Computing's Holy War

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by Cary Lu <carylu@eworld.com>

[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).

Adam C. Engst, TidBITS Editor -- ace@tidbits.com -- info@tidbits.com

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