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ATPM 9.08
August 2003



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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Andrew Kator,

G5s, Macs, and PCs

Apple’s recent announcement of the G5s and their claims for the new computer’s performance have refueled the twenty-year argument over platform superiority between PC and Mac supporters. In order to understand why Apple’s announcements have created such heated and bitter debate, it is important to look back upon the history of the dispute.

In 1983 the typical computing experience was based upon command-line interfaces and the use of BASIC and other high-level computer programming languages. First the Lisa, and a year later the Mac, removed the need to memorize commands in order to use a computer to be productive. Throughout the rest of the 80s, many computer users didn’t recognize this advancement, proclaiming that a computer that didn’t use a command-line interface was a toy and therefore less powerful.

In reality, many of those presenting this argument confused the fact that it wasn’t the computer that was less powerful, but they themselves who felt less powerful by not needing advanced knowledge of technical minutia in order to make the machines operate. The graphical interface made knowing commands and programming optional, so the advanced knowledge required to operate PCs no longer applied. The easy-to-use Mac interface meant non-experts could operate the computer, threatening the egos of computer nerds and tech-heads everywhere.

Obviously Bill Gates and others at Microsoft recognized the advantages of the mouse (even though many Microsoft users didn’t) and how Apple had implemented the interface. Windows 1 and 2 had gained a small following, but it wasn’t until Microsoft introduced Windows 3 that the PC world began to recognize the advantages Mac users had known for years.

Even with the growing similarities, Windows 3 offered something important to many PC users that the Mac didn’t. Windows was still a shell over DOS, and every time Windows crashed or misbehaved, all of those people who loved the feeling of power from using the command line still got to tinker with their computers. The satisfaction derived from these activities is similar to what is experienced by those who own old Italian cars or old VW Beetles: having to repair something on a regular basis makes a person feel needed, and when those repairs are successful there is a sense of accomplishment.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with gaining satisfaction from useful knowledge and self-reliance, but arguing that a computer that crashes more and requires more maintenance is a wasted debate. Long before OS X and its Unix stability, independent studies of computer maintenance and repair expenses repeatedly showed that, over time, Macs cost half as much as the accumulated expenses associated with PCs—even when the initial purchase price of a Mac was significantly higher.

Whenever these figures were mentioned, PC advocates would quietly slink away, only to return later with a desperate attempt to reclaim PC superiority. Some of the disillusioned souls would run into a room yelling, “Novell! You can’t network a Mac!” or “You can’t use a Mac to run a Web server!” Upon having the last of their myths of PC superiority shattered, the only solution for their fractured realities was to find the nearest PC, exit Windows, enter the DOS command line, and gain the rush of satisfaction from proving that they could make the computer do anything they wanted. With the introduction of OS X, Apple has offered a solution for the computer nerds and tech-heads with the system command line abilities of Unix.

Even in the face of cold hard facts, old beliefs and habits die hard. Eventually the PC crowd figured out some arguments that Mac users couldn’t easily debunk, and the focus of the Mac/PC battle shifted to market share, hardware, and compatibility. The next time you hear the worn-out and pointless debate over which platform is better, remember the 20-year trend that many standards of modern computing were first introduced in Macs.

There is no difference between Mac and PC users with the exception that the Mac owners have been compromising with slightly higher prices to have access to what everyone else is going to get a few years down the road. Sometimes having that technology also means Mac owners get to be guinea pigs, testing the consumer market for new technologies. Having tomorrow’s technology now doesn’t make a Mac superior to a PC, it just means Mac users get to play with new things a little sooner than the average person. The joke that Apple is really Microsoft’s research and development department has a lot of truth behind it.

Strangely, there is one amazing advantage Windows has over the Mac that has been overlooked by many PC evangelists. Microsoft Windows has benefited the economy by creating millions of jobs over the years for computer technicians. Needing technical skills to use their products is a large source of income for Microsoft, allowing them to create licensing programs for technical certification. Microsoft certification then feeds the revenues of book publishers, training companies, and the previously low-growth industry of paper certificate manufacturers. Of course, Microsoft technicians had to come from some other industry. The parallel between the dates of Microsoft Windows gaining popularity and Alfa Romeo and Renault pulling out of the American market suggests that Microsoft simply created flawed software in order to employ all of the Alfa Romeo and Renault mechanics that had recently become unemployed.

Rather than recognize that we live in a better world for Apple’s innovation, many computer users (Mac owners included) are still battling over the differences between the platforms. Arguments between PC and Mac users sometimes reflect the same fanaticism and lack of perspective that can be heard from extremist groups, paranoid dictators, and terrorists. Over 95% of the computing world, including PDAs and Pocket PCs, use the same interface conventions first introduced to the public with the Apple Lisa in 1983. In a few generations, historians will look back at the differences between Macs and PCs and find almost nothing to distinguish the two. The innovations, ideals, and attitudes first applied to computing by Apple over the years have made everyone’s computer experience a Mac experience.

Can we move on now and try to enjoy our Macs and Mac clones, err, I mean PCs?

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