Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Historic Day in Geekdom?

Some techno-wags pointed out that on the day following Apple Computer's lavish rollout of Intel-based Mac computers, the company's stock price closed at exactly $80.86 per share. Now this may not seem very amusing or significant if you're not a geek, so I'll explain. 8086 is the numerical branding code used for the first set of Intel processors ever introduced into commercial personal computers. The original 8086 evolved into the 286, 386, 486, and Pentium processor families.

So all right, it's a really lame joke (any joke that has to be explained by a paragraph of text is, of course, lame); and I'll leave it to you to decide whether there is cosmic or numerological meaning in the coincidence. But the fact is that Intel CEO Paul Otellini actually arrived at Steve Jobs' keynote address on Tuesday morning wearing the geek-bunny costume that Apple derided in its turn-of-the-century TV ads; it is also true that Intel calmly endured Apple's first round of derisive ads for their Intel machines (though Intel was clearly not thrilled to be a part of Apple's PC-bashing publicity stunts); and finally it is a fact that the 140 pound Pope of Redmond himself passed his hand in blessing over the Apple rollout, promising a "universal binary" version of Microsoft Office in the near future, and assuring the Mactel faithful of his holy approval of Apple's cool embrace upon the idea of running Windows XP and Mac OS X on the same machine (as long as it's made by Apple).

But what about the new machines themselves? Well, what we know is that an Intel-powered iMac (those marvelous machines in which the computer's components are all nested within the display itself) has arrived and is in the stores as we write, no doubt surrounded by curious PC users and drooling Macophiles. They're selling for the same prices as their IBM PowerPC-driven relatives—$1,300 for a 17" model and $1,600 for a 20"—and they come bundled with a fresh upgrade of the Apple iLife software suite. We've also seen and heard about a new "pro" level laptop, called the "MacBook" which will be shipping next month. This is an Intel-powered version of the "old" Powerbook that promises to run at 4 times the speed of its G4 predecessor.

Well, are they that fast, and will Win XP run on them? Clearly, some water will have to pass under that bridge before there is certainty, but the answers appear now to be, yes, these machines are lots faster than what Apple had before; and "not now" to Windows and OS X running side-by-side. As to the latter, Apple is officially saying that it's fine with them if it can be done, but some experts are saying that a variation in the architecture platform will prevent running Windows on these new Mac machines (this is heavily geeky stuff here, but if you'd like to see the details on this issue of EFI vs. BIOS, look here).

With all that taken into account, the buying decision is still up to each individual. Here are a few points to keep in mind, in case you're deciding whether to fork over cash (preferable in today's world) or plastic (use, if at all, with extreme caution) for one of these gorgeous looking machines.

 The new Apple machines, especially the MacBook, are not cheap. In addition to the iMac prices starting at $1,300, the MacBook starts at two grand. Before you even think about buying one, make sure you've got the cash to do it. Seems obvious, but it's amazing how many people overlook this simple factor when they are blinded by object-lust.
 TCO: Once you've taken the above into account, consider the Total Cost of Ownership factor. I've owned a Mac (one of the "old" dome-shaped beauties with the display gracefully rising out of the top) for nearly three years, and have spent virtually no time whatsoever in maintenance, repair, or upgrading of the machine itself (nothing more than opening Disk Utility to fix the permissions on the hard drive every so often—a process that requires two mouse clicks and less than five minutes). This is a radical departure from my 15-odd years of Win-tel ownership, where fixing registries, downloading patches (and correcting the problems they inevitably caused), and navigating driver conflicts and other such technical minutiae was a standard and time-consuming practice. As I tell other Windows users who complain of spending so much time on maintenance and repairs, keep track of the time you spend at such tasks, multiply by your hourly rate at work, and add that to the cost of your PC. Then you can take into account other expenses such as Security/Antivirus software and upgrades; spyware blockers; and upgrades or replacements of the rather lame proprietary software that comes with Windows. Keep in mind that, as with cars, the sticker price on the box is not necessarily the final price you pay for owning a product.
 Don't let anyone snow you with the nonsense that going from Windows to the Mac is a whole new learning curve fraught with time, effort, and expense. Nonsense: it took me all of two weeks to accustom myself to the basic (and minimal) differences. You use the Command (or "Apple") key instead of the CTRL key for simple keyboard actions such as Cut (Command-X), Copy (Command-C), Paste (Command-V), or Select All (Command-A). The file management has modest variations between Windows and Mac (a few of them, it must be admitted, to the advantage of the Windows platform); but the basics are the same: they're both windowed graphical environments featuring folders and files. If you're the least bit computer-literate, you'll move effortlessly from Windows to Mac.
 Another myth that you might hear is about the need for buying all new software. Clearly, what there is of this problem may well be mitigated by the arrival of the Intel Macs. But even without that, the basics are, once again, simple and non-strenuous: if you need a copy of MS Office on your Mac, you can get a Macintosh version for around $120 (for the Teachers and Students edition, which includes full versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Entourage, the Mac-specific email client). Compatibility is not an issue here, since MS has ensured that the files created by Office for Mac are readable by Office for PC. Sure, if you've got a lot of games and PC apps, you won't want to give up your old Win-tel box (I have one of those, too). Just don't let software become an obstruction to getting into the Mac.
 Security: this is obviously a key, and perhaps a fluid issue. Will the Intel Macs be more vulnerable from a security standpoint? We probably won't know for months. I've been very grateful for the security of owning a Mac, and frankly, I personally don't believe the fluff you hear from the Win-tel crowd to the effect that "Macs only seem secure because no one uses them, and virus writers won't bother with writing malicious code for machines that amount to less than 3% of the computer marketplace." Mac OS X has been out for over four years now, and Apple has sold tens of millions of their computers in that time (at least 3 million Mac Minis alone last year): wouldn't someone have found this a nice crowd to disrupt, if they could have written some viral code to do it? I'm sorry, all you Gatesians: there's more to it than that. But will the new Macs (especially if they take another chunk out of Dell's market share) eventually fall prey to the virus writers and spyware hackers? Should the new Macs be oufitted with antivirus software? My own feeling is that anything—whether it's running Linux, BeOS, or DOS 3.1—that's connected to the Web should be protected, and that includes the Mac (I have the McAfee product on my Mac, and I call it "the Maytag repairman of the software universe"). Still, I feel loads safer running the Mac than my Win-tel box: if I've got to go to a website or check an email that may be suspect for its contents or associations, I'll do it on the Mac first. The Jobs box is stronger, safer, and smarter at handling this sort of stuff.
 The OS: For me, the quality of the operating system is a really big deal. Mac OS X is, to my mind, the best OS out there, hands down. It does more, looks better, navigates easier, and is simply more elegant than anything Redmond or anyone else has ever produced. With the advent of OS 10.4 ("Tiger"), Apple upped the ante in the OS contest, and MS is basically parroting (that is, plagiarizing) OS X screen designs in its Vista OS, now in Beta. But it probably won't be able to copy the speed and elegance of Spotlight, the Mac desktop search function; or the versatility of its system maintenance tools. My Mac is set to turn itself on, load the email client and browser, and then download the morning's email, at exactly 6:00 AM on every weekday. Try doing that with a Win-tel machine from a simple command in the operating system's Control Panel.
 Harmony: It makes a difference in how you experience the hardware and software we use in our machines. If you like things that are free of trouble and fussy maintenance issues, you're ready for a Mac. How come you get more stress-free computing with an Apple product than one from Dell, Gateway, HP, or Lenovo? Probably because Apple makes both the hardware and the software, and has done so for a long time (30 years this April, believe it or not). The problems with PCs are not all Bill Gates' fault (though many are). Every night I start my PC, the thing has to be restarted at least once after the display locks up because of a device driver conflict between ATI's software and XP's device handler. Time was when I would have spent hours trying to fix this issue (and I'll admit I have put in a couple of hours on it, until I realized I didn't need to). Having the Mac around takes care of that.

So, in the end, my only caveat as we enter this new world of Intel Macs, is curiously not for consumers, but rather for Apple itself. Steve, you're building an empire. Your stock has gone through the roof from where it was near the end of 2004; you've had your first billion dollar revenue quarter; you've got an 85% market share stranglehold on the music player industry; and you're taking giant strides toward leveling the playing field of the consumer market in personal computers. Just be very careful: you know how things get with empires—just look at Redmond and the manifold problems it lamely faces all around the world. Look at Dell, and how the quality of their product has declined since they've become the favored techno-tool of corporate America. Look at the various food, media, and service empires that have grown into cancerous beasts over the years. In short, your David rhetoric is beginning to ring rather hollow, because you are becoming a Goliath. Whenever there is an imperial size and mindset taking over an organization, creativity is stilled and the voice of innovation goes silent. What has Redmond come out with in the past year or so that's new or creative? Yep, a new xbox. Wow.

How Apple and Google deal with their growth and runaway profits while still keeping alive the culture of innovation that propelled them to the place they occupy in the techno-world will show us, once again, whether it is possible to think like an artist and live like a king at the same time. Frankly, I doubt it is possible. But I am willing to be proven wrong. Steve, maybe you can start by listening to the advice of an old Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who wrote the following some 2,600 years ago as advice to the leaders of nations—it will apply equally well to the leaders of corporations:

Therefore, let your nation follow Nature’s way:
If it is big, let its actions be small.
If it is small, it is already complete,
So it need not strive for greatness.

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