Advocacy, the Futility of the Mac/PC War, and Why the G5 Won’t Make Any Difference

One of the most passionate but pointless little conflicts isn’t going on in some unknown banana republic or between mindless celebrities who used to be married to one another. Like the conflicts in Northern Ireland (or the north of Ireland) and Israel (or Palestine) – choose the noun you prefer – the origins of this war are lost in the past and don’t really matter anymore. All that remains is mistrust, antipathy and egotism, and for anyone else looking in the entire thing would seem totally incomprehensible. The war in question is that between advocates of the various operating systems, most notably between Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh users.

First, a little history: Until the 1980s, computer operating systems were essentially command line driven, or at least text based. So to copy a file to a floppy disk, you’d need to type in a command including the address of the directory in which the original file resided, the address of the destination volume and directory, and the command to make the computer copy the file. Obviously this wasn’t much fun, but this was all there was and it worked fine enough for many people. But command line interfaces aren’t attractive or easy to use, and to a degree they inhibited many people from using computers. Note that I say “using” computers rather than “buying” them: from the mid 1970s well into the 1980s there were many commercially successful computers that operated within this text-based paradigm, such as the Apple II, the BBC Micro and the Commodore Pet. For the most part, though, these computers appealed either to those who needed a computer to do work such as accounting or data processing, or else simply enjoyed playing with computers for their own sake and didn’t mind entering complicated commands or creating their own programs in BASIC or whatever.

In 1981, Xerox unveiled the Star Information System, a graphics-based front end for workstation computers. Directories appeared as folders, documents appeared in resizable windows, and what you saw in those windows that resembled what you would get when you printed the document off. Steve Jobs, then still working at Apple, came to visit some of the staff at Xerox and was shown this new “graphical user interface”. Contrary to the popular myth, Jobs didn’t steal the interface for Apple; rather, he paid money up front to Xerox to have some of their key programmers come to Apple and create a better version of the Star Information System for their computers. This is important, when we get to Apple’s relationship with Microsoft, where the commonalities come not from shared programmers working at both Xerox and Apple, but from programmers at Microsoft trying to create equivalent products to those made by programmers at Apple.

The Apple – Microsoft War Gets Serious

By 1984 Apple released the Macintosh, a small personal computer (not a workstation) using a graphic user interface that certainly borrowed some concepts from the Star Information System, but in most regards though it was something completely original. Obviously the hardware was new, and so the software to run the computer needed to be designed as well, and there were big differences in the behaviour of the windows, the file system, networking and so on. The following year Microsoft released Windows 1.0, a very limited pseudo-graphical interface for MS-DOS computers. It was far more limited than Macintosh operating system, for example there weren’t any icons for documents or programs, instead the user had a text-based directory listing. In the same year Apple and Microsoft entered into an agreement as to what elements of the graphical user interface Apple considered its own (such as overlapping windows and a trash can for deleting files) and what Microsoft was free to develop further with subsequent products.

Version 2 of Windows was released in 1987, and though it skirted around the things Apple and Microsoft had agreed were to be left alone, it now offered something much closer to the Macintosh user experience. Apple sued Microsoft for exceeding the terms of the 1985 agreement. The interesting thing about this court case is how misunderstood it is. Apple didn’t sue Microsoft because they believed Microsoft was infringing their copyright (i.e., their creative rights over the original work) but on something much less tangible, the “look and feel”. The case ran for years, and was eventually settled out of court, unarguably to Microsoft’s benefit. Whether or not Microsoft had exceeded the 1985 agreement became a moot point in 1990 when Windows 3.0 hit the stores, dramatically increasing the Windows user based and providing MS-DOS compatible computer users with a powerful and easy to use interface. Windows 3.0 did pretty much everything the Macintosh operating system did, and it didn’t demand that the user buy expensive Apple hardware to use it. Millions of copies were sold, and these firmly established the Windows family of operating systems as the systems of choice for home and office computers. With each successive version of Windows, Apple has seen its market share decline, to the point now where Apple computers account for no more than about one in twenty computers sold. At the same time a graphical user interface for UNIX, called X Windows, started to make headway with computer scientists and other power users. Before too long a desktop version, Linux, appeared, offering a free alternative to the Mac or Windows interface, and now yet other graphical interfaces have found their way onto everything from digital watches to game consoles. The graphical user interface genie was out of the bottle, and whatever Apple might wish, it couldn’t put it back.

Mac Advocacy in 2003

However it got there, Microsoft Windows has developed into a powerful and influential piece of software. The fundamental differences between using a Windows computer and a Macintosh one are practically nil now, and the argument that the Mac is the computer “the rest of us” doesn’t really hold much water. Windows users can install new hardware, network machines and print off documents just as well with a Windows XP machine as they can with a Macintosh G4. The Macintosh persists because the hardware is well designed, stylish and imaginatively marketed. Apple retains some competitive edges in certain markets like graphic design, where the better colour management between software, screen and printer are appreciated, but on the whole people buy Macintosh computers not because they need to but because they want to. This is why aesthetics are so important to Steve Jobs; he appreciated the fact that people buy an iMac or a Titanium PowerBook for emotional rather than economic reasons. Apple is a niche player. An important and innovative one, to be sure, but a supplier of luxury computers to a small but affluent market nonetheless.

But for some Mac users, the fact that the battle with Microsoft was fought and lost years ago doesn’t seem to make much difference. New processors are touted to smash the opposition. In the mid 1990s, the PowerPC chip was heralded as a new champion for the Mac platform. The PowerPC was a “reduced instruction set computing” chip and so more efficient at executing instructions than the “complex instruction set computing” design of the Intel Pentium processor. Supposedly this would make the PowerPC faster even if its megahertz speed was less than that of the Pentium. But it didn’t work out that way at all, and whatever test Apple came up with to show off how “blazingly fast” their Power Macintosh computers were, in general purpose computing demands the Pentium processors more than held their own. This year it’s the G5 processor with its much-vaunted 64-bit bus that has allowed Apple to unveil what they call the fastest desktop computer on the planet, and maybe it is, but does that matter? However good the G5 is, it isn’t going to turn the Windows world upside-down. Two years from now, Apple will still be catering to a minor component of the market, and Intel will have wheeled out some comparable hardware to the G5 that will run more productivity software and more games, and so kept the Intel / Windows combination at the top of the league.

For a website that is unashamedly one of Macintosh advocacy, this might seem rather negative. The problem with advocacy of any product is that people pick and choose statistics that support their viewpoint. So Apple will cite one study using parameters and tests that show off their machine in a good way. Intel will do the same thing with their machines. This isn’t how science is done, and with good reason: advocacy doesn’t have anything to do with truth, any more than winning a court case has anything to do with justice being done. Complicating matters further is that much of the computer press works with derivative data, that is, writers don’t investigate or experiment themselves, but instead quote from other sources. We’re all guilty of this, myself included. I shamelessly took some of the dates and facts included here from books and websites, admittedly ones I trust, but still those parts of this essay are derivitive. Contrast that with something like a software review (which is what I normally do for AppleLust), where the writer experiments with the product and then reports his or her results. Eventually all this self-congratulatory and self-referential commentary between advocacy sites becomes circular, rumours become established, and people are looking so hard at one another they don’t notice what’s going on around them.

But this isn’t the worst aspect of operating system advocacy. Visit a newsgroup or read a computer-centric magazine and you’ll see Mac, PC and Linux advocates all plying their trade. In this guerrilla warfare sniping is the tactic of choice, and the advocate prefer to work from remote little corners far away from those they perceive of as the competition. Experience and reality don’t enter into the minds of these most ardent supporters of their cause, and few know enough about the opposition to come to an informed view on why their chosen operating system is better. In fact the lines are usually drawn after the event, with people supporting the system they bought into almost as a way of justifying their investment of time and money. Though pointless, this all sounds harmless enough until one sees the level of personal abuse that often comes along with the missives they cast into the fray. Mean-spiritedness and closed-mindedness are all too often the hallmarks of the most serious Mac, PC or Linux advocates.

It Doesn’t Matter

Computer nerds often have a very skewed view of how the world works. In the big picture of life, what operating system you use on your personal computer doesn’t matter. It isn’t going to make you more attractive to the opposite sex, or help you be a better parent, or make you more creative. It won’t turn you into a dynamic and indispensable employee at work or give you the tools to create a NASDAQ company from scratch. A computer is just a tool, some may be better at certain tasks that others, just as some screwdrivers are better for certain types of screw than others. What matters is what you use your computer for, and how honest you are to yourself in what you create and communicate.

I happen to love the Macintosh operating system, and I’m thrilled that Apple is stronger than it has been for years, and is turning out some of its best products ever. But I don’t delude myself that Apple is getting primed for a second coming, and that with the G5 in one hand and an iPod in the other Steve Jobs is going to knock Bill Gates off the top-spot. Testing and reporting of products is important, and that is something AppleLust and many other websites do wonderfully well. Without the need to pander to advertisers, websites are free to be more critical than any print magazine. Advocacy is more difficult to appraise. Highlighting the strengths of a product can be informative, but without meaningful, empirical tests the values of statements about ease of use or performance are of dubious value. The G5 has given lots of pundits and commentators opportunity to cite choice nuggets of information about the Mac, PC, Apple and Intel, and only rarely are these opinion pieces balanced or based on objective experience. After all, how many people have yet laid their hands on a G5, let alone tested it alongside a top of the line Pentium computer? Ultimately, advocacy doesn’t make any difference. Advocates preach to the converted, their dull recitations of the authorized litany enlivened only by the occasional rabble rousers straying into their pews looking to start a fight. Apple and the new G5 computer will have to find success on their own merits.

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