Miscellaneous Ramblings

Computer Elitism

Would We Really Want Apple to Dominate the Computer Market?

Charles Moore - 2002.01.29 - Tip Jar

While reading a news item in my local paper over the weekend about the feud between AOL and Microsoft, in which the temperature has been cranked up a few degrees by AOL's recently filed lawsuit against its Redmond rival, it occurred to me how little direct impact either of these mighty industry titans has on my computing and Internet experience.

I refuse to use Microsoft software or Internet services on principle, and I'm not an AOL subscriber, either. I do use Mozilla, which is the Open Source prototype for AOL's Netscape 6 browser, and I also use ICQ, a product of an AOL subsidiary, but that's pretty much it.

I don't harbor the ideological animus against AOL that I do regarding Microsoft, but I'm not really interested in what they have to offer. For me, big means bland, boring, dumbed down, and functionally compromised to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The smaller players tend to be more focused, interesting, and "pure" engineering-wise.

I suppose that this general attitude is the reason why I've not been much of a General Motors or Ford fan over the years either. Microsoft and AOL are the GM and Ford of the IT world. I did own a few 60s era GM products during the early 70s, and for the most part those big Chevies and Pontiacs, and a GMC truck, were good vehicles, but that was an anomaly facilitated by some real car guys like Ed Cole, John Beltz, and John Z. DeLorean penetrating the upper echelons of GM engineering and management back in the 1960's.

By 1970, the rot had set in at GM, most of the car guys left, and the company entered a three decade swoon from which it is only beginning to emerge in the new century. The recruitment of Bob Lutz from Chrysler, a car guy's car guy, is an auspicious development, and GM is starting to develop some interesting product again. It's pickup trucks (I'm a truck guy) are now arguably as good as the best in the field, and that new double overhead cam inline 6 in the midsize GMC and Chevy SUVs is a delicious piece.

Mark Gillies of Automobile Magazine says that the new Cadillac CTS is the equal of competing BMWs and Mercedes in handling and performance. Perhaps GM's eroding market share has finally lit a fire under its engineering department after 30 years of wandering in a wilderness of mediocrity.

As for Ford, the last and only Ford product I've had among the 50 or so cars that I've owned was a 1953 3/4 ton truck. The last Ford truck that I liked was a beautiful '56 model. However, I have to admit that the new T-Bird is cool, and Ford of course does have a gaggle of worthy marques in its stable through its acquisition of Jaguar, Aston Martin, Volvo, and Land Rover. Current CEO and family scion William Clay Ford is an interesting guy, and under his guidance perhaps Ford will become more interesting as well.

Nevertheless, my inclination has always been toward the leaner, meaner players like Chrysler, which has had to innovate and take more risks in order to distinguish itself from the conventional blandness of most Ford and GM offerings, and their customers have been the beneficiaries.

Which brings me back to the computer orbit. I have to admit that one of the reasons I'm an Apple aficionado is the same reason I've driven mostly Chrysler products for the past 25 years - I am a temperamental nonconformist who likes "thinking different" for the sake of thinking different. If something gets too popular, I can deduce that there is probably something wrong with it (or at best mediocre about it) without further investigation

Ergo: the argument that Windows is "the most popular OS that 'everybody' uses" cuts no ice with me, and would send me scurrying to embrace the Mac or even Linux on principle. I know from experience that virtually anything that appeals to the mass consumer market is not likely to appeal to me.

For instance, the most popular passenger cars in Canada are the Chevy Cavalier/Pontiac Sunbird subcompacts, which are, I guess, fairly dependable basic transportation, but plain-vanilla bland and terminally boring. They're everywhere up here, but I never pay any attention to them. Like Windows, they're just not interesting.

Consequently, while I would like to see Apple with a market share of, say, 10-15 percent, I'm not at all sure I would want to see them penetrate much farther than that, because in order to do so they would have to dumb down and compromise the Mac experience to appeal to the bland taste of the broad consumer market.

There is some concern that they are already doing this to a degree with the OS X GUI. One of the arguments I frequently hear from Aqua apologists is that the X desktop experience is more accessible (read Windows-like) for newcomers to the Mac platform than the old Mac OS GUI was.

Like the "most popular OS that 'everybody' uses" argument, this rationale has no leverage with me.

The classic Mac OS, when you invest a very modest amount of time and effort in learning how it works, offers the best, slickest, and most efficient computer desktop environment I've yet encountered. Making things transparently easier for the lazy and inept (the AOL/Microsoft motif) just waters down and homogenizes functionality.

If this sounds elitist, it unabashedly is. I believe that there is nothing to apologize for in the pursuit of excellence and the maintenance of standards. Along with "discrimination," (which used to imply good taste) "elitism" is a word that has been redefined into a pejorative by political correctness advocates. However, without an elitist ideal, all we are left with is the mindless pursuit of mediocrity.

I espouse the form of elitism that reaches down to offer a hand up, but I have no interest in lowest common denominator solutions - which is why AOL and Microsoft are likely to remain irrelevant to like computing experience.

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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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