PC or Mac? It used to be the religious war of computing, a bitter divide between two radically different camps, two completely separate ways of looking at computers – the Windows PC world privileging open architecture and diversity (read: endless configuration), and the Apple Mac world favouring a tight integration between hardware and software, and graphics-oriented ease of use.
The point is, the two worlds of PC and Mac really were separate. Once you opted to live in one, you were virtually locked out of the other, as everything from networking protocols to file formats were different, making it very difficult to share information let alone mix PCs and Macs in the same office.
And that divide is still how a lot of people think about PCs and Macs. Yet the last few years have dramatically altered the computing landscape, bridging the old divides, and turning some longheld assumptions on their head. The result is that Macs are suddenly a hot property, coveted especially by those ‘in the know’, including by many people who still earn a living supporting Windows PCs.
So what exactly has changed?
Open standards make platforms irrelevant
Open standards are the commonly agreed vocabulary between different hardware and software systems. And today computers are all speaking the same language and interoperating like never before. Most of what we touch on computers – whether JPG or PNG images, or MP3 music files, or DOC or XLS files – are familiar to most users and can be opened with software on any computer.
The main set of open standards that most of us are familiar with are those surrounding the internet, things like IP networking, email, the world wide web, instant messaging. It doesn’t matter what flavour of computer you use to access these things; it’s the same internet whether you use a Windows PC or a Mac. The platform just doesn’t matter anymore, and PCs and Macs easily link together on networks large and small.
Mac OS X: solid UNIX base
It may have been easy to use, and it may have blazed the trail for graphical user interfaces which Microsoft Windows could only belatedly follow, but the Mac OS was never really renowned for being a robust operating system.
That all changed with Mac OS X a few years ago. The X ostensibly meant ‘10’, as it replaced Mac OS 9. But more than that, the X meant UNIX, the most solid computer operating platform bar none, introduced as the new backbone to the Mac OS. From that point on, behind the beautiful graphical interface – an interface that Microsoft has still struggled to match with its latest Vista OS – has been a powerful and secure operating system. For those who have struggled with Windows’ instabilities and crashes, it is a complete revelation to discover such a stable platform.
This is probably what Microsoft’s longtime Windows development chief James Allchin was talking about when he was quoted in a recently leaked email saying that Microsoft has “lost sight of what bug-free means, what resilience means, what security means, what performance means...” He then went on to say, “If I didn’t work for Microsoft, I would buy a Mac”!
UNIX means security
Security and computing don’t really seem to go hand in hand, do they? Viruses, worms, trojans, spyware – most computer users couldn’t tell you exactly how they work, but they are scared enough at the prospect to spend a lot of money and countless hours of time combatting them, or in the worst case scenario, rebuilding after being infected by one of them.
By last count, there were already 114,000 viruses ‘in the wild’ that threaten Windows PCs, yet none for the Mac (or Linux, which is also UNIX-based). The reason for this is simple: UNIX is secure by design. It always has been.
Interestingly, Microsoft has always maintained that there was no such thing as ‘security by design’, that Mac OS and Linux are merely ‘secure by obscurity’; in other words, nobody bothers writing viruses for such small niche markets. Yet with its new Vista OS, Microsoft now claims to offer ‘security by design’ itself – a claim disputed by many experts who point out that the same fundamental flaws with Windows still exist.
Apple’s new Intel platform
Despite Mac OS X’s strengths, computer buyers have never been able easily to comparison shop for PCs and Macs because the latter used completely different hardware (based around PowerPC chips).
Now the Mac is a PC. Since last year, Apple has adopted PC architecture in the form of the Intel processor and everything connected with it. The hardware is so much the same that you can now run Windows on a Mac, something which Apple is actually encouraging with its Boot Camp software, allowing you to choose Windows or Mac OS at system start up and giving users the fullest possible range of software options.
Another ‘Windows on the Mac’ option is through ‘virtualisation’. This takes advantage of the built-in capabilities of modern Intel chips, allowing a complete Windows system to run within a window on the Mac OS X desktop. This can be very useful for those who crave the Mac’s stability but still need to run one or two essential Windows applications.
Apple on the up
Ten years ago, Apple was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, leaking what little marketshare it had, and certainly not able to offer a bright future to prospective customers.
Today, thanks largely to that ubiquitous MP3 player called the iPod, which didn’t just change music players, but changed the whole music industry, Apple is back at the top of its game, recognised across the world for its innovation and influence. Take note of the way Apple’s announcement of the upcoming iPhone was received – the world expects another iPod-like success. And that has had a tremendous impact on the way people view Apple generally: Mac marketshare while still small is increasing quickly, and more than 50% of Macs are sold to people who have never owned one before, mainly those switching from Windows. This is a trend that is only likely to pick up, particularly when Apple releases an exciting new version of OS X (called Leopard) this spring.
All this to say, the next time you replace your Windows PC, don’t rule out walking across that traditional divide between PCs and Macs. You may be surprised at what’s possible these days, and learn what Mac users mean when they say they spend less time working their computer, and a lot more time getting on with their work (and play).
Geoffrey Ready is solutions architect for Avec Solutions, a social economy company providing a range of IT consultancy and support services primarily for other not-for-profit organisations. Avec Solutions is a multiplatform support company, supporting Windows, Linux and Mac systems.