster. Everything goes faster. And everything just works. That’s the bottom line, everything just works.

Don’t get me wrong. Things can go wrong on a Mac. It just happens like 20x less than on a PC.

On top of it all it feels better. The built-in cam and mic are awesome. The way the volume goes pop, pop, pop as I turn my music up and down is soothing. The keyboard is more comfortable. It’s really cool how I can use two fingers on the touchpad to move my screen up and down, two fingers on the pad and click to right click, etc.

You can’t make up that kind of publicity, can you? Chris Pirillo, take a hint. Get a Mac.

Pirillo isn’t the only important pundit to take one look at Vista and punt. Scot Finnie, of Scot’s Newsletter, recently ran a three-month trial with a MacBook Pro, “as part of [his] research in gauging whether Vista is most people’s best operating system choice.” Finnie has written a series of updates, all along, about how his trial has been going, but it was obvious from the beginning that he was enjoying the experience of using his Mac.

In November, Finnie wrote:

If I could strip out aspects of Vista like Microsoft’s aggressive anti-piracy measures, some of its onerous protective mechanisms, and the high cost of Vista Ultimate, I might continue as a more or less content Windows user. But the emergence of Vista has sparked something new inside me, a serious need to explore my alternatives.

It went well; after just two weeks, he wrote, “Exploring the way the Mac works is actually fun.” Gasp! From a Windows user! (The second update was less earth-shattering.) Then, Finney drove in the stake, in the wrap at the end of his trial:

After hundreds of hours testing Vista and living with the Mac for three months, the choice was, well, crystal clear. I’ve struggled to sort out my gut feeling about Windows Vista, but the value and advantage of the Mac and OS X are difficult to miss. Microsoft’s marketing materials for a past version of Windows used the phrase, “It just works.” But the only computer that tagline honestly describes is the Macintosh. Don’t translate that in your mind as, “Yeah, so what, the Mac is easy to use.” Any new computing environment takes some getting used to. The easy-to-use aspect is nice, but not all that significant. When Mac users say, “It just works,” what they mean is that you spend more time on your work, and a lot less time working on your computer.

Doesn’t it feel good to be vindicated, guys? I bought my first Mac in May 2002, and by July 2002, I knew that I wouldn’t ever go back. I used to be a Linux user—I’m sure I’ve written about this—and I spent a lot of time, in those days, tinkering, trying every possible piece of software in a category. Now my idea of tinkering is trying out a single new piece of software for a month or two, and seeing if it works out for me.

About the only person left who seems to hate Macs is the Guardian’s tech columnist, Charlie Brooker, who seems stuck in the Real World. To him, Macs are just toys (actually, I believe the phrase he uses is “glorified Fisher-Price activity centres”), a statement so hilariously retro it brings me back to an argument I had in 1997. I’m not really sure what to say, other than, “Has he used a Mac?” and “Did he just get dumped by a Mac-user girlfriend?”

Stephen Manes, at Forbes, realizes that Vista may have finally crossed the line between tinkering and working. He says that the lack of polish, plus the endless security notifications, makes it a major problem:

Vista is a fading theme park with a few new rides, lots of patched-up old ones and bored kids in desperate need of adult supervision running things. If I can find plenty of problems in a matter of hours, why can’t Microsoft? Most likely answer: It did—and it doesn’t care

The real slogan: “No innovation here.” Vista can’t compete with that.

I Plead Nolo Contendere

  • You may have seen the Newsweek interview with Bill Gates in February. (Sorry, it looks like I neglected to link to it.) John Gruber was not happy with the fact that reporter Steven Levy lets Bill Gates get away with a few fast ones. So he called him out on it. Anyway, Richard at Smart Like Streetcar points out that, rather than spending his time arguing with Gates about something tangential to the interview, Levy chose to stick to the topic at hand and talk to Gates about Vista. And Levy did a terrific job, he says: “[Levy is] constantly pressing Gates, pumping him for info, pissing him off, but never making Microsoft’s founder so angry that he shuts him down. It’s the razor’s edge, a thing of beauty.”
  • Fire is gone. I guess its time had come: what little of the Mac instant messaging market wasn’t already held by Adium, iChat, and Proteus just wasn’t enough to sustain a neglected client. But still, it’s always bad when a project folds like that. It was the original OS X AIM client (though I still remember when Adium eclipsed it, sometime in 2002). Goodbye, and long live Fire.
  • Someone at MacNewsWorld is mistaking effect for cause, it seems. The mere presence of more Mac security software is not prima facie evidence for more Mac malware. A growing market for preventative devices sometimes precedes growth in whatever the device prevents, and is not necessarily followed by whatever that thing is. (In other words, the US’s development of an anti-ballistic missile defense shield is not evidence of ICBMs being launched against the US, in and of itself.) Anyway, MacUser did a nice job of pointing this out. I haven’t seen an uptick in OS X malware. Have you? Can you say, hello, post-hoc fallacy?
  • How did Apple become one of America’s best retailers? Good question. Money magazine asked the same question, and the answer seems to be, relentless focus on customer experience. Imagine that! Jerry Useem quotes Apple’s Ron Johnson saying, “As an icebreaker [in a focus group], we said, ‘Tell us about the best service experience you’ve ever had.’” Of the 18 people, 16 said it was in a hotel. This was unexpected. But of course: the concierge desk at a hotel isn’t selling anything; it’s there to help. “We said, ‘Well, how do we create a store that has the friendliness of a Four Seasons Hotel?’” I’d just like you to ask yourself how many computer-hardware companies have customer service that even rates Motel 6 levels of customer satisfaction? Give me a break.

And that’s the month that was, folks. I’m going to go back to sleep for another 20 years, and we’ll see where we are then.

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