Miscellaneous Ramblings

Macs, Myths, and Conformity

Charles Moore - 2002.01.16 - Tip Jar

You know the mythological misconceptions, half-truths, and just plain untruths that you can expect to hear anytime you mention that you're a Mac user.

"There's no software for Macs."

"Macs aren't 'compatible'"

"Macs are too expensive."

"Macs can't be upgraded."

"Macs are slow."

And so on and so forth. One interesting thing is that most computer-aware people have opinions about Macs, often strong opinions, whether or not they have ever had their hands on a Mac keyboard.

And over the years, Apple has sat back in apparent Olympian serenity, disdaining to address the onslaught of disinformation; leaving it up to Mac enthusiasts to stanch the flood of ignorance. The only exception I can recall are that during the dark days of the mid- and late-90s Apple did hire Guy Kawasaki as it official corporate evangelist, with an eponimously named email list and posted a website touting Mac advantages, and farther back than that the fruit company ran some very clever and effective magazine ads that G4 iMachighlighted the difficulty and obtuseness of how one was obliged to do things in the PC orbit, contrasted with the ease and simplicity of living with a Mac.

However, finally, coinciding with the release of the G4 iMac, Apple has posted a new Web page entitled: A special message to Windows users: Welcome, upon which they address various assertions of erroneous conventional wisdom head-on, with a positive spin.

Here's a few highlights. For the full rebuttals, visit Apple's Web page.

Myth 1: Everyone uses Windows.

Well, not everyone. For instance, I don't use Windows. ;-). Neither do George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or 25 % of America's lawyers. Apple estimates that over 25 million people use Macs.

Myth 2: Macs don't work with PCs.

Wrong again. I detest Microsoft and its software, and, thankfully, I'm rarely obliged to share files with Windows users, but for those less fortunate, MS Office files are transparently cross-platform in their file formatting. A PC can open a Word or Excel document that was created on a Mac and never know the difference - and vice-versa. Macs also work fine on PC networks.

Myth 3: The software I need isn't available for Macs.

This one, which is the most common misconception, always mystifies me. The operative answer is to ask exactly what sort of software one desires that is not available for the Mac. As Apple notes, here are over 15,000 applications available for the Mac, and if there is some piece of Windows software one really can't do without, there is always Virtual PC. The only area, aside from certain highly specialized proprietary applications, where the "no software" assertion is partly true is in the gaming arena.

Myth 4: Macs don't run Microsoft Office.

Duh.

Myth 5: Windows has caught up with the Mac.

Uh, no. In some respects, Windows has closed the gap, but the superiority of the Mac isn't just the user interface (and it's still better there, too), but rather the elegantly seamless integration of the Mac hardware and software, as well as the Mac's unrivaled plug & play hardware interfacing with peripherals, the absence of driver hassles (for the most part), the ease of troubleshooting, the relative rarity of the need for troubleshooting, and, unlike XP, there is no product activation to worry about. The Mac OS is cheaper as well.

From my perspective, there are 1,001 ways that Macs are objectively superior to Wintel PCs - many that would be obvious to a five year old making a side-by-side comparison. These would include generally difficult software installation and frequent need for same; having to reinstall drivers for things like the mouse, keyboard, and monitor when things glitch up; really difficult software deinstallation; configuration hassles when adding peripherals; and Microsoft's miserable record of backwards software compatibility. The list of Windows aggravations and inconveniences goes on and on and on and on.

Myth 6: Macs are far easier to use than PCs.

As Apple owns up: "Guilty as charged."

Apple did not address the "Macs are more expensive" issue, presumably because, feature for feature, Macs really are generally more expensive to buy than Wintel PCs, but the difference is not nearly as dramatic as conventional wisdom would have you believe, and these are often "Apples and lemons" comparisons. You tend to get what you pay for. I would rather pay a bit more for a machine that will be a pleasure to use, typically require little or no maintenance or tech support over its service life, and which will also typically have a longer useful service live than a nominally equivalent PC.

As for the "can't be upgraded" knock, in the context of the parts bin oriented PC experience, that's partly true. You can't purchase a bunch of components and build your own Mac. But how many people actually do that, even in the PC world?

Are Macs slow? Well, clock speed-wise they may seem so, with Pentium 4 numbers climbing to 2 GHz and beyond while the fastest Mac tops out at 867 MHz. However, what is it you want to do? Macs still dominate in the power-intensive graphic arts, advertising, publishing, and movie editing fields, and they are well-represented in science-based industries like biotech.

Again, what do you want to do that you think the Mac is too slow for?

All of these objections to the Mac tend to be misleading simplifications or partial truths at best. As Mac enthusiast Richard K. Hallmark, Ph.D., observed a while back in a MacToday magazine column entitled Why do People Choose Windows?

All of these arguments are a smoke screen designed to conceal the real reasons [people choose Wintel boxes over Macs]. The first of these reasons is fear. They are afraid of making a mistake. It is easier (and safer) to go with the crowd. Perhaps that is why the Macintosh retains its popularity among creative professionals, the people who already know how to Think Different.

Some folks like to choose their computer by applying the same sort of criteria they would apply in purchasing a refrigerator - like people who buy automobiles solely on the strength of what they read in Consumer's Report. As long as it has four wheels and gets them where they want to go with reasonable reliability and safety - and doesn't stand out too much from the crowd - they are satisfied.

They couldn't care less about maximum cornering power, snappy acceleration, elegant design and styling, and other "fun to drive" factors. The notion that driving pleasure and utilitarian practicality don't have to be mutually exclusive qualities never occurs to them. They buy plain-vanilla 4-door, generic, dronemobiles for transportation. The idea of "thinking different," of standing out from the crowd, is abhorrent and frightening to them.

A PC box running Windows XP is the computer equivalent of a 4-door dronemobile. It gets the job done in minimalist terms, but it sure isn't much fun!

The "I'm buying a PC because Windows is the popular OS that 'everyone' uses," is another variant of fear. People who make this affirmation are not against fun per se, but they are also afraid - not of standing out from the great grey bourgeois masses, but of being perceived as unhip. Their version of mediocrity is more trendy than that of the Consumer's Report types, but it is nevertheless still mediocre - and even less admirable because of its pretentiousness. They fancy themselves as belonging to the avant garde and are scared skinny if being thought weird or different. In fact they are the most sheep-like of followers - the people who always made sure to ape the dress and behavior code of popular cliques in high school. Bereft of true imaginative vision (the ability to "think different"), they settle for the perceived safety of popularity. It is this sort of outlook that explains the vacuous fatuity of network television, and of late 20th Century popular culture in general.

As no less than Steve Jobs has observed: "You think it's a conspiracy by the networks to put bad shows on TV. But the shows are bad because that's what people want. It's not like Windows users don't have any power; I think they are happy with Windows, and that's an incredibly depressing thought...."

There are a couple of other factors at work in relation to the Mac's uneasy relationship with conventional business culture. Conformist, button-down, MBA types harbour an instinctive hostility toward the more freewheeling and nonconformist attitudes typical among the visual arts crowd. Since Macs are the box of choice in the vast majority of art departments, and the most visible people who use and advocate Macs are often considered weird, well - you get the picture.

Will Apple's myth-busting Web page help? Perhaps. With the advent of Mac OS X and the introduction of drop-dead cool Mac hardware like the Dual USB iBook, the TiBook, and the new G4 iMac, more PC users are checking out the Mac. But I wouldn't expect a stampede of forward migrators.

"When you press Wintel users about their choice," writes Dr. Hallmark, "especially when you are armed with the facts, things get interesting. Most will refuse to talk to you, the 'My mind is made up, don't try to confuse me with the facts' technique. Somehow I always get the feeling that there is something more going on here. So, What Do They Really Mean?"

What they really mean, in most cases, is that it's not that they're incapable of "thinking different" - they're simply afraid to or don't want to.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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