The Mac Attack

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

Am I in the doghouse, or what? So far, I have received over 300 angry emails from angry Mac loyalists, damning me to eternal hell for announcing in my last column that I had deserted Apple and bought a Windows machine.
The letters - including a few from Apple employees – raised some great points, but before I can bring myself to respond to them, I have to respond to the flood itself.

However naïve or even “evil” my purchase of a Windows laptop, it was simply a single consumer’s choice, not an act of war. Indeed, as many have pointed out, I wrote my confession as much to assuage my own guilt and trepidation as to share some of the history of this predicament with others who are in the same position and have made the same dreaded choice.

The Macintosh “community’s” response was not unlike that of a cult attacking a deserter. “The Mac is not just a computer,” many explained, “it’s a way of life. A religion.” I was called “friendless,” “traitor,” “fascist,” “pathetic,” and, perhaps most eloquently, “you suck.” This was the sort of invective I’d expect if I published an article in The Jewish Bulletin saying I was reversing my circumcision and converting to Catholicism. Maybe worse.

I know what it’s like to fear that your computer may become obsolete, or that your manufacturer - who was until recently more concerned with maintaining proprietary rights than serving its constituency – might even go under. Those of us who jump ship, and do so loudly, hurt those who remain steadfast. Part of the reason I stayed for so long was out of the same loyalty to what is, frankly, a better system. (I still have a Sony Betamax VCR in the closet, too.) But to “suffer a while longer” and wait for the new system, as many suggested, was too high a road for me to take. I needed a new machine, and I was afraid to invest in another Mac right now.

Many Mac-heads warned me of how much I would suffer in the Win95 world. So far, they are at least partially right. Win95 is clunky. In spite of its Mac-like windows, it’s hard to know where anything is, and the interface lacks the simplicity and elegance of a real Mac. While my new laptop will accept peripherals from a wider variety of manufacturers, the Windows Install Wizard can hardly be called “Plug ‘n Play.” Worse, while Macs accept PC disks, PC’s don’t read Mac disks. I’ve been trying to convert, but it’s a pain.

Some people took issue with my argument that Mac software is harder to find. While good Mac software is available through mail order catalogues, fewer smaller developers can afford to write applications for both platforms. In my own two development experiences, I had to absorb the cost myself for creating the Mac versions of software; the companies I contracted for didn’t think it was worth the money.

Many Mac users explained that they use PC’s at work, but enjoy the Macintosh at home. Fine - but my home machine is my work machine. Others explained that most magazines, special effects houses and online developers still use high-end Macs for their superior handling of graphics. True, but new, lower cost Silicon Graphics machines are making headway into this market, and most consumers don’t need home machines designed to compete for the high-end or server market. That’s why Mac’s market share has slipped, by most industry accounts, to the low single digits. (I know: Rolls Royce only has a single-digit share of the auto market – but at least they use the same petrol as everyone else.)

The biggest controversy (other than the nature of good and evil) was about next year’s release of the new “Rhapsody” operating system. Apple claims that the system will be compatible with older Macs and software. I sure hope this is true. I bought a Macintosh Quadra 610 with the promise that it would be “PowerMac” ready or even “PC compatible” with an easy upgrade, and this just didn’t turn out to be the case (at least not the easy part). Early demos of Rhapsody have shown it to be “backwards compatible” through the use of an internal “blue box” that is supposed to quietly emulate the old system whenever necessary. As with all computer modifications, we’ll just have to wait and see how well they do. But Apple’s vast cutbacks in research and development talent and resources don’t bode well.

So far, all I’ve done is purchased a single 4 1/2 pound, $1000 laptop (try getting a Powerbook for that little). I’m going to need a desktop machine at some point, and will wait for Rhapsody to make my decision. I’d like nothing more than see Apple succeed so I can go back to the Bauhaus elegance of the Mac system (where Find File is not an invitation to dissect my directories).

But honestly, the Macintosh sank not because of deserters like me, but because Apple neglected its core market – individual computer owners – and courted big business instead. The parade of post-Jobs and Wozniak CEO’s just couldn’t adhere to the “personal computer” vision on which the company was built. They wanted some of Bill Gates’ customers and corporate profile, and learned too late that businesses won’t purchase computers from a sole provider, however wonderful the operating system. Many corporate bylaws specifically disallow buying from single source distributors. Yes, Mac’s System 7 was years ahead of its competition, Windows 3.1. Too bad no one but Apple was allowed to put it on their machines.

Ironically, it may be Windows that saves the Mac. If Apple were to perish, Microsoft would win a monopoly over operating systems, and be subject to crippling commerce regulations. It behooves Bill Gates to keep the Mac around for a long time, however he can. This, coupled with the dedication of Mac users more loyal than I, may just keep a superior system alive. But I couldn’t afford to bet on it.