Back to Mac

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 April 1997

About two years ago in this space, I made an announcement that led to over 1000 horrified responses from you readers. I’m still receiving a trickle of email about it to this day. And all I had done was explain the reasons why I had traded in my Macintosh computer for a Windows machine.

Now, two years and three Windows operating systems later, I am finally admitting defeat. I understand Windows as well as most technical support personnel. I can edit a config.sys file and delete bad lines in an autoexec.bat with the best of them. I can partition a hard drive in FAT32, manually configure a dial-up adapter, and scour my systems folder for obsolete dll’s.

But why would I want to know such things? And what has learning all this done to me? Worse, why doesn’t my knowledge of Windows’ twisted innards bring me any closer to wrestling my system?

In short, my two years in Windows has fundamentally altered my experience of the computer and of the Internet. A quick look through my 150 archived columns reveals a distinct souring that took place just about the time I gave up the elegance of the Mac for the seeming compatibility of the Windows PC. I went from writing about “co-evolution with technology” to complaining about “the intentionally disempowering opacity of the interface.” I owe this shift in perspective to Windows.

My reasons for surrendering to Bill Gates were simple: I wanted to be compatible. I was tired of opening email and files from Windows users that came through on my Mac as garbled characters. I hated the fact that my Netscape browser would freeze up at the first whiff of a Java applet.

I began to feel like stubborn zealot. The die was cast, and Windows had won. So I acquiesced. I agreed to turn in my individuality – my preference for the Bauhaus elegance of the Mac – to comply with the wish of the majority. Like a dissident finally signing on with the fascist regime, or a Jew converting to Catholicism during the Inquisition, I figured assimilation was a better option than continued resistance. Non-compliance just cost too much.

I decided I no longer cared which system I used, as long as someone promised to make it all work with everything else.

Well, Bill Gates just didn’t come through. When I became a subject of the Microsoft Kingdom, the coin of the realm was undergoing a transition from Windows 3.1 to the Mac-like Windows 95. The new system promised to take care of everything for the user, from adding and removing programs to automatically recognizing and configuring new hardware.
Unfortunately, Microsoft seemed more concerned with fighting its browser war with Netscape, its word processing war with Wordperfect, and its email war with Eudora than supplying an integrated system to its customers. The result of this many-fronted battle was a set of essentially incompatible suites of programs. Microsoft’s “Outlook” division just didn’t know what its “Office” division was doing.

The different battalions of the Windows army each worked to develop “ultimate solutions” to computing. The squadron of programmers writing the operating system created a messaging system called Exchange, the team building the Outlook suite wanted to take care of messaging by themselves, and the Explorer troops used another program called Outlook Express. And none of them worked properly with Office, or one another.

I hung in there, configuring and reconfiguring my system nightly, hoping that Windows 98, essentially a bug-fix for Win95, would deliver the “final solution” I was looking for. It didn’t. Instead, it merely immersed me in an even thicker soup of “user-friendly” installation and configuration utilities, complete with animated “paper-clip” characters to taunt me in my despair.

My new iMac, though far from perfect, actually gives me back some control over how my computer functions. It’s playful transparent-blue plastic design – bordering on the silly, in fact – goes a long way towards rehabilitating my sense of superiority over these machines.

Better yet, I can write, send email, and browse the Web as well as I could five years ago! Oddly, the Macintosh interface, which once seemed so opaque compared with the simple DOS commands I had grown up using, now seems connected to the functioning of my machine – at least in comparison with the numbing distance imposed by Windows. I can manually enter a phone number I want my modem to dial, directly into a little box, without going through all the painstaking steps required by one of Microsoft’s “Wizards.” The Wizard set-up utilities attempt to predict what I’ll need, and then meet those assumed expectations by adding international access numbers or special modem string commands. In the name of user-friendliness, the software keeps me away from my own hardware.

Like an all-too formal waiter who won’t let you apply your own pepper to your food, the meddling Microsoft utilities most often get it wrong. The iron-clad interface in which the operating system is housed prevents even the most advanced users from getting past these “helpful” sentries and configuring things ourselves. In Europe last month, unable to get Windows to cooperate with my hotel phone system, I was forced to retrieve my email and even deliver my column through the Palm Pilot.

By trying to outdo the Macintosh at user-friendliness, Windows sealed its formerly manipulable system in a shield of automated yet inoperable configuration agents. Those who want to get at the real guts of their machines have already begun turning to Linux.

Like any fascist regime, Microsoft is more concerned with fighting wars against its competitors than providing a workable system for its own constituency. Expansion of the Empire takes priority over everything else. As a result, the promise of universal compatibility is more than outweighed by totalitarian police state it requires.

There’s just no room to “think different.