Saturday, 13 August 2011

Mac vs PC

Having been a long-time computer user - since 1983, in fact - I believe I have a fairly authoritative opinion on this traditional debate. Let me give a brief synopsis of my personal experience; this will perhaps explain why I still use a Mac.

I received a Commodore VIC-20 in 1983, and learnt to program BASIC (a programming language). In 1986, I got a Commodore 64 - still the world's best-selling particular computer. Around that time, I encountered a Macintosh 512K that my mom had at work. I was astounded by how different it was to the Commodore; you didn't have to program it. It had an operating system. It booted up, and was useful without any programming required. It also had a mouse, which was weird. I was used to joysticks and cursor keys. And then there was the black and white screen. My mom argued that colour was irrelevant since there were no colour printers in the business sector. True enough. The screen quality was, however, much higher than the Commodore. I enjoyed the Mac. I found it very useful for creating documents, something I still do at a frenetic pace.

Around 1988 I joined my school's computer club and found that they had IBM 286es. I found them disappointing. Their screen resolution was lower than the Mac's, and even though they booted up an operating system - MS-DOS - it was virtually useless. You had to explicitly load BASIC, and write your own programs, just like the Commodore. Except, unlike the Commodore, the PC lacked colour and sound, whereas the Commodore had 16 colours and 3-channel fully synthesised sound. I decided then and there that the PC was vastly inferior, and stopped using it. The next year, a friend of mine showed me Windows 3. I was underwhelmed. It had no direct equivalent of the Mac Finder which gave you a literal representation of the files on your disk; it was a glorified application launcher. And it was ugly. I shrugged, and thought that it would never be a competitor. Unfortunately, I was wrong. IBM bought it wholeheartedly, and Windows dominated the corporate sector by the early 90s.

But Windows was still rubbish. It had "token ring" networks and "Novell Netware" which were really crummy compared to Apple's server solutions, using LocalTalk networks, which had existed since 1988. It was still low resolution, and still ugly. Colour matching to printout was appalling; black would come out dark green, beige would come out russet. The mouse was skippy. It still relied heavily on floppy disks. Filenames were limited to 8 characters. It still had to boot up DOS first. It couldn't multitask; whereas at least on the Mac you could run multiple programs, even if they didn't really cooperate (this is a pun - Apple claimed that it had "cooperative multitasking"). By this time, my brother had acquired a Commodore Amiga. This machine had 4096 colours and multichannel synthesised sound - much better than the Mac at 256-colour single-channel. The PC was out of its league; 16 colours and still no sound unless you bought the first "Sound Blaster". The Macs were starting to come out with CD-ROMs by default, and all had hard disks by default. Not so with PCs and Amigas, however. But the Amiga had one thing: True multitasking. It could play music while you worked on a word processor. No other machine I had seen could do this.

In the mid-1990s I saw my first SGI machine - a UNIX machine with true multitasking, 65536 colours, proper sound, no floppy drive at all, a massive hard drive, memory protection, and multiple users. I was shocked. I was even more shocked when I discovered that UNIX dated back to 1969. I also discovered the Internet, and found out that it ran on UNIX. I was sold. I started to lose faith in the Mac. I was on a programmer's mailing list at Apple. I said: I want a UNIX that looks like the Mac and works like the Mac. I was kicked off the list for starting a flame war (abusive series of exchanges). The Mac, I argued, crashed (it had no memory protection). Its multitasking was crummy. Colour wasn't great. Access to Internet was OK but difficult. UNIX solved this. Windows, of course, was still rubbish. Access to internet required expert training. Graphics were just getting to 256 colours. Sound wasn't bad on a Sound Blaster. But still no multitasking, memory protection, or multiple users. Then came Windows 95. I was annoyed. It was a blatant copy of the Mac, just inferior and more complex to administer. I ignored it, and it won the market.

Then in 1996-7 a miracle happened. Apple abandoned their attempt at a modern operating system - Copland. It was incompatible with applications from the older system. They bought NextStep/OpenStep - Steve Jobs' other company (he also owned Pixar). With it, came Steve Jobs. The company woke up and started to shine. He hired Jonathan Ive. The iMac was released. Then the iPod. Apple was in the news. Then came Mac OS X - the re-modelled NextStep that just looked like the Mac. I went back to that programmer's mailing list, and said "I told you so". They had to eat humble pie. I got what I wanted: a UNIX that worked like the Mac. Proper memory protection, proper multitasking, proper server capabilities, a powerful commandline that could do batch jobs easily, proper multiple users, proper internet capabilities, but best of all, the Mac user interface. I was ecstatic. I still am.

A few years later, Windows XP was released. I was annoyed again; the "XP" was an obvious ripoff reference to Mac OS "X" (ten). But I had to give credit where credit was due. XP was based on Windows NT - a system with a journalling filesystem (crashproof, in English), and proper multiple users and multitasking. Not perfect, but good. I also noticed that it had session suspension - you could suspend your login and let someone else use the machine, and go back, and carry on, later. The Mac didn't have this in early versions of Mac OS X. I felt envy for the first time. That was good, and the journalling filesystem was good. Shortly thereafter, Apple caught up and added those features. They were now officially ahead again, because the had the same or better features, but with greater user-friendliness.

Now we come to Windows 7 and Vista. Everyone hated Windows 7, for reasons I cannot understand - all Windows seems horrid to me. Vista, however, seems quite usable. It doesn't quite have all the things I'd want, as a person accustomed to UNIX, but then, I'm a "power user" - someone who pushes computers to the limits of what they can do. Most people wouldn't notice something like that. At the moment, then, the war between Windows and Mac is characterised in terms of feature comparisons. I'm still fairly confident that the Mac has the lead, but the average Joe Soap user won't be able to tell.

There are some good arguments in favour of the Mac, still to this day.
1. It is less-targeted by hackers and virus writers. In fact, because of its strict user-access-permissions policies, e.g. that you have to enter an administrator password to install software - it will remain hard to sabotage even if it becomes mainstream. And if you stick to Apple's App Store, you can be pretty sure you're not installing a "Trojan" (spy) software package.
2. The Mac is feature-equivalent or superior to a Windows machine.
3. The Mac can run a variety of emulators, such as Parallels Desktop and VirtualBox by Oracle, which let you run Windows if you need to.
4. Mac hardware is of a higher quality and design specification, but can be upgraded with humble standard PC components.
5. The operating system comes free with the machine.

If you take the cost of a hardware-equivalent PC, and add the cost of antivirus software and Windows, you will find that a Mac and a PC pretty much cost the same - except the Mac is much, much sexier. So I must still advocate the Mac.

The advantages to a PC are:
1. You can choose your own hardware components (good luck if Windows understands them).
2. You have more native software, especially games. (But the Mac can run this under an emulator anyway, though admittedly games are too slow).

From a usability and features point of view for the average user, the difference is negligible; you can decide on these points above. But I want to make a different argument.

I think that actually the war will not be decided by features, but by _lack of features_. Average Joe is scared of computers, and doesn't want to have to understand them. He knows his file is "In the Microsoft", he doesn't care about what drive it's on, which subfolder, in which directory, etc. He doesn't care. That's the point. And unfortunately for Microsoft, Apple understand this point very well. So with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, they have begun a transition away from a traditional Windows/Icons/Mouse/Pulldown-menu (WIMP) environment, to the iOS environment seen on their iPads and iPhones. In other words, I think that really, desktop computers are dead. Tablets will win. Not just because they're smaller and more convenient to carry around. They will destroy laptops as well: Because they're human-usable.

In the 1990s, Apple had a set of guidelines for programmers called the Human Interface Guidelines. Your software was expected to be user-friendly and adhere to scientifically-researched guidelines of non-confusing computer behaviour. The iPad and iPhone are very, very good at being straightforward and simple. But I bet you didn't know this: an iPhone is a full UNIX server. So is an iPad. They both run iOS, which is actually a stripped-down Mac OS X. Now, since Apple are evidently on the path to merging Mac OS X and iOS, to my mind, the decision is actually this: Do you like the iPad or iPhone? If so, then get a Mac, because it works almost the same, and, in the future, _will_ work the same. Whilst a Windows PC will still lag behind on the usability scales, and look more and more like a relic of the 1990s' complex graphical environments, the Mac will become what computers ought to be - a useful household appliance that manages all your data and entertainment.

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