August 16, 2005
Two Cults in One

I know I'm going to catch hell for this post, but I found this interesting and amusing.

I noticed what seemed to me a curious thing at the Mars Society conference last week.

Most every computer I saw was a Mac of one type or another. Some were the sleek black models which retain a family resemblance to the original powerbooks, others were the sterile, iPod-white variety that resemble oversized medical implants. I didn't attend every presentation, of course, so my sample may have inadvertently skewed my perceptions on this, but every NASA employee and almost every one of the other presenters I saw had one, compared to at most four presenters who used PC laptops.

Now, ordinarily I probably wouldn't have given it much thought. I was aware from previous conferences that people from NASA Ames tend to use Macs, sot that was no surprise. But something about the way those carrying Macs were seemingly showboating caught my attention. It seemed as though everyone who had a Mac chose to sit so that the lighted Apple logo on the back of the screen was visible to as much of the room as possible, and those presenting appeared to place their Macs on the podium in just such a way that you couldn't miss the logo. Not that it's easy to avoid showing off the logo, as brazen as it is, but they appeared to take great care to place the thing and tilt the display for maximum logo visibility, conspicuous-consumption style -- and lest this seem farfetched, consider how often presenters using Macs would refer to their computers when getting set up for their show, as if they wanted to make sure everyone knew that they were using a Mac...you know, just in case someone couldn't see the logo:

"This will take just a moment while I get my Mac plugged in..."

"I've got some great slides -- let me bring them up on my Mac..."

"I've given this pitch a hundred times, but it's so much better with my new Mac..."

"I love my Mac...As you'll see in this one-hour multimedia extravaganza about me and my Mac, I took it to FMARS and MDRS with me this year!"

It wasn't long before I was watching for this sort of thing in each presentation. In contrast to this preoccupied behavior on the part of the Mac-based presenters, those using PCs simply got up, plugged their laptop into the AV connections, and gave their presentation without referring to their computers at all -- the PC laptops were simply tools, in the background, and not some sort of non-hierarchical co-equal silicon-based communications companion in the show. While I did not see anyone list a sentimentally-titled Powerbook as co-investigator on their project, such a display of saccharine anthropomorhphism wouldn't have surprised me a bit if I had.

The punch line is that, despite the praises sung by Mac devotees about the stability and ease of use of Apple products and their vastly superior handling of multimedia materials, about three-quarters of the Mac-based presentations had serious problems...mostly platform-specific, and especially when multimedia content was involved. For example: embedded video wouldn't play at all; video would play but the audio would suddenly cut out or not function at all; a video would be playing fine until the screensaver would cut in, after which point the video couldn't be made to play again, or had to be played at postage-stamp size so that the audio would work; one Mac would work with the AV equipment, but the next (identical to it) wouldn't; etc. Bill Clancey got up at the beginning of his presentation on Saturday morning and proudly announced that his brand-new $4500 NASA-supplied Mac notebook died within a week of his getting it, so he had to borrow another Mac for the conference. Yet, of the four PC based presentations I saw, none had even a hint of a problem.

Naturally, a more random (or exhaustive) sampling of the presentations or a sample population more evenly distributed between platforms may have shown the PCs to be just as unreliable as the Macs. Even so, while it's hard to draw a meaningful Mac-vs.-PC comparison from this sample, the experience offered little support to the claims one usually hears made about Macs by devoted Mac users. Which, given how vocal and insistent this praise of Macs can be from some devotees, struck me as hilarious.

Posted by T.L. James on August 16, 2005 06:44 PM

Comments

Dunno. Mine works (for me) better than my last work computer (a ThinkPad, W2K); YMMV of course.

I still have problems with it, of course. But on the whole fewer problems than with a PC.



Posted by: Brian at August 17, 2005 06:40 AM

Oh, Lord. Here we go again with Mac-bashing.

You know, I'm old enough to remember the Good Old Days. Serious computer-user savants like Orson Scott Card and Jerry Pournelle attacked the Mac viciously for having such dumb ideas as a graphic user interface and a mouse...after all, line commands were much more powerful! And you know what? They were right for them! It really is how you were trained. But they had to attack people with different ideas for some reason.

Flash forward a few years. All the Wintel computers have GUIs and mice. Including the ones owned by Card and Pournelle. It is just evolution, folks. I won't make the obvious joke about Intelligent Design.

Card also rails about the appearance of things like iMacs, iPods, and the like---something echoed in the above essay. Okay, he doesn't like the appearance of those items. Fair enough. But lots of people do---based on sales. So how it is wrong to take design appearance into account? And don't take my word for it: as soon as Apple comes out with a strange new design, other Wintel designers start to copy it. And yes, I am aware that Apple got the mouse and GUI from PARC.

I guess I don't understand the snide comments. I don't care what kind of a computer a person uses---that is their choice. And I certainly don't make judgements about the personality of someone based on their computer choice.

Reading about the AV problems made me smile. I just got through eleven interviews at various college campuses. At each, I gave teaching and research seminars. I used my much-maligned Mac iBook at each one, and didn't have any problems at all.

I did have to carry the correct cables, since projectors are of several sorts.

Now, I have seen glitches with embedded movies and such on PowerPoint...but let's face it: PowerPoint was not designed for the Mac platform. Me, I test what I design on both Mac and Wintel platforms.

My wife is a Wintel fan, and I have long been a Mac enthusiast. Different choices for different people. Still, it is inaccurate to make the claim that one computer or another is "best." Period.

Just my two cents. But the Computer Wars need to end, and being snarky about the appearance of the computer is not the best route.



Posted by: Mark Martin at August 17, 2005 09:55 AM

"Oh, Lord. Here we go again with Mac-bashing. You know, I'm old enough to remember the Good Old Days. Serious computer-user savants like Orson Scott Card and Jerry Pournelle attacked the Mac viciously for having such dumb ideas as a graphic user interface and a mouse...after all, line commands were much more powerful!"

Gee, I read Byte magazine from the '70s on. I can't speak about Card, but I sure don't remember Pournelle viciously attacking the Mac. I do remember that he spoke about both good and bad points on the Mac, PCs, Amiga, etc. In the early days, there was little doubt that the machine was underpowered and had too little RAM to do its job well. And because of the design, you were forced to "hack the Mac" to add RAM, hard drive, etc. I remember Pournelle praising much of what they could do, and there was no contest then when it came to graphics - Macs won. But if you wanted to write a lot of text, quickly, a Mac was the wrong choice at that time. They were just too slow.

I agree that it should be the right machine for the job. I see little reason for computer wars. Funny how you took Pournelle's comments, though. He complained about PCs and PC software at least as much as Macs.



Posted by: VR at August 17, 2005 05:44 PM

I don't much care which platform a person prefers, and I don't hold it against someone if they prefer Macs. I am not making the claim that one computer or another is "best" -- if you re-read the post, I'm describing behaviors exhibited by those who do seem to have a strong preference, and providing contrary evidence (albeit anecdotal) to the claims that some make concerning the superiority of the Macintosh platform.

As for my apparent criticism of the appearance of Powerbooks, note that I only made light of the white variety, while expressing appreciation for the models which look more like the originals. I don't like the white ones (or iPods for that matter) because they look like medical equipment, while I like the look of the other variety because they seem more like the tools of a professional. Another way to see it is that the white models are based in European industrial design trends, which don't do anything for me, but the black ones are rooted in Japanese industrial design, which I find more attractive. It's simply a matter of taste.



Posted by: T.L. James at August 17, 2005 05:53 PM

I work at a place where we hold a lot of committee meetings and everyone brings a laptop. These are academic scientists and I think that they split about 50-50 for Macs, which is a little surprising given the tiny market share that Apple holds. But clearly for people who work with a lot of data and do a lot of presentations, they don't seem to have much problem with them or they wouldn't use them--right?

A number of them have to connect to the projectors, but I've noticed almost no problems for either the PCs or the Macs. So my observations don't support your observations. I suspect you're looking for data to confirm your prejudices.

As for why people might mention their Mac but not their PC to an audience? Because Apple is trendy, cool, and the people who use it generally love it. PCs are common, generic, lack class, and don't really inspire passion among their users. I've seen a few very cool-looking PC laptops. But for the most part they are about as interesting as an electric razor.



Posted by: Dwayne A. Day at August 18, 2005 01:38 PM

"I suspect you're looking for data to confirm your prejudices."

What "prejudices" am I confirming? I already made it clear that I am neither anti-Mac nor anti-Mac-user.

"As for why people might mention their Mac but not their PC to an audience? Because Apple is trendy, cool, and the people who use it generally love it. PCs are common, generic, lack class, and don't really inspire passion among their users."

In other words, you can't wear a PC as a badge of membership in a hip elite, like you can a Mac. That helps explain the "conspicuous consumption" behavior I described above.

Why should a laptop "inspire passion"? And why should someone who does feel passion for their computer (!) assume that I, as a member of their audience, do or should share it?

"I've seen a few very cool-looking PC laptops. But for the most part they are about as interesting as an electric razor."

Really? Or are you just saying that to be vindictive because my comments about the white models gored your ox? If not, it's a funny thing to assert given the similarity between other Powerbook models and PCs -- which in some cases are visually differentiable only by the illuminated Apple logo on the back of the display.



Posted by: T.L. James at August 18, 2005 06:30 PM

Well, I've been taking Mac laptops to space meetings for several years, maybe I helped start the trend :-)

But the truth is, Apple has been producing great cheap laptops since at least 2001 or so; the laptop market is different from the desktop market, and I think Mac has a much higher market share there, particularly with the scientific/engineering crowd.



Posted by: Arthur Smith at August 23, 2005 02:40 PM