Written by David Tebbutt, Mensa item some time in 2001? - scanned


The world is full of personal computer users who have never stepped beyond the stifling confines of the IBM PC and its compatibles. Those that have made the effort, and it requires little more than a shaking-off of prejudice, quite often find that computing is transformed from necessity into pleasure. The work still gets done but the experience is a much more enjoyable one.

Until four years ago I was a devout PC user. Then I was forced by circumstance to use the Macintosh on a regular basis. It didn't take very long before my PCs almost fell into disuse. My first Macintosh had a crummy, small, black and white screen, yet I willingly sat down at it in preference to the colour PCs. In retrospect my decision to use a monochromatic but graphical user interface rather than a colourful character based machine was not that astonishing. When the PC acquired its first decent graphical user interface - Windows 3.1 - I tried doing most of my work for one month on the PC, just to give it a fair trial. Now I split my time between the two types of computer. I have moved from the old black and white Macintosh to a colour machine of similar power to the PC. By using both types of machine regularly I hope I'm able to maintain my objectivity.

Before I give my views, I thought you might like to hear what some other people have to say. Each uses both kinds of machine on a regular basis. They were chosen more or less at random, but they were unanimous in their preference for the Macintosh. John Tweddell, a freelance PR man, had put in many years service at IBM before striking out on his own. True to the cause, he continued to use Big Blue's PCs until he discovered Macintosh. He says, "I much prefer the Mac environment. I've been using PCs for ten years and the Mac for just three but I feel much more comfortable with the Macintosh."

He points to the ease with which his work can be organised on the screen. Documents and other files can be held in folders, rather like paper documents. To make life easy these are shown as small drawings called icons' on the screen. Rearranging work is simply a case of sliding a document from one folder to another using a hand-operated device called a 'mouse'. The process is totally intuitive. Doing the same thing on the PC is positively arcane under DOS and not much better using Windows. Although Windows shows a screen full of icons, they are nearly always programs. To get at data files you have to run a special program called the File Manager. What requires thought on the PC is second nature on the Macintosh.

Tweddell points to the fact that the computer and operating system software are produced by a single company whereas many different companies make PCs and licence DOS and Windows from Microsoft. He says, "I have never had a problem installing hardware or software on the Macintosh." This is because there is only one standard and all peripheral makers and software publishers work to that standard.

Another one-time PC devotee is Mensa member Hugo Kirby, who manages a computer dealership in London called Trams. His company still sells PCs to companies that have their own technical support department but it has stopped selling them to people who come in off the street. In Kirby's words, "The support overhead is too high, especially when setting PCs up." He admits that he does get the occasional problem with Macintosh but "It's solved in minutes and is not usually fatal. Macintosh usually lets you know what the problem is." He continues, "I know that any of my staff could install a Macintosh system comprising ten elements from ten different suppliers in one hour. I challenge anyone to do the same on a PC within one month!" This might be an exaggeration but he makes a valid point. It took me and my supplier weeks to iron out the problems surrounding the conflicts caused by the installation of a new disk drive on one of my PCs.

A recent convert to Macintosh is Martin Banks, who has been a leading PC journalist for 14 or 15 years. He managed to avoid using a Macintosh until he won some Macintosh software at a Christmas party just over a year ago. First he borrowed a Mac and, within months, acquired one of his own. This previously dyed-in-the-wool PC user says, "The Macintosh has far and away the better user interface." He accuses Windows of still operating like DOS. "If you want to do something with it you have to open the application and then the file. In the Macintosh you point and click at a document and anything associated with that document is opened. This is a far more sensible approach."

Banks also points at the disk consumption on PCs running Windows. He says, "40MB on the Macintosh is huge. On the PC it's bugger all. A couple of large applications, plus Windows, and your hard disk is used up." (1MB is approximately one million characters.) I agree with him. The reason I bought a 220MB disk drive was simply to run Windows programs. Today I installed a word processor on my PC. It occupies just over 12MB. The word processor I'm using in the Macintosh occupies less than 1/2MB. Although the PC program can do more than the Macintosh one it certainly doesn't have 24 times the power.

The Macintosh is undoubtedly the superior machine for graphical applications. No one would deny this, although a number of programs originally written for Macintosh are now finding their way on to the PC platform. It has to be said that as a result of Apple's mass-market strategies of the past couple of years many PC applications are also being implemented on Macintosh. At the moment Macintosh is well in the lead in terms of the number of applications compared with Windows. In terms of price/performance, neither platform is clearly ahead.

You will find some differences. For example, the PC sports far more games, although this is changing as the Macintosh base grows. When it comes to graphics applications the Macintosh reigns supreme, although the PC is catching up. In other words, at the margins of computing, each type of machine has its strengths.

The Macintosh is far more accommodating than the PC of other standards. You can, for example, read PC disks and load PC files on to the Macintosh. It can also write its files to PC format disks. Every Macintosh has built in networking facilities, enabling it to connect to any other Macintosh. This is not the case with the PC. Because of its historically marginal role in computing, Macintosh has always been a far more 'connectable' machine than the PC, both to other Macintoshes and to other types of computer.

Hugo Kirby argues that anything you can do on a PC you can do on a Macintosh. Whether you'd want to is a different matter. Products from Insignia Solutions allow Macintosh users to run DOS and Windows programs. Of course, they run more slowly than on the equivalent PC but they are much loved of individuals who have to tick the 'IBM Compatible?' box on their computer requisition forms. Many companies will not allow incompatible machines and this is the Mac-lovers way of bending the rules.

Kirby can't cite exact figures, but he believes that there are many more working Macintoshes than working copies of Windows 3.1. He agrees that Microsoft and the PC manufacturers have shipped millions, but he doesn't believe that they're all in use. Individuals get both DOS and Windows 3.1 with their machines and many elect to use DOS. Some even install UNIX.

Of course, we are looking at a moving target here and the number of Windows users is likely to overtake Macintosh users eventually. But Apple doesn't plan to stay still. For several months last year Apple was the leading supplier of personal computers worldwide, nudging IBM into second place for the first time in nine years. As it happens, these two leading PC companies are now bonded in an alliance to bring out machines based on both IBM and Apple technologies and to licence their products to other computer makers. Only time will tell but, if successful, this fearsome alliance could move Macintosh-style computing right into the mainstream.

A year ago Ingram Laboratories conducted research into the relative performance of Macintosh computers and PCs running Windows 3.0. The machines were grouped according to their hardware specifications and timed while executing a variety of tasks in seven different applications. In most cases the Macintosh out performed all the other machines in the same group.

Had Ingram done some less scientific research on Mac users it would have got some interesting replies. I asked Andrew James, the man who publishes the Home Run newsletter for home-workers, what he had to say about Macintosh. He told me that he has to fight his partner to be first on the office Macintosh. If he loses he's forced to work on a PC. "Macintosh users," says James, "have affairs with their machines. They're in love with them and can't live without them." For his part, John Tweddell says, "I enjoy working on a Mac. People who use Macintosh are actually proud of their machines."

When it comes to price comparisons the calculations get a bit tricky. What makes a perfect comparison? You need larger disks on a PC. Networking is an extra on the PC. On the other hand, Windows comes with its own communications program. This would have to be purchased separately on the Mac. Independent researcher, the Gartner Group, has reported that over a typical life cycle, the Macintosh works out cheaper. And Apple points out that, at the lower end, Macintosh prices tend to be very competitive.

You've probably read between enough of these lines to realise that I am favourably inclined towards the Macintosh. However, I do believe that Microsoft's Visual Basic is better than anything on the Macintosh for writing programs. I do agree with all the points made by the various people mentioned in this article. What nobody has said is that life inside an application is more or less the same whether you're using a PC or a Macintosh. Once inside the application you are protected from the outside world. But, with any computer, you do have to deal with the outside world of work organisation and adding new products. One machine makes life easy, the other makes it difficult.

Away from the shelter of the application you have two completely different experiences. I'd liken one to driving an open car in warm sunshine, and the other to riding a bike in the pouring rain.