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To Mac or Not to Mac?

A self-confessed Macintosh devotee contemplates the ultimate sacrifice: moving to a PC running Windows. Is life worth living on the Dark Side?

Many years from now, I’ll be hunched over in a creaky old pine rocker on the porch of my retirement home. For hours at a time, I’ll sit staring at the trees, lost in thought. Then a passing car will startle me out of my reverie and suddenly I’ll begin to blurt out words like an old radio whose short-circuited wiring has accidentally righted itself. My utterances might seem incoherent at first, but whoever takes a moment to listen will quickly realize that they’re not incomprehensible, merely ancient: “MacPaint … AppleShare … ImageWriter …” I will tell anyone who will pretend to listen, “I was a Mac person.” Maybe I’ll get really lucky and catch the ear of a young history buff. She will recognize some of my strange utterings from her History of Technology class and understand right away that I come from the dawn of the Age of Personal Computing. With wide eyes and hushed voice, she’ll want to know if I ever saw a Macintosh with my own eyes. I’ll tell her truthfully and in all modesty, “I owned one.” The Mac will presumably be pure history by then.

Every day seems to bring more bad news for Apple and its famously loyal customers: “Apple Loses $708M,” “Apple to Slash Work Force by 30%,” “Gateway 2000 overtakes Apple in Education Market.” One particularly dark moment came last fall, when Yale University officials declared that after 2000 the university network will not guarantee support for the Mac-until recently the most popular machine on campus. This public abandonment threatens to undercut Apple’s strategy of falling back on a few niche markets, notably education; for longtime Apple users, it is a betrayal tantamount to telling an aging Nobel Prize-winner that his services are no longer needed.

These, then, are tough times for any Mac person: to watch the steady demise of the company that invented this “insanely great” machine; to see frightened school principals and college deans abandon this elegant, intuitive platform; to see colleagues, friends, and even family members, good and loyal Mac people, throw in the towel, however valid their reasons-price, software selection, peripheral availability. Wired magazine’s cover story last year on the embattled company featured a collection of former Mac loyalists who have gone over to Windows for one reason or another. It was agonizing to read the list of high-profile defectors.
The question that has been disturbing me recently is: Should I join them?

I realized a few months ago that I needed to buy a new computer. The last machine I bought was a PowerBook 180, purchased in 1993. It has a grayscale monitor, doesn’t run a lot of Internet software and, after four years of enthusiastic use, shows a fair amount of wear and tear. I try to avoid getting caught up in hardware and software upgrade mania-upgrading just for the thrill of it or in response to the pervasive cultural anxiety about falling behind. But sometimes there are good reasons to upgrade. Since I now perform a good portion of my research on the Web, it is time to step up to a quicker machine with color and more memory.

I phoned my brother Josh to tell him that maybe the time had come to switch to Windows: “Everyone else seems to be doing it.”

“David,” he gasped, “you’re not serious!” This from someone who has been forced to use Windows at his place of business. Knowing that I have the freedom to stay with Mac, he couldn’t believe I would even consider defecting.

It’s not that I have become dissatisfied with the Macintosh. On the contrary: After 13 years and nearly as many hardware upgrades or outright purchases, I retain my reverence for the machine that helps me think and write my best. The Macintosh was, after all, the first personal computer to capture the popular imagination. Before the Mac, nontechies didn’t have much interest in personal computers for one simple reason-they weren’t personal. They were computers-big ugly calculators that one could wrestle into performing calculations or type on without having to use White-Out.

The Macintosh changed all that. Its famously intuitive graphical user interface, which put aesthetics on equal footing with function, turned the personal computer into a tool whose power derived not from its calculating capabilities (on that front, the Mac was no powerhouse) but from its ease of use. “The interface makes the teeming, invisible world of zeros and ones sensible to us,” writes Steven Johnson in his terrific new book, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate. “There are few creative acts in modern life more significant than this one, and few with such broad social consequences.”

The cruel irony at work in the apparent disintegration of Apple is that as Mac has won the war of ideas, it has simultaneously lost the contest for financial preeminence to its imitators. “When Windows 3.0 swept the world, so did Apple’s concept of beautiful software,” writes Yale computer scientist David Gelernter in his book Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Computing. “Pushing beauty instead of old-fashioned DOS ugliness, Microsoft emerged as the uncontested leader of the desktop computing world.” Windows now has a 70 percent market share-to Mac’s 7 percent-and is gaining.

In the face of that juggernaut, I told Josh, I felt it was important to keep an open mind. Mac users are frequently derided as zealots whose fiery devotion to the Mac defies all reason. I like to think of myself as fairly level-headed. I’d hate to look back on my life from that porch rocker and realize that I’d wasted fistfuls of money staying true to an increasingly inferior brand. I’d also be ashamed to discover that I had duped myself into ascribing more power to the Mac than it deserved. Maybe much of the magical feeling I have about the Mac is just wonder at the process of writing and the mysteries of creativity and intellectual growth-intangibles for which one is naturally tempted to find a physical totem.

For all these reasons, I resolved to consider Windows seriously. I called a few PC manufacturers and arranged to borrow some “Wintel” machines. I also called up Apple and told them that I was thinking about abandoning the Mac. Would they please cooperate by letting me borrow one of their hot new PowerBooks for a little while? They graciously agreed to assist me in my experiment.

For my preview of Windows 95, Toshiba sent me its Portg 300CT and Fujitsu sent its Lifebook 655T. Both are four-pound notebooks that conveniently dock into CD-ROM/floppy drive units. I also spent some time with Gateway’s P5-133 desktop. And what I found, much to my surprise, was this: Windows 95 is terrific.

Yes, I had my share of peripheral installation trouble and Internet connection trouble. I spent hours on the phone waiting for tech support and hours more actually talking to technicians as they helped me work out this or that kink. On the whole, getting going was somewhat more difficult than it’s ever been with a Mac. But since neither platform is guaranteed to be headache-free, these differences don’t mean much to me. If people want to live truly simple lives, they should avoid buying complex machinery.

Mac friends may toss virtual rotten eggs into my electronic mailbox for saying this, but I found Win95 to be wonderfully intuitive, even for someone who has spent many years getting used to another system. In fact, I was startled to discover that a few Win95 features were clearly superior to their counterparts on the Mac. Using the all-purpose “Start” button in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, for instance, I could effortlessly choose almost any function offered by the computer. And all windows can collapse to the bottom of the screen in an orderly fashion, making it easier to juggle lots of documents and programs at once. Even the much-touted Mac OS8 doesn’t provide these seemingly obvious conveniences. (Mac’s answer to window clutter is collapsible windows that suspend the title bars wherever they happened to be in the screen, a laughably useless gimmick.)

And then there’s the guilty pleasure of being in Bill’s corner. The Justice Department may not be too happy about Microsoft’s market dominance, and as a consumer advocate, I’m not necessarily thrilled about it either. But as a plain old consumer, I like the fact that my operating system, word processor, Internet browser, e-mail program, and scheduler are all designed by the same company to work in seamless synchrony. I like my software shopping to be a no-brainer, consisting simply of scouting for the Microsoft logo. I like my software company to be a financial titan, guaranteed to deliver timely upgrades on all my programs as long as I live.

More than anything else, discovering Win95’s ease brings an enormous personal sense of relief. As many of us have entered our second decade of Mac use, we’ve carried with us the deep fear that we are headed for oblivion, like romantic adventurers who find themselves driving off a cliff. Having sampled Windows 95 for myself, I now realize that Apple could crumble tomorrow and I would come out all right. David Gelernter is correct: the essence of Mac has swept the world. The war of ideas is over, and we’re all winners.

Deciding whether to abandon the Mac is a two-part exploration. Having answered question one-“Can I thrive with Win95?”-in the affirmative, I now faced question two: “Is there a compelling reason to leave Mac now?”

Answering this question, I have come to believe, is a matter of choosing the correct metaphor. Is buying a new Mac this year like buying a Porsche 911 or a Sony Betamax? Both are superior machines; neither boasts an impressive market share. Porsche parts may not be compatible with market leaders Toyota, Ford, and Honda, but they are nonetheless readily available (albeit pricey). Most important, the car rides beautifully on almost any road. Loyalty to the Porsche may seem eccentric, but the choice of driving system does not prevent one from getting where one wants to go or from enjoying the ride.

The Betamax, on the other hand, was a terrific machine that quickly lost its value for those who were unlucky enough to purchase one in the mid-1980s. A friend of mine in college clung proudly to his Betamax, touting its superior technology. But the vast majority of consumers chose the cheaper, if inferior, VHS machines, and Betamax “software”-video tapes-never developed into a viable market. My friend wound up playing the same few movies over and over again. Betamax proved that a superior technology can also be a useless technology if the market so dictates.

Some folks will say the Betamax analogy is the right one. It takes about 90 seconds in any software store to realize that there are vastly more titles available for Windows than Mac. The Windows user has many more choices among peripherals like printers and CD-ROM drives as well and tends to pay less to boot. Will Mac’s market share shrink inexorably to zero? If Mac is destined to slide into oblivion like the Betamax, I’d be a fool to buy one.

But to my mind, there are at least three good reasons why the Porsche analogy works and the Betamax analogy fails. First, Porsche may not be a top-selling car, but it sells well enough to keep lots of Porsche repair shops in business. Mac’s 7 percent market share may not sound like much, but there are approximately 20 million Mac OS computers in operation right now. That’s a substantial market by any measure, one that Microsoft and many other software and hardware vendors profit from handsomely. (Remember: Microsoft was producing and profiting from Mac software when there were fewer than a million Macs in circulation.) In fact, because of the enormous growth in the PC market, it’s quite possible that even if the Mac market share slips to just a few percentage points over the next couple of years, the actual size of the Mac economy could keep on growing.

Even if Apple stopped selling Macs tomorrow, there would be a very healthy market out there for many years to come. Since Mac owners tend to use their machines longer than PC owners before upgrading, the Mac market is guaranteed to thrive at least through the end of the century.

Second, the Mac still has four wheels and chugs unleaded gasoline. That is, despite the apocalyptic visions conjured up by headline writers, it continues to provide the services that many of us are after (20 million of us, apparently). Not only is the Mac still as user-friendly as complex machines come; it uses software similar or identical to the most popular applications available on Windows. As if to reinforce this point, Bill Gates publicly committed Microsoft last year to solid support for MS Office and Internet Explorer for the Mac for years to come. What has come to be unfairly regarded as an oddball specialty computer actually drives as well as anything else on the information superhighway.

Finally, it’s a damn good car. I drive a Mac PowerBook for the same reason that car enthusiasts spend weekends behind the wheel of a 911: superior aesthetics, superior performance. We drive not just because we have to, but because we want to. We not only get to where we want to go; we also enjoy the ride.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other wonderful machines out there. But there’s something very special about the Mac that people really seem to miss when they leave it behind (I’ve listened to their groans). Asking them to explain it is like asking a wine expert to explain the difference between a superb wine and a merely good one: it’s a wordless experience. Those who come to Mac from Windows, like those who have never acquired a taste for fine wine, may never appreciate what they’re missing. But to those attuned to fine distinctions, that indescribable difference is deeply significant.

The designers at Apple have always understood that the aesthetics of a computer is every bit as important as its technical performance and that a personal computer is not merely a tool but an extension of the user’s mind and body. It assists and complements us in a range of subtle ways-it serves at once as notepad, rolodex, and library; it adorns our desks; it is something we step into as we would a piece of clothing. Just as a superb meal always begins with pleasant lighting and the warm greeting of the maitre d’, so it is that an exceptional computer is a pleasure to look at, listen to, touch-even before it’s switched on.

The expensive and consequential task of choosing a computer involves a wide range of considerations, including compatibility, aesthetics, cost, comfort, and performance. A year or two before his celebrated return to Apple, Steve Jobs stirred up considerable turbulence when he revealed to the New York Times that, on a shopping excursion to buy his daughter a laptop for college, he was so disappointed in the PowerBooks, he bought her an IBM ThinkPad. Today, I think Jobs would buy his daughter a PowerBook, and not just because he is (as of the writing of this story) de facto chairman of Apple, but because the current line of PowerBooks is sensational. They are attractive, comfortable, quick, and mobile. Yesterday, I bought one myself-the new four-pound 2400/180c. I’m still getting used to the slightly cramped (but intelligently designed) keyboard; aside from that, it is everything you could ask for in a laptop: light enough to take everywhere and fast enough to keep me from rolling my eyes, with a vibrant active-matrix screen that can adjust to any angle even beyond 180 degrees, a long-lasting battery whose life can be enhanced in a variety of ways, and a case that is easy on the eye and to the touch. And in ways that only fellow Mac users will understand, it both expresses and evokes the fundamental human desire to create works that are not merely functional, but beautiful. With this machine, I expect to enjoy the ride for another several years.

Of course, few readers’ considerations will be identical to mine. As a freelance writer, I work alone in a freestanding home office. If I were thrust into a Windows-based office environment tomorrow, I’d probably be more inclined to use that platform. And I could do so, as I’ve discovered, with few regrets.

Still, Mac has that special “look and feel” that makes it worth the loyalty. In fact, my brother called the other day to say that in defiance of his workplace network, he is switching back to the Mac. He’s figured out that all it will really take is a little extra disk-swapping from time to time.

Computers connect us to each other in important new ways, and no one would go out of their way these days to buy a computer that’s truly incompatible with other computers. But for many of us, the far more important type of compatibility is that between the user and his or her machine. We spend an awful lot of time-most of our lives-trying to wrestle some creativity and intelligence out of these plastic boxes. We owe it to ourselves to try to make the enduring experience as fulfilling as it can possibly be.

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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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