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Computing’s Holy War

[Published in the Seattle Times, June 18, 1995. Revised June 26 to include support numbers from Microsoft. Copyright 1995 by Cary Lu. This article may be freely copied and distributed in paper and electronic form without charge if this copyright paragraph is included.]

The battle between proponents of Macintosh and IBM PC computers has for many years resembled a religious war, and as in all religious wars, much of the rhetoric has been driven more by ignorance than knowledge. Very few people are truly skilled with both Macs and PC. Since PCs outsell Macs by a wide margin – seven to one or more – most people with computer experience actually know only about DOS and Microsoft Windows on an IBM PC or clone.

Not surprisingly then, if you ask which computer should you buy, the most common answer – from computer sales people, data processing managers, and newspaper columnists – is a PC. But before you take that advice, ask if your adviser actually uses both Macs and PCs. If he or she knows only one system well, consider the advice suspect. Steer clear of PC bigots and Mac bigots who use jargon: "Only PCs support true pre-emptive multitasking and multiple processors." "Only Macs have dual-channel SCSI for fast disk arrays." These techie issues are irrelevant for most users; in any event both systems will offer all these features in the coming months.

Which computer do I recommend? I think you should get the same kind of computer that your most technically astute friend uses – a friend you can call at midnight on Sunday when you really get stuck. If you buy a Mac, you won’t need an expert, since you won’t get stuck nearly as often. And if you don’t have a technical friend, you will be much better off with a Mac – with some exceptions that I will discuss later.

Troubleshooting and Multimedia — Is the Mac really that much easier to use? Consider this: One quarter of all the questions that Patrick Marshall has answered in his Q&A column in the Seattle Times deals with PC problems that never occur on a Macintosh. Macintosh users never have to deal with memory management, interrupts, DMA channels, or a SYSTEM.INI file. Inside a Mac, there are no jumpers to set, either on the main board or on the vast majority of accessories.

PC users have to learn these details or else they can’t get software to run. The computer industry estimates that PC users have trouble running 25 to 35 percent of multimedia CD-ROMs. I’m accustomed to trouble. This morning, I installed a CD-ROM for my five-year-old on my Pentium computer and got a message: "Increase DMABuffer Size." I doubt if most PC users would know how to respond; what’s more, no message explained two additional problems beyond the DMABuffer size. Through long experience, I have learned most of the hundreds of technical tricks necessary to get CD-ROMs running on a PC, although a few discs still have me stumped. Surveys show that PC users rarely buy CD-ROMs. A CD-ROM on a PC is too often like a book with pages glued together or illustrations torn out.

CD-ROM installation problems are almost unheard of on a Mac, aside from a simple free update for recent system software (Apple’s Multimedia Tuner). Three other problems are easy to understand – CD-ROMs that need color won’t run on a black-and-white Mac, a few CD-ROMs need more memory than the simplest Macs have, and some Mac screens are too small to show a standard CD-ROM image. I’ve just answered the bulk of all Mac CD-ROM installation questions. In the past five years, I have not seen a single incompatible or even difficult-to-install CD-ROM on a Mac. Because no one has to learn any tricks, Mac users buy discs without trepidation. As a result, CD-ROM publishers find that Mac users buy CD-ROMs out of proportion to the Mac’s market share.

Support & the Software Question — David Billstorm, president of Media Mosaic and publisher of Mountain Biking and other outdoor recreation CD-ROMs, tells me that 40 percent of sales are for Macs. Yet PC buyers call for technical support far more often than Mac buyers. Although both Mac and PC versions have the same price, Media Mosaic makes more money from the Mac versions because the cost of answering a single call can wipe out any profit from the sale. For Microsoft’s CD-ROM titles, PC users call for help at least three times as often as Mac users; on some titles, PC users need help nearly ten times as often (1994 figures, corrected for the relative numbers of PC and Mac users). On Christmas day, none of my Mac friends called with problems; several PC friends called (and each one started by apologizing, "The support lines aren’t open today…")

The Mac is not completely free of software conflicts, especially for enthusiasts who tend to like complexity. But the conflicts are usually resolved by simply moving clearly labeled icons from one folder to another; if you make a mistake, you just move the icon back. On a PC, you must use far more difficult techniques – editing cryptic files (WIN.INI, AUTOEXEC.BAT, etc.), setting environment variables, adjusting memory locations, changing command-line switches in drivers. If you make a mistake, the computer may refuse to start.

In the past year, the hottest new category of Windows software has been "uninstall" utilities, programs that can remove Windows software. Windows and Windows software can put dozens or even hundreds of files on a hard disk; a person can’t keep track of the files without help from another computer program. The Mac neither has nor needs an equivalent utility; removing a program is usually simple and besides, every file is identified by its type and the program that created it.

Quite aside from utilities, more software is available for the PC than for the Mac. You may have a specialized need that can be met only by a PC, particularly for business applications. In a few areas, particularly graphics, the Mac leads. For the vast majority of users, and certainly for anyone buying a family computer, there is no significant difference in the applications – word processors and so on – available for either system.

Microsoft’s applications and many other major programs come in both PC and Mac versions. The PC version may come out first, presumably because the publisher wants to reach the larger group of customers first. The real reasons may not be obvious. Aldus (now Adobe) PageMaker, a program that was originally developed for the Mac, came out in a version 5.0 first for Windows. The project manager explained to me that the programmers disliked Windows intensely. Aldus management insisted on the Windows version first, because if the programmers were allowed to finish the Mac version first, they might never finish the Windows version.

For Novices or Experts? Although the Mac has obvious appeal to the computer novice, the people who really understand computers also tend to prefer Macs. At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, most of the new, unfinished multimedia computer software – even software destined for PCs – was demonstrated on Macs rather than PCs. Famed supercomputer designer Seymour Cray uses a Mac. Two division heads for major PC clone companies called me independently last year; they were leaving their companies and wanted to know which Macs to buy for their new startups. I know of three companies in the Portland area started in the past year by former Intel managers. Two of the three companies chose Macs as their principal computers. (Intel makes most of the CPU chips, such as the Pentium, that drive Windows computers.)

Corporate data processing (DP) managers generally prefer PCs; most have little experience with Macs. PCs do ensure full employment for the DP staff. At Intel, where many employees are true computer experts, the DP department figures on one support person for every 30 Windows computers. The DP department was astonished to learn that one Intel division had 120 Macs and got along fine with a single support person. Mac users rarely have problems, and when they do, the answers usually come from other users rather than from the DP department.

The hidden cost of support – and perhaps frustration – at least partially offsets the Mac’s higher prices. The price gap has narrowed, but it will never close completely. Macs come with more standard features – all Macs, including laptops, have sound and networking built in. Apple has usually – but not always – used higher quality components than the average PC clone. PC accessories are generally cheaper, but then I’ve seen a lot of bad keyboards and fuzzy monitors on PC clones. A good monitor costs the same for either system. Ultimately, Apple spends more money; it makes major investments in research and development. For the typical PC clone company, R&D consists of reading spec sheets from Taiwan.

Macs have a longer useful lifetime. I use a five-year-old Mac to play today’s multimedia CD-ROMs without difficulty. In the past five years on my PC, I’ve had to change the CPU twice, the video card twice, the motherboard twice, and the sound board once, just to play ordinary discs. (I also switched to double-speed CD-ROM drives on both systems.)

Apple has made many strategic errors. The first Macintosh clones are only now beginning to appear. Ten years ago, I called for Apple to license the Mac operating system at a MacWorld Expo keynote panel. Many in the audience hissed at my remarks. Yet by refusing to license the Mac system early, Apple made the enormous success of Microsoft Windows possible.

Within the computer industry, the description "more like a Macintosh" is always high praise. The description "more like Windows" is rarely used as praise, except perhaps in contrast to "more like DOS."

Microsoft tells everyone that its forthcoming Windows 95 is more like a Macintosh. The key features of Windows 95 – long file names, plug-and-play hardware installation, direct file display – have been on the Mac for eleven years. Yet despite much clever engineering by Microsoft, Windows 95 cannot overcome the chaos inherent to the PC world, both for hardware and for the need now to run three wildly different operating systems and application software (for DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95). Mac users have never had to cope with such jarring changes.

Microsoft’s genius lies in getting things to work – more or less – despite the PC chaos. Apple’s genius lies in getting so many things right in its fundamental Macintosh design and avoiding chaos.

Cary Lu is a contributing editor to Macworld magazine and writes about PCs for several other magazines. He is a Windows 95 beta tester. He wrote The Apple Macintosh Book (Microsoft Press).

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