Mac Musings

PC Users Are Not the Enemy

Daniel Knight - 2001.10.10

Once upon a time, there were no Macs. There was no Windows or even MS-DOS. The phrase PC didn't mean politically correct or IBM compatible; it just meant personal computer. And the minute there were two different platforms, the platform wars were underway.

Five years later, Apple welcomed IBM to the personal computer arena. Three years after that, DOS computers were the standard, and Apple rolled out the Macintosh, destined to be the #1 alternative to the ubiquitous IBM PC and a zillion clones.

The platform wars have changed. The Apple II, TRS-80, CP/M, Commodore 64, Atari ST series, and Amigas have pretty much fallen by the wayside. More recent developments such as Geos, GEM, and OS/2 have been highly marginalized. We have two leading hardware platforms: Macs and PCs. We have three leading OS families: Windows (seemingly in 57 varieties), the Mac OS, and Unix-based and Unix-like operating systems such as Linux.

And we still have platform wars: Windows NT/2K/XP vs. Win95/98/Me, Mac vs. Windows, Linux vs. Windows, Mac OS X vs. the classic Mac OS, Linux vs. BSD, Linux vs. Mac, etc. The comparisons are sometimes academic, sometimes preaching to the choir, sometimes highly passionate.

The Simple Truth

The simple truth is that from a functional standpoint all of our computers and operating systems are much more similar than they are different. Computers are tools.

On roads around the world, the vast majority of vehicles use gasoline powered engines with cylinders. But some vehicles use diesel fuel, some have rotary engines, some run on hydrogen, others on electricity. We could consider these akin to computing platform differences - as long as the car or truck gets you where you need to be, it doesn't matter if you have 12 cylinders, a rotary engine, or a big wind-up crank on the back. From a functional standpoint motor vehicles are much more similar than they are different.

Geeks can debate the merits of concurrent vs. preemptive multitasking, using a resource fork vs. file extensions, various models for dealing with the hierarchy of files on a hard drive, and a hundred other aspects of computers and their operating systems. But in the end the only question is whether they do the job well.

Understanding the PC User

I cut my teeth on an Apple II+ in college, then bought into the Commodore line (Apples were expensive!), and learned MS-DOS in 1987. I became a serious DOS geek - able to write .BAT files with the best - and stuck with the platform for 4-5 years.

I chose the equipment I did mostly because of my budget. My VIC-20 cost $129; a few years later, I replaced it with a Commodore 64 for $99. My Zenith clone cost about $500 and used the monitor and printer I'd already purchased for my Commodore. There was no way I could afford $1,800 for a Mac 512K. No way.

A lot of PC users come into computing the same way. They already have a mortgage payment (maybe two) and a car payment (or two) and utility bills and a grocery budget. It'd be nice to drop $1,500-2,000 on a home computer, but it's not a high enough priority for them to spend that much money. (I'm working in a camera store part-time. It's the same thing there - most people just want/need an inexpensive point-and-shoot, not a more expensive digicam or 35mm SLR.)

They see the ads on TV and budget well under $1,000, all the time wishing it was closer to $500. And they don't just want a computer; they want a system the includes a printer.

"You're Getting a Dell, Dude"

The current Dell ads are brilliant. Mother and son are looking to buy a computer, but nobody in the store helps them. A friend of the family points out a Dell ad: You can buy a Pentium 4 system for $899!

Okay, that price doesn't include a printer, but it's also been reduced to $849. And if a 1.5 GHz Pentium 4 costs too much, the $699 system includes a "fast enough" 900 MHz Celeron processor.

Odds are their friends, family, coworkers, and employer all use Windows PCs. Odds are they don't even consider the Mac; they want what everyone else has or what they are already used to.

Peaceful Coexistence?

According to most sources, the personal computing world is about 90% Windows, 5% Macintosh, and 5% Linux. We should do what we can to peacefully coexist with the Windows behemoth rather than antagonize Windows users for having inferior hardware or an inferior operating system. It's really hard to convince someone to respect your opinion when you've just called him/her a fool for picking the wrong platform.

Our best approach is talking up the Mac, occasionally pointing out the Mac Advantages, realizing that their choice of Windows may not have been a conscious choice vs. the Mac, and understanding that we may eventually win them over when their Windows system can't do something they need to do - even if it's as simple as burning MP3s to a CD (iTunes vs. Windows is a revelation!) - or they simply get tired of Microsoft's increasingly draconian practices.

We can sympathize with their virus problems, bemoan the blue screen of death, let them know that our Macs can run their software (hooray for Virtual PC!), and apologize that we don't know enough about Windows to troubleshoot their problems. We may feel smugly superior, but even if we do, we shouldn't let it show.

Whither Apple?

Apple is making strides. Ever since the iMac came out in 1998, they have been winning over a small percentage of Windows users. They have raised awareness with ads promoting the G4 as a supercomputer, the joys of iTunes, and the simplicity of sending a DVD of your marriage to the folks back home. Except for the snail and bunny suit ads, they have tried to promote the positive without attacking the Wintel platform.

Apple's retail stores are also winning converts, which is good news indeed. I look forward to the day when we get one here (rumors are we'll see one at Woodland Mall in Grand Rapids, Michigan).

Apple has even attacked the price point problem with the new CD-ROM iMac at US$799. Too bad it won't burn CDs with iTunes, but it otherwise provides a competitive alternative to Dell and the rest of the Wintel world.

After all these years, I still believe Apple should offer a headless iMac to further reduce the cost of entry. Users could buy this $200 less expensive (my estimate) Mac an add an Apple Display, a third party monitor, or the old VGA monitor from their old Windows PC. Just don't package it in a transparent cube....

The Future of the Mac

The Mac will probably remain a viable alternative platform for decades. Apple provides superior integration of hardware and operating system, along with some incredibly useful free software. And with "feel good" ads that point out Mac advantages, a growing retail presence, continued efforts in the sub-$1,000 market, and gentle advocacy by Mac users, just maybe we can grow back to the 10% or even 15% level some day.

Until then, rest confident that you've made the right hardware/OS choice and try not to antagonize the Windows users. Friendly Windows users are potential converts; antagonists will rarely switch sides.