Why I Will Probably Never Buy Another Mac

I started out as a Mac user in about 1985 in a world which will be totally unfamiliar to almost all readers of OSNews. You wrote out your stuff by longhand, and a secretary typed it on a word processor. If you were lucky and able to manage it, you could dictate it. But you did not dictate into a dictating machine, because these were big heavy and expensive. You dictated it directly to someone who could ‘take shorthand’. If you had a PC, it ran DOS. You looked for your files, and moved them around, started applications, one at a time, from the command line, and the command line was not pretty, it was green on black.

On one long term assignment, our department computerized. The guy we had put in charge fought IT over the issue, and won, and we got Macs. After a trial of competitive packages, we bought Microsoft Word. I had come from the old mini-computer world, and it took me a few days to find the gui something more than a pointless obstruction that stopped me seeing what was really going on. But I did, and became a committed Mac user.

I returned to home office, and insisted on having one. It was the early days of Windows, though most people were on DOS. I said to IT that I wanted to be able to cut and paste between applications. They scratched their heads and said that probably they could arrange that in Windows…and then gave up. I used the Mac they agreed to buy for me, and I was happy and productive. During those years, there was never a problem on a Mac that I couldn’t fix myself, and I could claim to know the function of pretty much every file on the system. It was a real end user manageable and controllable platform. And of course, it had Hypercard. Hypercard was an enormous liberation. With Hypercard, anyone with intelligence and persistence could learn to program, and produce things they and their friends could use, as they learned.

The years went by, and while Macs never had huge market share, they had enough to remain a viable choice. Office became the standard, and the Mac and the PC versions were interchangeable. Windows arrived at 3.1; MacOS was still far more stable, and far easier to use. Mac users were enthusiastic, but not fanatical, and the two main issues between them and IT were price, and closed source. IT wanted to be able to buy hardware from where they liked, and they wanted to have a lot of suppliers of parts. In a single source, closed environment, where everything was proprietary from the keyboard and mouse connectors on up, they felt deprived of any bargaining power. It was take or leave it, and they couldn’t tolerate having the company infrastructure dependent to such an extent on one supplier. Like most Apple users at the time, I did not really understand the objection. I really didn’t care where my machines came from, or how much they cost. What interested me was how usable they were. But keep this thought in mind, because I found that you have to care.

Macs had always been more expensive, and the gap widened with time. By the time I bought an LC and then a Centris for my partner’s small office, and a Centris for a writer friend, Macs probably cost twice as much for comparable speed and disk capacity. But as long as Windows was 3.1, the usability advantage more than outweighed the speed and price problems. And as long as it was 3.1, Apple had enough market share to ensure availability of applications. In addition, in those days, there was something to the quality hardware argument. Apple machines had scsi drives and nubus cards. It really was higher quality stuff. The built in networking worked flawlessly, was fast enough, and was super easy to set up.

However, when we arrived at Win95 amd then Win98; it was clear that the world had started to change. Apple hardware was now steadily moving to standard PC hardware – pci cards, ide drives. The hardware quality argument had vanished. We had the disastrous Performas, the 4400. Mac market share fell year on year, and the supply of software was drying up. My business planning tools were no longer being updated or were becoming unavailable in Mac versions. In addition, with OS 8 and 9, stablity fell behind. Win98 was a great advance in stability over 3.1, but OS8 and 9 were a step back compared to 7.6.1.

What about ease of use? By now I had acquired a Windows laptop with Win 95, and also had a Mac laptop. The Windows laptop was smaller, lighter, faster, and had much longer battery life. I still have it and still use it, in fact. The Mac laptop fell by the wayside years ago. So much for long lives. The ease of use gap appeared to be narrowing. Win 95 looked a lot better than 3.1, felt a lot better, was a lot easier to navigate and manage. With Win 98, I felt we were at parity. Different, but parity.

I bought one of the new pastel iMacs, but with some irritation. You noticed that the disk was smaller and the memory less than would have come with a PC. The one button mouse was a constant irritant, as was the lack of the right click facilities. It occurred to me that there would be no upgrade path for this one. It would be throw out the whole thing and buy another one. You couldn’t reuse the screen. I began to wonder whether the reason that Mac people kept their machines for so long had less to do with durability, than cost. But it was familiar.

By now, I was using Windows 2000 at work, and this seemed to be better than parity. You had a genuine multi-user capability. It was fast, it almost never crashed. It looked perfectly acceptable. Increasingly, OS 8 and 9 were starting to look dated and hobbyist.

It was around 2001 or 2002. I bought a beige tower. I paid well under half what a new tower Mac of equivalent performance would have cost. My friends muttered darkly about component quality. I checked. It came with components that were, if anything, higher end than those that Apple was using. I told them. They looked dubious, but couldn’t refute it.

My new machine shipped with XP. It was very fast, it had lots of memory, the disk was absolutely huge, there was lots of software, and I found the user interface different but perfectly acceptable. It was much more complicated than the old Classic, the wizards got on my nerves, but at some level it just worked. The sense it gave me was that the hardware and the software were what Apple people call integrated. There was a well known set routine for installing new hardware, plug in and insert driver disk, after which, it just worked. It was the same with all hardware. Well, with the exception of wireless LAN, which gave me as much trouble on Windows as on Mac.

I carried on reading about Apple and Macs. And I carried on using my iMac. When you have been a committed user and advocate of a platform for so long, your interest doesn’t just vanish overnight. Market share had continued to decline, prices had continued to be high. Jobs had returned, however, and the company stabilized. I became increasingly aware, as the Jobs resurgence got under way, of a curious and disturbing phenomenon. It was hard to say exactly what was happening to Apple, but whatever it was, it made one deeply uneasy. Perhaps the first sign was the appearance of the LCD iMac. Why, one wondered, do we have a round base? How much did that cost? What real use is it? The Cube was another worry. A friend of mine, who had been a senior manager in Apple Europe, bought one. Then he found to his surprise and dismay that he couldn’t use his screen with it, and had to buy a completely new screen. The connectors were not standard. Why? You had to wonder, was the inability to source hardware from anywhere but Apple great for the buyer and for Apple, or just great for Apple? Was it even all that good for Apple?

My wife bought me a new Apple keyboard and optical (one button) mouse as a present. The price was at least 4 or 5 times what comparable PC components would have cost, and for what? The new towers came out in pretty shades of pastel and perspex and sounded like jet engines taking off. We kept hearing about the superiority of the PPC; the advertising claims, which seemed incredible, became more strident, and finally were ruled to be false by the UK authorities. My friend’s Cube looked elegant and different, but was underpowered and pretty soon was overheated.

It seemed that we had a combination of two things which may appear to have little to do with each other: a reliance on lifestyle marketing, and consequently lifestyle product design, and a continuing committment to locking the hardware and software together, and locking the customer into Apple hardware. The result was higher prices for less performance, but heavier marketing, and marketing of a different sort.

When you joined Internet forums on which Apple was discussed, you became aware of an even more disturbing but related phenomenon. I only later realised what it was. The symptom was an increasing rudeness and intolerance and hostility towards any other platforms. And it was couched in lifestyle terms. Windows machines were ridiculed for being boring beige boxes. Windows users were the subject of snobbish jibes. Contemptuous references to Walmart appeared. Macs kept being compared to high end designer brands, in particular to cars. If you chose differently, it was because you had no taste, no class.

BMWs appeared to have a particular fascination for the Mac aficionado. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The chorus of people who seemed to think that Macs were high class, and that buying them was a route to social mobility, was astounding. Could there really be so many people who were so naive about how social class really works in America? And could so many of them be Mac users? I shivered a bit at the thought. You could understand why Hypercard had withered, if this was now Apple’s target market.

Finally at the end of the period, one would see flat out lies, and a chorus of abuse when they were refuted. Posters would assert that Macs were cheaper, peformed better, had better components, when it was clear that they were more expensive, performed worse on most benchmarks, and mostly had the identical components. In some ways, they had worse ones. Lifestyle marketing had entered the design process and corrupted it. We now had cases made of dysfunctional material, with interiors arranged for aesthetic appeal rather than cooling efficiency or noise reduction. We had wild and silly claims about productivity. We had a constant rewriting of history. For example, it was now admitted that OSX 10.0, which at the time had been greated with applause for its enormous superiority, had been a total dog. This was because the newest greatest thing was 10.2 or 10.3. Similarly, PPC had been the latest and greatest, but after the switch to Intel, it was admitted to have also barked and walked on all fours on occasion.

We were told that Linux required you to edit endless configuration files by hand, that XP crashed all the time and was riddled with hardware problems from driver incompatibility. It defied all one’s experience. It was simply false. But whenever one objected, a chorus of personal abuse followed. At the end of this period the Intel macs were released. The fact is, they run Photoshop in emulation mode, and very slowly. Point this out, and you will be told how unfair you are being. Unfair to who or what? It’s just a fact. If you want to run the package, it is all that matters. But on the forums, to allude to inconvenient facts has become an act. You are defining yourself publicly as an enemy of the people if you do it, on however small a scale.

You could see something very odd happening if you joined the macfixit or macintouch forums, and compared what was said there to what is said outside. The public face is one of hysterical praise. In the public world, the hardware and software are perfect and work perfectly together, and Apple service is second to none and the choice the company gives is all the choice anyone ever needs. In the internal world among friends, the hardware is hot, noisy, poor quality, there are main board problems, memory problems, the software doesn’t work properly with it, peformance is a real issue, Apple is unresponsive and dismissive and has very patchy customer service.

The intellectual contortions people forced themselves through on these issues were and are extraordinary. Take for instance the assertion, apparently seriously made, that a MacIntel machine and its OS are one thing, whereas a Dell and its OS are two things. Therefore it would be as irrational for Apple to allow its OS to run on other hardware as it would be for Honda to agree to sell its cars as a collection of parts. What is the proof of this identity? The fact that Apple does not sell the OS separately from the hardware! Or we had what may be called the Mont Blanc argument. It goes, in parody form, Mont Blancs are actually cheaper than PaperMates. It is just that Mont Blanc does not give you the chance to buy less product and spend less money. What extra does Mont Blanc force you to buy? Well, all that packaging and the fine presentation case. But that doesn’t make them more expensive, it just makes them sell for more! Or the even more bizarre argument that Apple has higher average margins than Dell not because it has higher markups, but because its average purchase value is higher!

Apple’s market share was always on the rise, but never actually increased much. It was always going to dethrone Microsoft, maybe next year. It was said to have 15-20% of the installed base, though it only had had 3% of shipments for years. (Don’t ask if this is even possible). This obviously showed shipments were not a reasonable measure of market share and meant nothing. It must be some kind of anti-Apple conspiracy to continue recording them.

I had experienced this sort of thing before. It reminded me of the constant intellectual contortions and the bewildering and disillusioning shifts of the Party Line on the Far Left during the fifties and sixties, where there was a similar gap in portrayals of the East Bloc. In private, the OstBloc had problems. In public, the GDR’s athletic success was a clear sign of the superiority of its system. It was not a comfortable comparison. Truth, you felt, has less to do with all this than devotion. But to what? I found the idea of devotion to a company, come what may, very difficult to relate to.

I looked at the industry outside Apple, and was struck by the way that hardware competition had reduced prices and increased availability. The rise of Linux and free software was gathering pace. The Gutenberg project was making progress. As the Apple defenders became increasingly shrill in defence of their chosen company and its chosen model, it seemed to me that the quite different one which was coming to dominate the industry was delivering a revolution in the affordability and availability of computing power, and access to information. Apple was a parasite on this revolution. It used standard cost-reduced components. But it took the savings as margin or marketing expense or to pay for expensive custom packaging, and did not pass them on to its customers. Meanwhile, the open model was quietly eliminating what in the UK had been anxiously referred to as the Digital Divide.

In search of a transportable, quiet machine for my wife, I bought a Shuttle and assembled it from barebones. In the afternoon that it took, I thought hard about hardware quality. The thing was perfectly made and thought out, jewelry was the comparison that came to mind. The heat pipe cooling all fitted together neatly, and when booted up, was almost silent. It was surprisingly cheap, and very easy to work on. This, I thought, is what the first iMac could have been, if they had not been so hung up on having that circular base.

What to put on it though? I had XP, but I had liked Windows 2000 and we had a copy from an old machine. I installed it. It worked fast and predictably. But we were getting worried about security problems, and I had been experimenting with Linux for some time. After a little while on Windows, I took us first to Suse and then to Mandriva, running Gnome in both cases as the desktop. It was a revelation. The quantity of software, the configurability of the system, the helpfulness of user groups, the amount of information available, the cheapness and performance of the hardware. Open hardware, it turned out, and an open OS that one could run on the hardware of one’s choice, was the great contribution of our industry to personal freedom. It had reduced prices and improved quality in an amazing way. It had made computing power open and affordable. It had given control back to the user. I said to my friends, if I was going to be running a gui over Unix, why not just go to Linux and skip all the proprietary irritations? OSX and XP in their later releases seemed increasingly designed to appeal to viewers of desktops in shops, and calculated to infuriate anyone who had worked at it long enough to want configurability and shortcuts. Gnome in contrast, for the ordinary user, ‘just worked’ and stayed out of the way.

My writer friend moved to Linux too, when his Mac expired. He spent a quarter of what a new Mac would have cost him, partly because he reused his old screen until big flat LCDs came down in price. Unaccountably, he preferred KDE!

I carried on reading on the net. The disturbing trends increased with the emergence of the iPod as the saviour of the company. The locking of hardware to software to purchases recreated the worst anti-choice aspects of the original Mac platforms. The advertising campaigns seemed to be encouraging the attitudes of what I was beginning to hear described as the MacZealot or MacFanatic faction. There were increasing expressions of contempt for alternatives, and worse, for people who made alternative choices.

And finally, we had the OSViews saga on OS News, when it seemed that from day to day the number of hysterical pro-Apple postings soared, huge numbers of phantom memberships appeared, and all postings with any dissent were abusively moderated down. Finally it was traced and stopped. It was with this episode that I finally realised that the phenomenon is not simply harmless eccentricity. How could devotion to a company have driven one person, or group of people, so crazy that they thought this a reasonable way to behave, and one that would do Apple any service?

It is exactly not like devotion to the Amiga or BeOS, which strikes me as a harmless, goodnatured enthusiasm we should all feel good about. It is a positive hatred of any sort of ‘thinking different’. If you listen to the views expressed, they are in fact totalitarian and authoritarian. You will hear that choice is bad, it just confuses people. That it is good for you to have a limited and monopolised range of hardware that will run your OS. That all people want is one thing that works, not to be driven crazy by multiple alternatives that don’t. You’ll hear that DRM is fine for Apple to use, though bad for anyone else to use. Because it will help Apple succeed. You’ll hear that for Apple to tie its software to its hardware to its content to its music purchasing service is perfectly acceptable in the cause of giving the user a seamless experience. It is in fact better for the user if Apple has a monopoly. They will only ever use their monopoly power to your benefit. You will hear constant tirades of abuse of Microsoft, Linux, Dell, and their users, and for the whole open hardware business model that has created a PC industry that has done so much for intellectual freedom and the affordability of computing in the last 10 years. The Apple fanatic, in addition to being obsessed by BMW cars, hates the open business model which has reduced Apple to a niche supplier, at the same time as it has benefited the world and society, and that is why the open hardware model and its exponents come in for particularly vociferous abuse.

You will hear applause for the Apple legal department which sues everyone in sight at a moment’s notice for alleged infringements of copyright or trade secrets, and seeks to bully journalists, and claims to be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate members of the legitimate or illegitimate press. And sues even when the alleged infringements consist of linking to a site displaying the company’s own service manuals!

If the thinking of the Mac fanatics were applied to the political process in the Western Democracies, we would have one party rule with a Dear Leader who would be in place for life, and the only books allowed would be those not on the Index. They would be the only ones you could read with the special viewers the State publishing company supplied, or buy with the local State currency.

Surely however, all this is just the supporters club? Surely this has nothing to do with the company or its products? Alas, no. I am saying that there is a close connection between Apple and the wilder shores of OSViews. Apple is like an extreme right wing political party, that denies racism, while condoning the expression of extreme racist attitudes in its supporters as understandable. The extremism of Apple’s supporters is only its own marketing line taken to absurd and offensive lengths. Apple more or less gently mocks the buyers of other products. Its supporters abuse them as low class redneck idiots and talk about ‘Windoze’ and ‘Micro$oft. Apple says nothing.

I am also saying that the alienating tone of the Apple marketing materials and their use by the fanatics is a deliberate choice on the part of the company. Apple knows it is alienating people who are not members of the cult, and accepts, perhaps even welcomes it. Their aim is to foster a sense of being a persecuted superior minority among their users. They are happy for the faithful to proselytize in a manner calculated to offend, because the point of the proselytizing is not to gain converts, but to retain those you already have, by making them suffer abuse for their beliefs. Cognitive Dissonance will do the rest.

While it may seem to many rather unreasonable to base one’s choice of computers on the antics of other buyers, this is why refusing to buy anything made by Apple has come to seem to me almost a moral issue. It is not just that the products have come to put lifestyle marketing ahead of performance. It is not just that they are overpriced. It is that Apple as a company behaves in ways that are morally questionable. It encourages its most frenzied adherents in offensive utterances and behaviour, and in the expression of abusive snobbery. Like all totalitarians, it believes it needs to control us and limit our choice for our own good. If the Apple model were to come to predominate in our industry, it would be an end of consumer choice, and shortly after that, would bring sharp limits on intellectual freedom. Its marketing stance, and the attitudes it seeks to foster in both adherents and opponents, are actually an abuse of its adherents. The fanatics are mad. But who has encouraged and exploited them in their madness?

From being a company that introduced products which freed many of us from the restrictions on usability that the early command line imposed, it has come to be a company which is in spirit and practice opposed to almost all of the freedoms that have since come to define our industry and our society.

And so, I probably will never buy another Mac again.


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