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Just Different

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- 2001.05.15 - Tip Jar

Computer User published an article by Sara Aase yesterday - Think Different, Act Different. The article got several links on the Mac Web, but I feel it deserves more than just a link. This article shows the kind of misunderstanding of the Mac that is common among Windows users. (Quoted material is indented.)

I am not an OS warrior. Over the past 10 years, I have used MS-DOS, OS2 (sic), Windows, and Mac operating systems, with no particular allegiance to any of them.

Aase lists her credentials as ten years of using MS-DOS, OS/2, Windows, and Mac operating systems. Three of the four run on the same type of hardware, both OS/2 and Windows also run DOS programs, and OS/2 can also run Windows sessions.

My primary concern tends to be: Does a given device/platform/system help me accomplish my goals, and does it do so in an easy, forthright way, with little hassle? Lately, that answer is increasingly "no" when it comes to the Mac.

Most of us use our computers for writing, email, surfing the Web, and maybe number crunching. A smaller percentage are involved in design work. At this point, you have to wonder what kind of work Aase does on her computer that makes doing things "in an easy, forthright way, with little hassle" difficult on the Mac.

I work in a publishing company filled with Macs, which are great for running Quark, graphics programs and word processors. But for the part of my job that involves reviewing products and software, I'm constantly seeing the Mac squeezed out of the loop - particularly for any cutting-edge device or offering from a new company. Apple is not entirely to blame for this - it's a PC world, especially the business world. But after taking some time to catch up with the company, I have to ask: What the heck is Apple doing?

Aase is a product reviewer, so her needs differ from the rest of the world. With 90% of the world using Windows, it goes without saying that most of the software and hardware development is for that platform. But somehow I can't see blaming Apple when most of the things she gets for review run on the dominant platform. I just doesn't make sense.

The more I read about Apple, the more confused I get. On the one hand, it has rolled out OS X, potentially alienating home-based users and developers, as developers wait to see if the system catches on.

Excuse me, but did she completely miss the fact that using OS X does not preclude the use of older Mac software? Was she out the day Apple announced Classic Mode and the ability to run traditional Mac software under Mac OS 9.1? Or did she miss Steve Jobs announcing that Macs wouldn't come from the factory with OS X until July 2001, by which time there should be a good base of OS X software?

Really, someone who has used Windows and OS/2 should understand things like that, since both use the same type of mechanism to run DOS.

As for home users, Mac savvy folk are finding that new users take to OS X more readily than established Mac users do. It's that nice. And the ability to run a pretty much crash proof OS, just the opposite of Windows Me, seems as well suited to home users as to information technology types.

On the other hand, OS X is UNIX-based with features like preemptive multitasking and BSD's rock-solid networking stack that would seem to endear it to developers and open Apple to more possibilities. With OS X, Apple seems to have taken a big, hopeful step outside of its established fan base.

That's an interesting assertion, since Aase provides no documentation to back it up. Apple has been promoting OS X to the Mac faithful for years. The only market they could sell the public beta or the public release to is Mac owners, since OS X doesn't run on other types of hardware. Apple has to work with the established fan base, and they seem to be succeeding. Sure, we're as resistant to change as DOS and Windows 95 users, but if we see a better way that doesn't break all our old software, we'll follow that path when we need to.

But other decisions continue to cloud the picture - for example, introducing stunning new hardware designs mixed with sometimes-questionable decisions to discontinue serial port connectors and popular features such as rewritable CD drives.

I wonder if Aase mourns the 5-1/4" floppy, which was a standard on DOS and Windows PCs for far too long. Or what about the old IBM AT expansion bus, which finally gave way to PCI some years back. Or even the ancient keyboard ports used with the early PCs and compatible.

At some point, it becomes impractical to continue supporting outdated technologies, whether that's floppy disks, ADB devices, or RS-422 serial ports. It's happened in the PC world often enough. Why shouldn't Aase expect it in the Mac world as well?

And I don't understand her assertion that Apple has discontinued "popular features such as rewritable CD drives." Apple was very late in offering CD-RW drives, but the only thing I find questionable was eliminating the DVD option on the iMac so they could standardize on CD-RW. I do hope the next iMac revision will offer a CD-RW/DVD Combo drive, just like the new iBook.

And Apple's recent decision to open retail stores has everyone scratching their heads.

Again, she hasn't polled the Mac community on that one. A lot of us know why Apple is launching retail stores. While Apple has one of the best known brands on the planet, a lot of their dealers just don't have the kind of knowledge or offer the level of support that users deserve. By strategically locating Apple retail stores, as Gateway has done, and staffing them with Apple savvy employees, Apple can insure the kind of support Mac users deserve.

What does cut through the confusion is a picture of a company that is so focused on itself that it may be missing obvious opportunities. Take a look at Apple's press releases on its Web site. See any about partnerships? They seem to be eerily absent.

Apple relies on the PowerPC chip, which is designed and built in partnership with IBM and Motorola. Apple has a partnership with Samsung for LCDs. Apple has partnered with a couple companies to actually produce the iMac and 'Books for them. Apple has partnered with Lucent to make AirPort a standard wireless protocol supported by every model.

The Apple Store offers Epson printers, Canon DV camcorders, VST drive, the Sony Media Converter, Kodak digicams, and several other third-party products.

But Apple doesn't push those partnerships. Instead, they promote the Mac, which is the culmination of all those partnerships. That's like GM promoting cars instead of pushing their partnership with a particular tire maker.

Likewise, looking for Apple news on the Web, I found a lot of information on Steve Jobs, Apple's retail-store rollout, profits, and latest products, in roughly that order. But a search on Apple or Mac paired with terms such as "wireless" and "developers" yielded much less, and what I did find had a disturbingly proprietary, small-world feel. Is OS X going to support new standards like Bluetooth?

Bluetooth? Did she say Bluetooth? Bluetooth networking is already as obsolete as USB 2.0, which Microsoft has abandoned in favor of FireWire.

What killed Bluetooth? The successful deployment of AirPort, a faster, industry standard (802.11b) wireless protocol that Apple rolled out nearly two years ago. Bluetooth will join the pile of discarded technologies such as IBM's Micro Channel Architecture and USB 2.0. AirPort will thrive until something significantly better comes along.

This isn't to say Apple couldn't do a better PR job. It's frustrating seeing Apple innovations reaching the mass market through Compaq and Gateway TV ads - often years after Apple developed the technology and made it a standard part of the Mac OS.

Does Apple plan a small-footprint OS for handheld devices and cell-phones, or is it content to give away this lucrative consumer space to Microsoft, Palm and Midori Linux?

Apple is a vertically integrated computer company - unlike Microsoft, Dell, or Compaq, they make the hardware and the OS. They've been at it for 25 years and know the importance of focus. Microsoft may be content to create an also-ran OS for handheld computers, another OS for regular users, and still another OS for servers (Pocket PC, Windows Me, and Windows 2000, respectively), but Apple would rather focus on a single platform and get it right.

Even if Apple continues to mostly forgo business and enterprise, it still needs to be prepared for consumer forays away from the desktop and even the laptop.

This is like saying GM's Saturn division needs to build a model for every niche. It just isn't so. Saturn built its reputation by doing one thing very well and growing from there; Apple has the same philosophy. Instead of building an OS for handhelds and cell phones, Apple makes an OS that works with computers. If Mac users want to link their Palms with their Macs, they can do it.

Apple has deliberately carved out a niche for itself as a boutique offering, but will it continue to exasperate folks who aren't diehards? (Just ask CU Editorial Director James Mathewson about trying to get his Mac to work with DSL.)

You have to hand it to the DSL providers, with PPPoE they have taken a remarkably simple process and made a mess of it. I've given up on EarthLink ever getting DSL to work with my TiBook; I'll stick with AT&T@home cable Internet service.

Should Apple have to support some brain-dead protocol just because a handful of DSL ISPs want to use it? No, but at the same time they should seriously consider it. Mac users have enough obstacles to face because we have a minority platform; not supporting a widely deployed standard (no matter how dumb) only makes it more difficult for us.

Why, when Apple still has plenty of innovation to offer? I'm hoping that a newly appointed head of developer relations and this week's Apple developers conference in San Jose will provide a clearer company direction. But in the meantime, not being a diehard myself, anybody got a spare PC?

Remember, Aase is writing this as a reviewer - anything but a typical user. She makes some good points, but they are obscured by her limited understanding of the Mac, the Mac market, the Mac user, and the Mac community. Instead of offering a meaningful perspective on things Macintosh, she appears as just another uninformed Windows user.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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