PowerBooks in use

The Switch is On

Several months ago the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that according to many campus officials, Apple’s products are “more prominent on campuses than they have been in nearly a decade.” The iPod certainly explains some of this. The “halo effect” of the iPod has undoubtedly caused many students to take a look at Macintosh computers.

There’s something else going on here, though. It seems that the underlying assumptions Windows users have held on to for many years are wearing thin. Macs have been derided since the days when PCs ran DOS. Macs were considered to be cute toys, ill-suited to “real” work. The basic premise was that an easy to use, easy to network computer with a friendly interface was somehow inferior to a system that made you work harder. As one switcher put it: “Like men who love the wilderness for its savage and untamed qualities, I believe many of us are drawn to this stark brutality. That frontier living, the self reliance, the adversity. The Mac, like The Alliance in World of Warcraft, was easy mode.” Ironically, even while the “toy” assumption about Macs has persisted for two decades, the PC market has become increasingly driven by, of all things, computer games!

More than a few high-profile people have switched to the Mac, from conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan to liberal blogger Joshua Michah Marshall (who expressed his concerns about switching from Windows, then took the plunge and loved it). Many business and technology leaders, from book publishers Tim O’Reilly and Michael Hyatt, to the next-generation Web team at 37signals and personal productivity guru Merlin Mann, use Macs.

How OS X Makes Macs Different

Why are all of these people switching? Certainly much of it has to do with the Mac’s security advantages. Yet even when Windows machines aren’t being taken down by viruses, they don’t match the Mac’s fluid, intuitive, and powerful computing environment. Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal has noted that OS X 10.4 “leaves Windows XP in the dust,” while John C. Welsh of Information Week reports:

Hidden behind all of this hoopla, however, is the fact that as much of an improvement Vista is over XP, its main competitor, Mac OS X, still stacks up really well — and even tops Vista in several important areas.

Mac OS X is built on top of BSD, a powerful UNIX operating system that also formed the building blocks of Sun Microsystems’ Solaris OS. Since its 2001 release, OS X has been steadily improved. The current version, version 10.4, combines the computing power and flexibility that makes UNIX a geek favorite, with the user-friendly appeal that has always been a Macintosh hallmark.

If you want to, you can delve into a world of UNIX applications. Apache webserver, OpenSSH for ultra-secure file transmission; scripting languages like curl, PHP, perl, and Ruby; and a host of other high-powered applications and utilities are already installed in every Mac. Hundreds more can be downloaded as source files or binaries. However, if the command line freaks you out, and you’d rather gargle liquid sulphur than deal with the inner workings of your computer, you never have to see any of that stuff. You can use the key and open the secret chamber, or leave it in your pocket as you see fit.

Beyond the underpinnings and basic aesthetics, a good operating system helps the computer user get things done, and stays out of the way the rest of the time. An illustration might be helpful. Windows has increasingly come to rely on “Wizards,” those lead-you-by-the-nose helpers that sometimes help, but just as often annoy. There are a few wizards in OS X (Apple calls them “Assistants”), but in general I find them better implemented and less frequent. The worst thing about wizards is that they usually give the user no insight, no method of learning more about the computer. Follow the screens on a wizard and you may eventually gain access to your wireless network, but you probably won’t understand the settings very much, or how they affect your network connection. The AirPort setup assistant in OS X, on the other hand, does a good job of providing context as it asks you for information. As a result, you know what the computer is doing as it sets up your wireless connection, and it is easier to go in and tweak individual preferences later. No wonder so many of my Windows-using classmates encounter wireless networking problems at school, while I have so far had none with my PowerBook.

Mac users are also able to get more out of their computers because OS X provides excellent tools to help them rapidly sift, filter, retrieve, and manipulate the information stored in them. Tom Yeager of enterprise computing magazine Infoworld was impressed with the OS X’s Automator and Smart Folders workflow capabilities, found Spotlight search capability “incredibly powerful” and had this to say about OS X’s overall capabilities:

If you want a complete productivity platform, you can nickel and dime your way there with Windows, hammer and saw your way there with Linux … or hit the ground running with OS X.

Mac-Only Applications

The Mac operating system is augmented by a host of bundled applications. Address Book, iCal, and Mail work well independently, but also share information with each other in a seamless and nonintrusive way. The Preview application opens PDFs and images in a variety of formats, while TextEdit serves as a basic word processor that can also import from and export to Microsoft Word.

If you’ve ever seen them in action, you’ll know that the small, one-task applications known as widgets can be quite helpful. Although Yahoo! Widgets will run on OS X, Apple’s Dashboard Widgets provide cleaner integration with the overall user experience, and require less effort to install and manage. Hundreds of Widgets are available for free, and more are being concocted by developers around the world every day.

Some of my classmates seem to be addicted to instant messaging during class. While I’m not an advocate of that practice, there are plenty of times when instant messaging can be useful. The iChat AV application bundled with new Macs provides access to AIM, Jabber messaging, and audio chat. The iSight camera built into the MacBook Pro is also available separately. You can use the iSight to videoconference with your mom back home. My wife and I have an iSight, and we use it to chat with her mother, who lives in Oregon. Phone calls are fine, but the quality of iChat AV is impressive. Seeing mom is better than just hearing her, don’t you think?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few years, you’re probably at least aware of iTunes. But that’s just one component of the iLife suite, which comes bundled with new Macs. If you have even a hint of the previously mentioned affliction called creativity, you’ll appreciate iPhoto, iMovie HD, GarageBand, and iDVD. These iLife apps let you use your copious spare time to do all kinds of spiffy things with your digital camera, digital camcorder, and musical talent. They don’t force you to hassle with device drivers and other inconveniences. It’s a true plug and play experience on the Mac. If you haven’t learned HTML and don’t have any wish to, but would still like to put pages up on the Web, you’ll like the iWeb component of iLife.

Apple isn’t the only company making Mac-only applications. Several of the excellent software tools I use in law school on a daily basis are available only for the Mac. Camino, kGTD, OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner, and Yojimbo simply can’t be found in the Windows world.

More Locked in, or Less?

I’ve had a few conversations over the years with people who appreciate the strengths of Macintosh, but still feel nervous about the fact that Apple builds both the hardware and operating system. To them, going with Microsoft for the OS and Dell, HP, or someone else for the hardware is a safer bet. I don’t buy that argument. For one thing, Apple is 30 years old, and the company is stronger than it ever has been. The Mac isn’t going away any time soon. Second, Apple hardware has always been at the top of the class. My experiences over many years of Mac ownership confirm this. Third, Macs are more open than Windows computers.

Intel-powered Macs can make use of Apple’s free Boot Camp software allows you to boot natively into Windows on an Intel-powered Mac (MacBook Pro and MacBook, but not PowerBook or iBook). Virtualization, which allows you to run Windows programs directly in OS X at much greater speed than VirtualPC, has arrived with a program called Parallels. There are strong rumors that the next major OS X release (OS X 10.5, or “Leopard”) will incorporate virtualization technology.

Using VirtualPC or Q, older Macs can run Windows. The emulation software makes Windows applications run more slowly than they otherwise would, but if there are one or two Windows apps you simply must use from time to time, this is not a bad approach. I have used VirtualPC several times over the past four or five years, and it has proven itself a useful gap-filler.

In contrast, the only way to run OS X on PC hardware is through the open source PearPC project. While it is a laudable effort, PearPC is limited to older Mac processors and is simply not ready for day in, day out use.

Photo Credits

The photo at the top of this page is a cropped version of “study” which was created by luukes and can be found at It is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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