The Millennium Mac Factor
This is my last column of the ‘millennium,’ and so I seriously considered attempting to say something profound. I even spent some time examining writings published around the last three millenniums to see what those folks were thinking. It took me a while to figure out that around 1000 BC, O A.D, and 1000 A.D. no one was thinking in terms of our calendar. I’m just a little slow on the uptake.
There were, of course, some pretty dynamic writers back in the early days (I think this was even before the Atari 800). Plato, Artistotle, and Plutarch come to mind, but the one who seems to have deposited a lasting sound bite in my mind is Epictetus, one of the early technology coordinators. He noted that:
Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things either are what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases is the wise man’s task.”
(Translated by W.A. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Fifteenth Edition, 1980)
I try to remember these words every time I’m called on to troubleshoot a Windows NT workstation. I am almost always forced to eliminate the first option.
I’m not sure whether Epictetus really wanted us to remember this quotation around a thousand years down the road, but it is amazing that we do. It was a remarkable feat back in those days to get anything down on papyrus. The opportunity to publish was pretty scarce and confined to a very small portion of the population.
Today, anyone who owns a computer and a web browser can publish. Though that undoubtedly has lead to a decline in publishing standards, when the next millennium rolls around it will be relatively easy for the My Mac writers to discern exactly what we were thinking back when we wrote it. To make this task even easier, at the end of this column I’ve included a Mac Factor Column Selector with references to my past My Mac columns. I also hope that some of my contemporaries will find this interesting, as most of the columns are not date sensitive. Though I harbor no illusions about their literary content or timelessness, I think they say some important things.
The Microsoft Meltdown – Coming ‘Real Soon Now’
“Through its conduct,” he added, “Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft’ core products.”
(Findings of US Federal Judge Jackson, US vs Microsoft)
Judge Jackson’s Findings of Fact confirm what most of the industry—but few consumers—knew. Microsoft, with its monopoly power, not only could charge whatever it desired for its operating system software with little or no impact on demand, but it could release slip-shod versions that virtually REQUIRED users to update. This unfair leverage has resulted in operating system chaos in almost every sector of the industry. Some 20 or so years after the introduction of the personal computer, systems are more likely to crash now than ever before. I believe this can be attributed directly to Bill Gates and his lust for power and profit.
As I’ve noted in past columns, the development of applications software has also been stifled by the dominance of a single (but all encompassing) product – Microsoft Office. Where once there were a half a dozen competing spreadsheets, several presentation programs, several word processors, and several database programs, now there is little direct competition.
The Office suite is enormously powerful, but is so associated with the operating system that the first thing a user considers when purchasing a system is “Does Office work on it?” Though Office does work on the Mac, the fact that it’s a Microsoft product predisposes the purchaser to Microsoft Windows. Perhaps (just perhaps) the judge’s findings will shake the industry enough to make the consumer rethink this prejudice.
IMHO, the justice department should settle for nothing less than the breakup of Microsoft into Operating System, Office, and Internet “Baby Bills.’ The level footing that might result could jump start software development and herald a new age where quality and innovation are considered more important than pragmatism.
There’s no question that these findings are a major win for Apple. For the average consumer or businessman, the Mac OS can compete with the best of Windows, and OS X should put to rest much of the hubbub about pre-emptive multi-tasking (the ability of several Windows programs to crash independently) and the like. I think it’s fair to suggest that the advantages of the Mac OS should soon receive more media attention.
Bill Gates recently sarcastically stated that Apple had resorted to innovation by color, and that Microsoft could catch up with that kind of innovation pretty quickly. If that’s true then I’d color Gates a nice shade of beet red right now.
The Impact of the iPaq
The Technology section of nytimes.com announced ‘Compaq details sleek PC…,’ picking up an article from C|Net News.com. The AP and Reuters also covered the introduction of Compaq’s new ‘iPaq’ Internet appliance. The iPaq eschews traditional PC serial and parallel ports, PCI slots, and the like, and relies instead entirely on—you guessed it—USB “for more easily attaching peripherals such as printers.”
You might logically ask how anyone claiming inclusion in the legitimate computer press could possibly write an article about the ‘iPaq’ without making some reference to the ‘iMac,’ which clearly served as the sole inspiration for this “new” Internet “appliance,” right down to its purloined name. Still, somehow Joe Wilcox of C|Net and the fine writers for the wire services all missed it. Oh well, I suppose they just didn’t know.
There’s just a wee bit of smoke and mirrors from Compaq’s marketing branch that may confuse the unwary press. For example, the iPaq does not include a built-in floppy, CD, or DVD drive, though it does include a drive bay. Remember the bloody scream by our friends at C|Net when the iMac was released without a floppy drive? Hmmm…there’s nothing negative about this mentioned by Mr. Wilcox. Then, there’s the 4+ Gigabyte internal drive. Gee, that’s just marginally larger than the drive on the iBook, that was roundly criticized by the PC press as being too skimpy. There’s also no built-in modem, which is now pretty standard in the Mac world, but you wouldn’t know it from the article.
The price though, is a thing to behold. $499 gets you… a box. Okay, it’s a cool box if you’re into truncated Roman helmets, but it’s still just a box. You also need a monitor and some software. Configuring the iPaq as close to an iMac as possible, I worked out a price of roughly $1350 including a monitor, DVD drive, and roughly equivalent processor (Pentium III running at 500 MHz). The DVD iMac is about the same price, but has an operating system that works. Thus, the $499 is a marketing ploy that is simply designed to lure the unwitting corporate buyer into the Windows morass.
Compaq’s new strategy presents Apple with an enormous opportunity. Because of its Wintelness, the iPaq validates the corporate introduction of the network computer, and there is no more reliable network computer on the market than Apple’s own iMacs. It’s time for Apple to ‘think different’ about marketing and strongly pitch the top end ‘graphite’ iMacs to a business market which may, finally, be ready to listen.
Book of the Month
If you’re interested in language development, you must read Steven Pinker’s ‘The Language Instinct,’ published in 1994 by William Morrow and Company. When I taught symbolic logic, I always argued that learning a formal logic system helped you reason almost intuitively in the same way that learning grammar helped you write. That is, you don’t think about logical structure when you argue anymore than you think about sentence structure when you write. (The editors undoubtedly wish that I would do more of both!). In any event, Pinker somewhat discounts this notion by arguing that the use of language is to a large degree instinctive. The book is very readable, full of interesting anecdotes, and very informative. This book should be required reading for anyone in the business of software design, artificial intelligence research, or teaching language arts.
Mac Factor Columns
An Educational Perspective
‘The iBook: An Apple for the Whole School’ examines the new Apple laptop from an educational perspective.
‘The Write Stuff: Word Processing Tools for the New Millennium’ presents an in-depth look at word processing features of the past, present, and future. (Also published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education.)
‘Time to Let the Big One Go’ is a detailed research paper that concludes that it’s time for the Mac to be taken seriously in the education and small business markets and time for the ‘technical anglers’ or ‘tanglers’ to stop telling stories about the efficacy of the Windows operating system. (Also published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education.)
‘The Apple Macintosh: Still the Only Education Game in Town’ discusses why the Mac is still the most viable option for K-12 schools and universities.
‘Paradigm Paralysis and the Plight of the PC in Education’ argues that the Network Computer is the next logical option for universities and K-12 schools. (Also published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education.)
Advice to Apple
‘iMac, Therefore I Might Be’ presents Apple with 10 suggestions to ensure future success.
‘MacMick’ compares Apple’s flawed installation of System 8.5 with a Shakespearean tragedy.
‘Mac Factor’s One Hundred and One Tips’ actually presents around 50 tips to help Mac users survive and flourish in a hostile environment.
‘Eye on the iMac’ includes iMac commentary as well as a step by step approach to creating business cards using Word 98.
‘Confessions of an Accidental Evangelist’ suggests that Apple take full advantage of its enthusiastic customer base.
‘Apple R&D’s Secrets Exposed’ reveals a series of revolutionary hardware developments that could knock the socks off the rest of the industry in coming years.
‘Exploding Myths’ explains why the author has finally rejected the Macintosh in favor of Windows NT.
‘The Why Files’ – Episode I – Sulky and Mutter uncover the PC conspiracy.
‘The Why Files: First Contact’ – Part II of the ‘Why Files’ Apple-based soap opera steps back in time to change the evolution of PC technology.
‘The Why Files: Mad Cows and Englishmen’ – Part III of the ‘Why Files’ series uncovers the real secret of the DogCow.
‘The Why Files: A Secret Held in Plasticine’ – Part IV of the ‘Why Files’ saga examines the role of the pink flamingo.
‘The Why Files: The Silver Bard’ – Part V of the ‘Why Files’ series where Mutter and Sulky come face to face with the creator.
Commentary on the Industry
‘Shifts in Time’ discusses the hint of machismo that permeates the PC paradigm, the problems in shifting from one version of Windows to another, the marketing inertia that prevents the mainstream PC media from exposing the truth about Windows.
‘ How Much a Pound is Albatross?’ takes on the great software ripoff of the 90s and tells it like it is – a rarity in computer journalism.
‘Hardly Any Software?’ defrauds the popular notion that there are fewer software titles available for the Mac than for the PC.
‘Abort, Retry, Fail’ discusses the arrogance of monopolies like Telefonica in Spain and Microsoft in the US.
‘Taking Stock of Wallstreet’ discusses the Apple Powerbook G3 in some detail and shares the writer’s experiences with his new ‘toy.’
‘Office 98 – First Impressions’- summary of major interface changes introduced with Office 98.
‘Nothing Was Delivered’ – more commentary on the Windows NT ‘kludge.’
‘Think Again, Think Technical Support’ delineates an Apple technical support nightmare.