Turning My Back on Mac

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

I feel like a traitor.

I sold my Macintosh to a friend, and used the cash to buy my first IBM-compatible, or what’s now known simply as a PC (short for Personal Computer). This little public confession, no matter how heartfelt, does nothing to assuage my guilt at having turned my back on my Mac brethren and joining what feels so much like the evil empire of Microsoft Windows.

For the non-technically inclined, the choice between a Mac and a PC was simple: just get a Mac. Until fairly recently, operating a PC meant learning the command-driven DOS language, and typing abbreviations like DIR and CD: to move through stored documents or even start your word processing program. The Mac, on the other hand, used an interface first developed at Xerox PARC, where files and programs were represented visually on the screen. You could just point and click at icons to open documents or launch programs.

Using its real world visual metaphor of a desktop, the Mac made it easy for regular people to understand what was going on inside their computers. As the California counterculture got involved in hi-tech wizardry, the Mac was their obvious choice, and soon the computers became synonymous with grassroots activism, psychedelic art, astrology programs, community building, and self-publishing. It was “the people’s” machine.

It felt good to be a Mac-head. I remember going to job interviews where the first question asked of me was “Mac or PC?” Answering Mac meant you were part of the tribe: an individual, willing to sacrifice compatibility with the business world of PC’s in order to experience the user-friendliness and human interface of a Macintosh. PC’s required people to learn to speak computer language. Macs bent over backwards to speak like humans do. If our world were Star Wars, then Macs were like the gold android C3PO - the translator robot, reaching as far as technology can towards being human. The Mac even smiled at you as it started up. Microsoft was the Death Star.

Owning a Mac felt like being part of the true personal computer revolution. It was built by Apple Computers, a California firm conceived by two renegades, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Before Steve and Steve, no one even believed that personal computers were a viable idea. When the companies they worked for refused to fund their plans for an inexpensive home computer, they built a few themselves out of their garage. They called it Apple, as if to announce that they were distributing the forbidden fruit of knowledge to the world at large.

So why did I switch? First, because of the Internet. Every new feature of the Internet seems to be developed for PC’s first, and then Macs a few months later. Shockwave, Java, and Active-X just didn’t work on the Mac, and I was getting tired of friends asking me to visit their sites when I couldn’t use any of their cool new features. While I know that quality doesn’t mean more bells and whistles, I still felt left out of the loop. Second, less and less of the stores where I buy software and peripherals have been stocking Mac titles and hardware. There just aren’t enough buyers to justify the shelf space.

In the end, this whole problem might have been Apple’s fault in the first place. While the Mac was extremely friendly to users, it wasn’t quite as friendly to developers and other businesses. Apple’s strategy was to maintain the ease and integrity of its operating system by forcing everyone who wanted to develop software or hardware for the Mac to follow very strict guidelines. For years, they refused to license their operating system to anyone else, so that the only way to get a Mac operating system was to buy a Mac computer. It was a closed system.

For all its problems, and all Bill Gates’ seeming monopoly over the computer industry, Microsoft Windows took a much more open approach to developers of software and hardware. Because they weren’t in the hardware business themselves, it was in their best interest to make their system compatible with as many different machines as possible. It might be slightly trickier to install a new program or sound card into a Windows machine but this is only because the Windows machine is ready to bend over backwards to accept products made by others.

While Mac may have presented a pretty face to its users, it was actually a more fascist development platform for other manufacturers. As long as everyone was willing to conform to their guidelines, everything was okay. When they woke up and began to license their operating system to other hardware manufacturers, it turned out to be a bit too late. And now they’re saying they’ll be releasing a brand new operating system that might not even be compatible with their old one. I’m not saying the Mac is absolutely dead - just struggling to keep up, and not the technology I’d want to own right now.

This certainly doesn’t forgive Microsoft’s own tinkering with and influence over industry standards. They’ve gotten so powerful that they can essentially set new standards by proclamation. What gave them their near-monopoly, however, was their initial willingness to be compatible with everyone, coupled with the more closed-minded policies of Apple Computers.

If Windows doesn’t maintain their commitment to open standards, however, they will eventually suffer the same fate as Apple, however user-friendly their interface might get. And I’ll have to buy another computer.