Thursday, August 12, 2004

Cogitate Aliter

Switching to Macintosh

Anyone who grew up in the 80s remembers the neverending arguments between schoolmates who favoured Macintosh computers to the "IBM" alternative. At the time, the computer-illiterate bought Mac, and those who were tech-savvy purchased IBM clones. The Macintosh was always too crash-prone, too limited in the power it offered the consumer. Windows 95 came around, cloned the Mac experience, and the question seemed settled.

Comparison Resources
A very detailed comparison of MS Windows XP vs Mac OS X
Apple's take on the issue

How things change. Apple is now a designer label. The Macintosh OS is secure, stable and elegant, beckoning to Windows refugees fed up with crash-prone, virus-infested computers that just won't work right. The hardware is cutting-edge (and attractive to boot!) What is going on here?

Impacts of Mac OS X

The Macintosh has had 10 major versions of its operating system since 1984. 1-9 were all evolutionary, each building and refining the predecessor, and it showed. Mac OS 9 looked somewhat dated when compared to Windows 95. Apple chose with Mac OS X (ten) to try something new; they took a version of Unix, the operating system that runs on most of the computers that one accesses on the Internet, the operating system that runs on mainframes and supercomputers, and gave it a "pretty" face. They took their talent for developing easy to use, intuitive interfaces, and placed that on top of the single most successful computing innovation since the microchip.

The result is that the Macintosh platform truly has the best of both worlds. A power user has as his disposal the resources to have his computer fill any niche need. Simultaneously the casual user finds that everything "just works", without crashes, strange error messages, and is easier to navigate and learn to operate than a Windows PC.

The Virtues of "Just Works"

One of the primary advantages Apple has is that while its products are sometimes revolutionary, some evolutionary; sometimes the most powerful, sometimes quite average, it manages one feat uniformly that no other computer manufacturer can match. Its products "just work". Take the iPod for example; MP3 players have been around for quite sometime, and so have online music shops. What sets the iPod and iTunes apart is how simply and elegantly everything functions. You buy an iPod, charge it and hook it up to your computer. It works, no strange software to install, no odd drivers to download. The music store (iTunes) also functions in this seamless way, pick the songs, pay your bill and they are yours. No strange problems getting them onto your mp3 players (no music stores sell mp3s, all use some strange format. Apple, both owning the store and making the player, ensures they can work well together.) no issues trying to burn the music onto CDs that work in your car. Operating the store and the player is simple and intuitive. Bragging rights may seem to derive from wrestling an appliance down until it works as you would have it, but obviously most or all of us would prefer appliances that work as a stove does. Turn it on, you get what you want. All the settings you need are easy to manage and monitor. You can do whatever you need to with barely a thought as to how to operate it.

This is a trick the PC world has yet to learn. On a more abstract level this is the problem will all of the Windows/PC environment. Their structure is too fault-prone, too poorly-designed to prevent the user from having to fool around with its internals, or face repeated breakdowns. Unix computers often stay on for over a year; it's an axiom that Windows computers should have their operating systems reinstalled every year.


Speaking of up-times of over a year, one of the huge leads the Macintosh platform has over the PC is its stability. Arbitrary crashes, the "blue screen of death" are all virtually unknown. The reason is that the internals of the operating system is the same as that which runs the computers that authorize credit card purchases and the like, computers that cannot be allowed to crash. The user pays for that stability in small amounts of performance, but Apple solves for that by using better hardware.

The costs of stability are more than they might seem. People who are not totally immersed in the design of the personal computer are often very confused when something "out of the ordinary" happens. A program crashes, another goes into a programmatic spiral, slowing the computer to a crawl, these things happen without the user understanding why, and lead to a fear of the computer itself. They take up the refrain of "It hates me" and "I just don't understand it". Often most of the putative productivity gains that computing is supposed to provide are lost because people do not trust their computers they way they do their cars, ovens or stoves.

Power users on the other hand usually stress their computers somewhat more. No wonder then that stability is such a problem for them. They tend to have more programs open, more applications that are from smaller outfits without the benefit of rigorous testing and quality assurance programs. They tend to use more "hacks" to modify the behavior of their operating systems. Under these, more challenging circumstances, only proper design that isolates critical systems from those the user might overwhelm or subvert can keep the overall system operational. Microsoft doesn't program that way. In the name of performance (long ago) they moved everything they could into "kernel-space", the area that those vital processes are supposed to be such that if MS Internet Explorer crashes, it doesn't take Word with it (thwarted by the conflation of all the OS into that space). Apple has not made that mistake with Mac OS X; every aspect of the system is firewalled from the other, to prevent any mistakes, internally or by lazy third-party programmers, from impacting the stability of the system.


This is just self-explanatory; Unix-based systems are generally more secure, having been designed for 100s of users since the 1970s, as opposed to having networking and multi-user awareness shoehorned in for windows 95. Moreover Apple has paid a lot of attention to this issue, to maximize the lead they have in this area. No viruses currently circulate that can harm a Mac.

Security is not simply a concern of stability and performance. Many viruses are actually damaging on a software or hardware level. Either data loss or potentially even permanent damage can occur on a PC, but not on a Macintosh, all due to Microsoft's flawed design choices.

Intuitive design

We all have different ways of thinking. These differences reflect themselves in how we approach even the simplest of problems. If we have some text in one application and would like to move it to another, we may choose different ways to do so. Some will try to copy it, and then paste. Others will try to "drag" it over, and "drop" it. Some will want a key combination to copy, others a contextual menu (a menu that pops up where the mouse is) and still others a system menu (a menu at the top of the application) option.

All of these should work where possible, and where not, all options for all problems should be accessible the same way. The Mac OS pays attention to this basic rule of human interface design; Windows does not. People should not have to adapt to the application, the application and indeed the computer should be designed to operate as any and all of us would assume it would.

Application Support

For 15 years, the main reason people have bought Windows and Intel is due to application support (to get the programs they want to use). For once, the Mac has everything the PC does. Office, Outlook (express), Photoshop, Quark Express, etc etc. Any major program comes out on the Mac, often in a better form (Ironically Office 2004 for Mac is far superior to Office XP).

Final Thoughts

There is no reason not to at least consider switching, next time you consider purchasing a new computer. I have looked into this issue for the last three months, as I am in the market for one, and by now it is obvious that I have made my decision.


At 2:26 PM, [REDACTED] said...

I am a longtime Linux user, so I suppose the switch would actually be easier for me than for a Windows user. The underlying Unix layer is quite the attractive feature, and, psychologically at least, allows me to retain my feeling that I'm not playing with a preschool toy. Indeed, my next computer may be a PowerBook. They are sexy as hell.

Some notes though: I truly believe that while Microsoft made the decision to move many things into kernel space, the reason that this did not set off enormous red flags among their programmers is because they were youngsters who grew up with Windows, and therefore made the (poor) assumption of a single user context, i.e., there is someone always sitting in front of the machine, staring directly at a keyboard and monitor. In contrast, Unix was born out of a place where timesharing and multiple users was common. Its past allowed it to develop intelligently. Perhaps Nature v. Nurture comes into play? :) Windows had a poor upbringing!

(Brian Merrell)

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