Mac Factor – Shifts in Time

Mac Factor: Shifts in Time

Automatic Shift
A recent editorial in the Washington Post lamented the demise of the stick shift in the US car market. According to a Post researcher, only one in ten new cars sport a standard transmission. The writer, an obvious stick shift aficionado, claimed that “the kind of driving done with enthusiasm, engagement, and a genuine feel of the road is disappearing…” and whined that “the only gearbox knowledge one need possess anymore is passing acquaintance with the meaning of P, R, N, D, and L.”

The knee jerk rejection of the automatic transmission, despite major advances in transmission technology that provide the automatic with close to standard transmission control, mimics the blind adherence to the Windows ‘standard’ despite major advances in the Macintosh Operating System. Whereas Windows users now must master arcane registry and system profile settings, the Mac user needs only to work with controls programmed with a common human design interface—equivalent to the P, R, N, D, and L of the automatic transmission.

Perhaps an equally pervasive, though subsurface, factor in the rejection of both the automatic transmission and the Macintosh Operating System is the superficial loss of control and the resultant blow to the machismo of the ‘road warriors’ or the ‘computer experts.’ There’s something terrifically manly about shoving that stick around while tearing around curves or screaming down the hills of San Francisco like Steve McQueen in “Bullet.” Similarly, taking the hood off of a PC, inserting the right expansion board or adding memory, slipping the cover back on, and tightening all the screws, demonstrates who exactly is ‘the man.’ Of course, with the latest versions of Windows, “the man’s” problems have just begun.

Shiftless in Seattle
We tend to look at operating systems from a personal perspective. That is, upgrading to a new version of Windows might not seem particularly intimidating if your hardware can support the upgrade. Consider, on the other hand, the plight of the enterprise or the educational institution supporting a variety of equipment.

Our school system, for example, currently runs: Windows 3.12 on older 386- and 486-based systems; Windows NT 4.0 on most of our Pentiums; Windows 95 on special purpose systems that need 95 compatibility to run particular educational programs; and Windows 98 on our ‘early childhood’ equipment (if you can possibly imagine that!). All four of these operating system are in turn connected to Novell Netware.

Even if all of these versions of Windows ran perfectly, upgrading software, installing new peripherals, and supporting the network would be almost prohibitively complex. Unfortunately, none of them run as advertised. They are replete with bugs, incompatibilities, and incomprehensible error messages, and are simply impossible to support.

We limited the installation of Windows 95 because that particular operating system was considered a security problem and because early versions of the system appeared unstable. We had to move on from Windows 3.12, however, as most new educational titles were released under Windows 95 or Windows NT. We were caught in the old Microsoft crunch—either upgrade to the next set of kludge or be unable to run any of the new software.

We waited for NT, and boy, were we surprised. Windows NT 4.0 included tens of thousands (in Microsoft’s own words) of bugs. And guess what? Windows 2000 is already on the horizon and we’ll be faced with the same dilemma. If we don’t move to Windows 2000, the software publishers will, once again, pass on by.

Short Shrift
How, you might ask, does Microsoft get away with this? I can think of no other capitalist enterprise that sells something that clearly doesn’t work and yet somehow continues to succeed beyond the analysts’ wildest expectations. There’s smoke and mirrors here that are beyond my understanding.

One theory is that the average consumer is more interested in appearance than quality. Consider all the cigarette purchasers still puffing away and killing themselves, or the millions of teenagers who wait with bated breath for the next issue of Seventeen to tell them what to wear. People just kind of stumble through life doing what they think is ‘cool.’ In the case of computers, it was once cool to buy an IBM PC and Windows sort of slipped through that door.
In fact, part of being a ‘cool’ consumer is not making an obvious mistake. That is, one should never get ‘ripped off.’ You might feel taken, for example, if you purchased a car and subsequently read that it had a tendency to tip over when going around curves or had a gas tank that tended to explode if you were rear-ended.

You might even feel ripped off if you purchased a new version of Windows and subsequently read that it was flawed. Sorry, that’s a bad example because none of the PC magazines fully report Windows design problems. If they do report minor errors, they usually mention a new ‘Service Pack’ that can be downloaded for free and will fix readers’ complaints.

The PC magazines are pleased as peach with every new round of system upgrades. A new Operating System means new hardware and software releases, new advertising, new editorial content, and so the cycle continues. It might be a very cold day in hell before we see a Computer Shopper cover with a headline like “Windows Doesn’t Work as Advertised.”

So, is there a conspiracy on the part of computer journalists to keep the truth about Windows from the American public? Hardly. Rather, there’s a lot of financial inertia that leads a journalist to write columns or articles that a magazine’s editorial staff wants published. Generally speaking, that doesn’t include exposés on Windows’ shortcomings.

Shifting Feet
Occasionally, a writer gets so overwhelmed with the importance of an issue that the truth cuts through all the politics and self-interest. Stewart Alsop, columnist for and, at times, associated as editor or columnist for several prestigious technology magazines in the United States, has never been accused of being a Mac enthusiast. A recent Alsop column was entitled, ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Hate Windows?’ You can read the full text of the column at . I’ll just mention a few highlights.

Alsop noted:
“For years, as I’ve been using personal computers and becoming a computer expert, I’ve been able to believe that I was in control. I’ve always believed I could choose how to use my computer and how much effort I would make for the computer to perform certain tasks. In fact, this was exactly why I got involved with computing: Personal computers took control of technology away from the experts who minded the mainframes, and transferred that power to us, the people. I loved that idea.”

What Alsop suggests, of course, is that he loved the idea of taking control of technology away from the mainframe experts to ‘the people’ like Alsop who for years was ‘becoming a computer expert.’ That, in fact, leaves out the millions of people who have no need and no desire to become experts, but who wish to use a computer to accomplish a variety of tasks.

Alsop continued:
“Now I realize it was all an illusion. When my computer crashed on Friday, May 28, it dragged my dreams down with it. I am in fact at the mercy of the experts; without them, I am unable to get what I want or need from my PC… Microsoft’s operating system is what has led to our loss of control over computing. The system is so complicated and burdened with the legacy of its past that it has become unusable by mere mortals, or even geeks like me… My journey into digital despair began when I bought a new computer and tried to upgrade it.”

It’s ironic that Stewart virtually ignored the Mac OS through the years and is probably one of a handful of respected journalists responsible for the blind acceptance of the Windows kludge by the PC Press. It’s also a comment on Alsop’s ‘expertise’ and/or journalistic integrity that it took him so long to discover that Windows is seriously broken.

One final irresistible whimper:
“I was furious, depressed, and mortified. How could the dream of liberating the individual from the clutches of the computer experts have turned into a nightmare in which even the experts couldn’t solve my problems, leaving me at the mercy of an impenetrable and unpredictable system?… You know what? I really wish there were [sic] a computer out there that could give me basic PC applications that work fluidly with the World Wide Web and networking. I really wish the computer industry wouldn’t give up right now and leave us holding the Windows bag, just when we’ve got this new Internet economy opening up for us. I’m dreaming again about being freed from the experts.”

Okay Stewart. We’re all dreaming about being ‘freed from the experts’ and, in particular, experts like you who misled the public for years about the viability of the Windows Operating System.

Paradigm Shift
The iMac has changed the paradigm. Windows, as the Swiss Army Knife of operating systems, providing support for every or any device inserted into every or any slot, has become unmanageable. And as the paradigm shift becomes more and more obvious, Windows users will increasingly grow frustrated with a system designed for expansion.

The average user doesn’t need slots. Hell, you don’t have slots in your dishwasher or washing machine or even your car for that matter. The iMac is an information appliance for ‘the rest of us’ and ‘the rest of us’ are growing fast.

The iMac’s cool architecture and colors may be a bit of marketing genius that has attracted the attention of the average consumer. As the sales momentum grows, though, it will be increasingly clear that the true attraction of this machine is its self-contained accessible power.

•Mick O’Neil•

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