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Saturday, May 16, 2009

I'm a Mac. And A PC. And a Linux. Shut up already.

Penny Arcade makes good calls on advertising most days, and one of their favored targets are the shills that attempt to sell a new product to a public that's increasingly jaded. On some level with a marketing ploy like Microsoft's Zune player, you can easily see which way the wheels turn. Subscription-based software is nothing new; last year I landed a gig writing documentation for Etelos.com, a firm that does nothing but SaaS. But Microsoft is one of the more juggernauted companies out there working hard to maintain their superiority rank, and the Mac vs PC ads that Apple put together using two comedic actors - straight, mellow Mac and uptight, suited PC - show the stodgy side of Microsoft.

But the thing is, the advertising on both sides is disingenuous. Mac's claim that there are no viruses for Macs is wrong - there are, they target machines, and they don't stop until they worry through the protection. While the basic Mac file structure is intended to keep viruses at bay, there is no claim that "Macs don't get viruses". Or crashes, or headaches. Sorry, that just ain't true. Macs are a relatively simple, idiot-proof, fine operating system, it's true, but as someone who's worked with computers since the day of command-line interfaces, I can assure the general public that a Mac can be as annoying as any other system out there, and it's the level of the operator, not the operating system, that determines whether or not the machine decides to crap the proverbial bed.

The second part of it is Microsoft's lazy consumer routine. The latest ads showing a young woman who claims to want really good hardware because she's a graphic designer means very little - to anyone who's actually serious about graphic design, the first rule is: steer the hell away from a laptop with a 15" screen and low pixels. There's so much to pick apart in her ad, it's not even funny. Her eyerolling over a Mac Powerbook that "only has two gigabytes of RAM", for anyone who has done a tiny bit of research, is not only misleading, but also stupid.

The hardware competition between the two drives me up the wall, even though, right now, I'm working on a Hackintosh - a PC with a small dongle that emulates the chipset of a Mac. The dongle is an aftermarket addon that enables a dual-boot system, meaning I can work in both PC and Mac on this machine. I built the machine for under $600 not including the $240 dongle, and used the skills I have (and the software) to make it possible for me to work in dual environments on the same system. Sure, I could have used Paralells on a Mac and run Virtual Machines left and right to get what I needed, but the reality is, I find it easier to work natively on both operating systems with both OSes - and the cost was nil compared to both a high-end PC laptop and a basic Mac system.

Arguably PCs are the cheap option - they're around, you can build a system for a relatively small dollar amount. I built a media PC for my home theater that arguably could beat the pants off of most computers on the market, but again, that's because I know how to hook up components. For $800, you can build a computer for yourself, for your own home. $700 from now this computer will be dancing in the same realms as most high-end Mac Pros - but for far less money.

But I guess what drives me bonkers about the whole Mac vs. PC thing is that the ads aren't talking about the way your computer looks or acts or feels - it's talking about the type of person you are. From the Microsoft ads that target "just plain folks" to the Mac ads that gently poke fun at the stodgy image of the PC, the users depicted in the Mac ads are usually, "I just want the machine to work, I'm competent, but I don't want to deal with crap I don't understand". The PC users depicted by Microsoft range from 4-year olds taking pictures of their fish to an art student who looks dumber than a box of hammers and displays an amazing lack of research capability on her hardware - talking to the guys at a major box store to get her computer.

I know I have a higher aptitude towards machines, but at the same time I want to see people understand that it's not about what your machine is or is not. I use my media PC to do pretty much anything I need to do in the living room except watch cable television, and that's only because I didn't plug the TIVO card into it yet. And it is true - for less than $2,000 and a copy of Windows 7, downloadable from Microsoft, you can have a kickass system running whatever it is you want to run.

But we live and work in a world where increasingly, the platform system doesn't matter. Tara and I spent twenty minutes trying to get a GPS to work on our trip out to the coast a few weeks ago, and after she stabbed it in the face with the stylus she growled at it. The interface on that sucker isn't very intuitive - whereas the Garmin interface on every Garmin GPS that I've used is nigh-on infallible. But both get you to the location you want; the difference (and why I bought a Garmin nuvi 760 instead of its counterpart) is in the usability and enjoyment.

I suppose that's the thing. Mac, if it just sold its operating system and made it compatible with Intel systems across the board, would be far more competitive in the marketplace. It wouldn't allow much in the way of clones to be made, and the competition for its sleek, pretty laptops and machines would rapidly price their manufacturing out of business. But then again, knowing that my Hackintosh, running happily on a PC architecture, is ensconsced in a Lian Li computer case makes me very happy.

I just find it mendacious when advertising doesn't tell the truth. And the truth is, you no longer need to be bound to an operating system in order to get work done. You don't need to be on a Mac or a PC - you can have both. And Linux. And BeOS. And that legacy operating system you never use any more. The real crunchers are in the hardware, and at some point, both Apple and Microsoft are going to have to ditch the rivalry, and just go make it work.
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