View from the Classroom

Going Wintel for a Month: Conclusion

- April 18, 2000

Each spring one of the critical tasks of my teaching position is to complete an Annual Case Review for each of the children I teach. It's an involved process, full of forms and legal stuff that's enough to bring on migraines or early retirement from the most enthusiastic educator. I've previously described the process and the hardware and software I employ to cut through the paperwork as expeditiously as possible. In short, I'm obliged to do most of my computing one month a year using Windows compatible machines.

After another month of intensive use of the Windows operating system, I find that . . . it really wasn't too bad. I'm not the first (nor will I probably be the last) Mac columnist to say such a thing. During the one week of solid conferences where I was constantly using the Windows based IEP program (even though on my G3/7500 through an Orange Micro PC card), I didn't have a single crash that could be credited to the operating system. Actually, there was only one crash and that came from operator incompetence. All I'll say about it is that I did something foolish trying to show another teacher Elf Bowling that was on a Zip disk. (My boss was not amused!)

Probably the biggest impression that comes from my annual month of intensive Windows use is a respect for how much the Windows operating system has improved over the last few years. At one time the difference between the Mac OS and Windows was staggering. While System 7.1 could be horribly unstable, it was friendly. In contrast, Windows 3, and even 3.1.1, were anything but user friendly.

How this applies to the current Macintosh situation is interesting and a bit sobering. Starting with Windows 95B, Microsoft's operating system certainly became "good enough" for regular use by the non-geeky masses. John Martellaro noted this week in his column on Mac Opinion:

If you have been following the history of Apple, you know that they floundered for many years with a corporate aversion to Unix combined with an incredible arrogance regarding the legacy Mac OS. That arrogance cost Apple a critical loss to Microsoft when corporate America moved, in 1994/5, from the idea of mildly networked desktop PCs to the idea of enterprise level servers and networking. (Windows NT)

Among other reasons, that's probably a big reason why over 80% of PCs sold use some variant of Microsoft's Windows operating system. While we Mac proponents can spew the usual Mac propaganda about the Mac experience and the elegance of the OS, the advantage Apple once held in operating systems has seriously eroded. To provide a little balance to such observations, you might give Del Miller's current Mac Opinion column a read.

What this means for Apple and Macintosh users is that Apple must have something uniquely better or more attractive than all of the PC manufacturers or they will be left only with a dwindling loyal following. In the past few years, that something has clearly been the iMac. It has rocked the computer world out of its charcoal and beige complacency.

The Windows world has fought back with its own "me too" computers of color, but really has its strength in hardware features, availability, and price. Macs, even iMacs, have typically had less memory, smaller hard drives, and slower processors than their Windows counterparts while extracting a premium price. The current rage in PCs is built-in CD-RW drives, along with a DVD drive as well. PCs also generally are shipped with a rather comfortable keyboard and mouse.

While you can find computers for sale nearly everywhere except your local McDonald's, Macintoshes are only available at a few retail outlets. While I'm not sure I'm ready for a drive-through Big Mac and iMac outlet, retail visibility of the Mac has been painfully slow in returning since Apple purged its retailers in 1998. CompUSA, Sears, Best Buy for a short time, and soon Circuit City aren't enough to override the flood of PCs available in nearly every nook and cranny. I just groan when I occasionally see discontinued iMacs disappear at an incredible rate at our local Sam's Wholesale Club, thinking of the countless lost sales Apple suffers because of its lack of retail outlets.

iBookApple's iBook looked like a killer laptop when introduced, but since that time the Windows world has overtaken Apple in the price wars with economy laptops priced in the $1,100 range. When compared to the $1,599 iBook, a prospective buyer has to have a real appreciation for the Mac OS, a lust for color, or way too much disposable income to choose an iBook. Even so, iBook sales continue to sail along at a good rate.

So I've spent another month ignoring my taxes and working on schoolwork with some pretty nice Windows hardware and software. Am I ready to switch? Not a chance, but the nagging worry I find from such an experience is that for the first time computer buyer, there's not all that much difference in ease of use and features to justify purchasing a Mac instead of a considerably more affordable Windows box. This worry is confirmed as I regularly hear of fellow educators choosing a Windows compatible computer for home use.

As I gray a bit as well, there's always the "hernia factor" to consider with computers. The first two years I faced the annual Windows computing requirement, I did my IEPs on our Acer Aspire at home and then lugged that machine to school for the week or so of conferences. For the last two years, I've used my Mac at school with an Orange Micro PC card in it for the conferencing. Neither of these alternatives is terribly attractive. When I face this task again next year, I think I'll probably not transport my Mac with its Orange Micro PC card to the office again, but consider a Windows laptop and printer. Right now, the IBM ThinkPad 240 for $1,069 looks like an excellent option. If there were a fast Mac laptop with Virtual PC available for something under $1,300 (the ThinkPad requires an optional $110 CD-ROM reader), I'd go for it.

Odd Thoughts While Shaving Between Paragraphs

If some of my comments on Orange Micro PC cards have sparked your interest, you might want to keep an eye on the various auction services. While it's too late now, a recent eBay Dutch auction featured 5 Orange Micro 626 PC cards that went for $185 each. They were new units in sealed boxes. There's a similar auction for just one item ending 4/19/2000. The last time I saw this happening, with the Orange 530 card, Orange apparently was dumping cards on the market somewhere before officially changing their product lineup. At any rate, an Orange card that usually goes for around $550 for $185 is a good buy.

Low End Mac has added a number of talented new writers in the last few months. Publisher Dan Knight has always been good about giving folks a chance to say something of value on his web site. It was a real kick for me to see two newcomers appear on Low End whose names I know from some interesting email exchanges.

Adam Robert S Guha has a column posted on Mac Daniel, Picking an Older Power Mac. It's a good look at some low-cost options for getting into Macintosh computing with a Power Mac. Adam and I have Mac IItraded emails over the last six or eight months about our Mac IIfxs. It seems that when his is working, mine isn't, and vice versa! Welcome aboard, Adam!

Welcome also to Scott Atkinson who is featured on Mac Musings with an interesting story about his PowerCurve clone. Scott is also a knowledgeable and fellow Orange Micro and PM 7200 user. He posed an interesting question to me last week in an email: "How many Macs is too many?"

I'm not really sure how many is too many for others, but I've noticed that my Annie's usually tolerant smile has slightly dimmed as the stack of vintage Macs has grown in the sun room.

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View From the Classroom columns copyright 1999-2000 by Steve Wood.

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