Why I will probably continue to buy Macs

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OSNews recently published a really poorly argued piece by a former Mac enthusiast who subsequently became a Windows and then a Linux fan (Why I will probably never buy another Mac). It lasts for five pages, and in the first page he goes from becoming a Mac enthusiast while other office workers were being lumbered with PCs, through the whole history up to OS 8 and 9 and Windows 98: after that, he says, the quality of Mac hardware went down, the price stayed more or less the same, the operating system became vastly less reliable and fell behind Windows, and the community did not want to be told that their hardware was a poor choice compared to a PC running Windows.

The reader will notice that this author glosses over two important issues in attacking the Mac community. One of these is that Windows, at least since 95, has always been notorious for its reliability and security issues. He does not mention the “Blue Screen of Death” even once. He does not mention the fact that, to run Windows reliably, you need anti-virus software which costs extra (unless it came bundled with the machine), and uses extra system resources. He does not mention the continual updates, which as time goes on, detract from the performance of Windows - or even that the last fresh Windows OS was released as long ago as 2001. He was pleased with XP on a system which was fast, with lots of memory and a huge hard disk; on the system I use XP on, a 450Mhz Pentium 3 with 256 megabytes of RAM and a 7Gb hard drive, it’s an absolute dog.

He also fails to mention that actually OS X has become an excellent operating system. The presentation values speak for themselves (notably the fonts, unmatched on any other platform including Windows), it’s fast on my hardware (1GHz G4, 384Mb RAM), and it’s reliable. I’ve not had the whole operating system crash on me once, although individual applications sometimes do. And it has commercially-supported applications - not as many as on Windows, but certainly more than Linux has, which is what prompted me to move to a Mac having used Linux on a PC. (The Mac versions of the Microsoft Office packages are said by some to be better than their Windows equivalents; it’s just as expensive, though, and I got my copy only because I had a student discount at the time.) As for the original OS X being “a total dog”, first-release operating systems often are. Machines running that version of OS X were configured to dual-boot with OS 9, not least because a lot of applications had not been rewritten for OS X yet.

The author notes that internet forums on which Macs were discussed became less friendly and the inhabitants were often snobbily dismissive of PC users:

Windows machines were ridiculed for being boring beige boxes. Windows users were the subject of snobbish jibes. Contemptuous references to Walmart appeared. Macs kept being compared to high end designer brands, in particular to cars. If you chose differently, it was because you had no taste, no class.

BMWs appeared to have a particular fascination for the Mac aficionado. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The chorus of people who seemed to think that Macs were high class, and that buying them was a route to social mobility, was astounding. Could there really be so many people who were so naive about how social class really works in America? And could so many of them be Mac users? I shivered a bit at the thought.

The attitude is indefensible, and the fact that Apple has always refused to issue a PC-equivalent Mac system unit, enabling the user to find his own display, always struck me as rather stupid. (If you get an all-in-one Mac with a duff screen, as I did, replacing it means either replacing the entire system, perhaps after you’ve grown attached to it, or ordering a new screen, which costs more than ordering a new PC monitor and has to be fitted inside the computer. Or you can do as I did, and attach an extra monitor, and you can’t switch the original bad display off. They’re both displaying the same material, wasting electricity.) It does seem that the “look” of a Mac sometimes takes precedence over versatility; if you want a versatile, expandable Mac, you have to get a PowerMac, which starts at £1,395.90 including VAT, not including monitor. I don’t think the Mac Mini measures up to an expandable PC system unit: for one thing, opening it is nowhere near as easy and is said to involve decorators’ tools, and many of its components are those of laptops, not desktop systems.

Returning to the fans’ attitudes, some Linux forms are notoriously unfriendly as well, particularly to newcomers. There is one set of Linux forums I used to visit which would not establish a forum for a particular “distribution” unless its author’s support was forthcoming - the result being that every “one man and his dog” distro was represented but SUSE, one of the biggest with one of the biggest user bases, was not - and so the general Linux forum was full of discussion about SUSE! And a lot of the contemptuous terms he noticed Mac users using (Micro$oft, Windoze and so on) are common among Linux users as well - even turning up in magazines like Linux Format from time to time.

And the software available for Linux is just not up to the standard of the Mac’s, much less what is there for Windows. OpenOffice.org comes as one single program with word processor, spreadsheet, presentation package and whatever else, rather than as separate programs which can be loaded into memory as and when needed. You can imagine the drain this causes to the system’s performance, and the limitations it places on functionality. There must be a reason why companies are not rushing to put it on everyone’s desktop, because it is, after all, free. The GIMP, adequate for most people’s uses, may well come up to the feature set of Photoshop, but right now it doesn’t. While Linux has no shortage of server databases, both commercial and free, it does not have a serious answer to Access or FileMaker. And the Mac actually makes it easier to do everyday Unix tasks, such as starting an internet connection when the router has gone down or a wire accidentally got unplugged, than Linux often does (in this particular case, it detects available internet connections and activates them automatically).

His reasons for “probably never buying another Mac again” are that Apple, in his view, has cultivated the Apple bigots’ mindset, letting a culture emerge that is far more like a totalitarian state “with a Dear Leader who would be in place for life, and the only books allowed would be those not on the Index”. These bigots sneer at non-Mac users and cheer on Apple’s every move, including those which are antithetical to freedom (such as its use of Digital Rights Management and its fondness for suing people), and issue outright lies and then get abusive when the lies are refuted. However, the competition is also known for using morally (and legally) questionable tactics, such as issuing ad campaigns comparing the performance of their server OS with Linux on different hardware, and the phenomenon of what were (or still are) known as “MicroDroids”, who “post follow-ups to any messages critical of Microsoft’s operating systems, and often end up sounding like visiting fundamentalist missionaries”, is well-known.

The fact remains, though, that OS X is a great operating system let down by Apple’s obsession with “lifestyle” hardware marketing. The last actual new release of it was last year; the last version of Windows came out in 2001, and the upcoming version is not thought to work properly on hardware issued before this year. (It will also scramble your hard drive to stop you doing things certain corporations don’t want you doing with their products.) OS X also has a tried-and-tested open-source Unix base, which Windows XP does not have and neither will Windows Vista. And the limited hardware has its own advantage, namely that the system can be refined to work well with that hardware and does not need to bloat itself out to interact with every piece of hardware it might meet. (In the early days of Linux, people would compile their own kernel to suit their hardware for this reason; system resources were too precious to waste on compatibility for hardware you don’t have.)

I like Linux; it’s fun to play around with and it’s just about adequate for some people’s office needs. It is also, nowadays, easy to install for someone with a small amount of technical knowledge but who is not a “Unix guru”. I strongly suspect it will not gain desktop approval, if it ever does, until someone works out a solution to its font problems (asymmetry and general ugliness, particularly on serif fonts). But it does not have the serious desktop applications to make it overtake Windows or OS X, even if as an operating system it is vastly superior to Windows. Which is why, when I next need to buy a computer, if I can afford one and the Mac is as viable a platform as it is now, I will probably buy another Mac.

(Here’s my reply to an earlier article by a Linux fan - in this case the deputy editor of Linux Format - who said that Mac OS X sucks. OSNews linked my article and you can find more comments here, and another pro-Mac article with some caveats by Ed Thomson.)

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