The anti-buzz: Mac part two

by Andrew Emmott on July 20, 2010

in Anti-Buzz,Security,Software

If you missed part one here it is:

The buzz: Macintosh is hip, nice-looking, and will make a better impression on my customers than Windows will. And this counts for something.

The anti-buzz: It does. And because of this I can recommend Macs for certain types of businesses – but I don’t feel a dental office is the right place.

Why: You sell dentistry, not computing technology. Computers in your office need to facilitate you before they facilitate your customers.

I’m not going to belabor my first argument, but I did feel it was worth revisiting this to address that Apple technologies are both aesthetically and ergonomically superior to most everything else. My father jokes that the biggest reason to invest in a Mac is that it will give you a couple extra hipness points. Thing is, those hipness points are worth something

and you work in an industry where you need to provide a pleasant atmosphere for your customers. But you aren’t a software developer. You are a medical professional who needs to keep lot of specialized information organized and accessible – and this speaks to your management software suite, not your operating system. Again, if the best options are available on Mac then that’s where you should lean, but I’m inclined to believe that at this point in time they are not.

The buzz: Macintosh is more secure than Windows.

The anti-buzz: More accurately, you are less likely to encounter viruses and malware on a Macintosh and this fact has less to do with actual security and more to do with the popularity of the system.

Why: If you live in Manhattan and lock your apartment behind 5 deadbolts, you are still more likely to get robbed than somebody who lives in Hanover and never even locks their front door.

In fact, the Manhattan/Hanover analogy is pretty apt to describe the whole Windows/Mac schism. In Manhattan you have more. More everything. More good stuff, more bad stuff. More crime, and way more options. In Hanover you have New England charm and an Ivy league college that is generous to its community. You have less, albeit you have some things that you can’t get in Manhattan. You can’t strictly say one is better than the other.

But more important is that there are a lot of people who would probably not care whether they lived in one place or the other. These people just need access to a few chain restaurants, (Facebook, MySpace), a comfortable home, (Firefox, Chrome, Safari), and a lot of television at the end of the day, (YouTube). Manhattan, Windows, Hanover, Macintosh and even Linux, (Eugene, Oregon on our metaphor-tree), all offer these rudimentary creature comforts. This is why I am a little surprised that so many casual users are enamored of Macintosh: If Burger King is the pinnacle of your culinary desires, then why drive there in a BMW? Save your money.

But getting back to the security issue: It’s a complex thing to analyze. Judging the security of a system can be surprisingly subjective. Historically Macintosh has not been nearly as secure as many Mac advocates want to believe. The “security” issue really does have more to do with population density than proper safety precautions. What’s more, security is sometimes an overblown topic. The real risks come from your ability to avoid predators, and that has more to do with your cultural competence. I’ve made the dark alley metaphor before. If you continually put yourself in a place where you can be taken advantage of, you will become a victim and your operating system will do nothing to save you.

The pleasant reality is that both Mac and Windows are racing to outdo each other in the security game. Both systems have made huge strides in security in just the past five years, and the real winner in all of this is you, the consumer. Doing a google search on the security debate can yield mixed results, mostly because the articles you will uncover will range from current to a decade old. Secunia, a firm well-trusted with these reports, has typically reported that Macintosh has more big security flaws than Windows, where “big security flaws” means the sort of Hollywood back-door hacker-completely-takes-control-of-your-computer type of things that we’ve all come to fear, (I’d really like to point out that despite all of us using such horribly insecure machines, hackers seem to be taking over our computers and ruining our lives at a microscopically low rate). However, if the Mac users want something to trumpet about, Mac OS X Snow Leopard is, as of this writing, in fact the most secure operating system on the planet. And Windows is right behind it. And all of that is surprisingly irrelevant.

Interestingly, as the Linux aficionado, I’ve been shocked to learn that Unix-based systems aren’t necessarily as secure as us uber-geeks would like to believe, although evaluating such systems is harder as most large, high profile Unix systems are also rather customized, (customizability being the real selling point of Unix), to the point where they have their own security precautions added. Judging the out-of-the-box security features of any Unix system isn’t entirely honest as they are supposed to be minimalistic in the first place.

The buzz: Mac users are weird cultists, and the operating system is worthless/watered-down/incompatible/etc.

The anti-buzz: No. Even if I can’t advocate that you fill your office with it, Apple computers are, in truth, superior products in a lot of ways.

Why: Better hardware design, interoperability with Unix, consistent hardware specifications, consistent customer support, more freedom to innovate and improve.

So it’s time to get honest about what Apple and Macintosh does right…

A lot of users want to switch to Mac because they believe it will make their lives more hassle-free. What’s funny is that most of the less-hassle benefits you get with Apple have little to do with the Mac OS. If you want to buy a Mac, where do you go? If your Mac starts acting wonky, or breaks down, where do you take it? If you want to do anything out-of-the-ordinary with your Apple product, where do you go? If you have questions about your product, where do you go?

You go to the Apple Store. For everything.

If you upend your life and move to a different city, you still go to the Apple Store. By virtue of being a niche product, Apple is able to centralize your customer experience throughout the life of your machine. And Apple warranties their products generously. By contrast, to maintain your Windows machine, maybe you go to the Geek Squad, maybe you call Dell/HP/Toshiba/etc support, maybe you talk to the little computer repair shop down the street, and you can never be sure when any of them are pulling the car-mechanic wool-over-your-eyes trick.

The thing that makes traditional PCs cheaper is also the thing that makes them harder to maintain and sometimes harder to use – approximately 70 billion different companies are competing to fill your computer with components and then maintain them. A lot of the bigger brands like Dell or HP try to get their brand hooks into your system, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it does for Apple. Apple gets to handpick the components that go into your computer, which makes maintainence on their end far more reliable.

Even the big prefabs don’t predictably fill each PC with the same parts. If I bought an HP Pavillion and you bought an HP Pavillion, I would not be so certain that they contained the same components, outside of the heavily marketed things like CPUS and graphics cards, (The brand of your motherboard or your RAM, for example, are often hidden from you because you are just going to be getting whatever HP could get the cheapest on the day they built your computer). But if I buy the 17″ MacBook and you buy the 17″ MacBook, they will be exactly the same machine from end to end.

This also allows Apple to hide certain unpleasantries from you. The easiest example is device drivers. Oh, the Macintosh OS has device drivers, but heck if you’ll ever have to worry about them. Conversely, a casual Windows user is going to, at some point, find themselves frustrated by the lack of a driver, or an improper driver, or the need to constantly update a driver, and they aren’t always installed in consistent ways. On an Apple computer there is a very predictable subset of hardware that the operating system has to manage, and so with a little forethought Apple can completely hide this common user frustration from you.

Also, there are the little things. My favorite is the magnetic power cables for the laptops. A superior design, hands down, and I’m a little baffled the rest of the industry hasn’t tried to adopt it. It is also nice that the desktop machines are just big monitors with a keyboard and a mouse, although this design is unsafe from a heat-damage perspective, but Apple can get away with it because of their centralized customer support. Succintly, Apple products are typically more pleasant to use.

For me, the biggest selling point of OS X is that it is now a Unix-based system, which, after years of being obscured by compatibility issues, has the ironic effect of making Macintosh more compatible with the outside world than Windows is. However, this is a fact that your common Mac user either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to use. In a big Unix system, if I wanted to buy a Mac for the art department, making it interoperable with our heavily customized company network would be a dream compared to a Windows machine. This is really why I make the driving a BMW to Burger King analogy – the “hassle-free” focused customer, and even most of the die-hard Macintosh long-timers, massively under-utilize their machine, and probably don’t even know it. Most newcomers develop Apple brand loyalty out of either faddish tendencies or, more likely, after being chewed up by the arrogant Dell/HP/Gateway incompetent, patronizing, customer-service doomsday machine. (I hear so often: My *brand* laptop overheated all the time, the battery died after six months, and the customer service guys were all jerks and charged too much). I believe that Windows takes the heat for the incompetence of a lot of the major manufacturers, especially the biggest ones which like to dillute Windows with their own suite of obnoxious “Service Center” software which is really just meant to funnel your money into their customer-service department. The Apple brand has more to do with making your computing life easier than the actual Mac OS does.

What I will not say is that Mac OS X is more user-friendly than Windows. This was true in 1994, but any more using Windows versus using Mac is a bit six-of-one/half-dozen-of-the-other. The most common story I hear from users making a transition in either direction is that they are convinced that whatever system they are currently using is the easier one. The only truth I will commit to is that both operating systems are different. In fact, sometimes Macintosh is guilty of what I call the “Gateway” effect, where the least computer savvy user is catered to at the expense of all the users who actually know what they are doing. A lot of the built-in photo software, for example, obfuscates the directory structure so that people who have a hard time grasping concepts like Desktops and Folders will have an easy time but any user who has the temerity to store their photos anywhere but the default location is going to be tearing their hair out.

Another thing Mac advocates should understand is that a lot of the benefits of the Mac platform are byproducts Apple’s smaller market share. Some of the things Apple has done would get Microsoft killed, but Apple can innovate precisely because the world doesn’t depend on their computers. In the last few years Apple has:

  • Abandoned the PowerPC architecture entirely and in dramatic fashion. There are no software updates for things like Flash and Java available for older, non-Intel Macs, for example.
  • Redesigned their operating system from the ground up to make it compatible with Unix, and rather incompatible with all previous versions of the Mac OS.
  • More subtly, they have modernized their entire line, using only 64-bit technology, including EFI motherboards instead of the grossly outdated 16-bit BIOS software still in use in most traditional PCs, even new ones.

Any of those moves would be a disaster for Microsoft – the fact that everyone uses their software and follows their standards also drowns them in corporate bureaucracy. Their platform is slower to modernize because they have to keep supporting all their older technology until it sufficiently fades away from the market. The futurist in me loathes the fact that 32-bit software persists so heavily in the Windows world – and it keeps getting written because it keeps getting supported, and it keeps getting supported because everyone keeps using it and releasing software for it. The Mac world is not so burdened by its past.

At the end of the day, my biggest gripe with Apple, aside from the vacuous coffee-shop beatnik subculture, is that the price jump does not match the benefits, especially if you are a more computer savvy individual who can either brave the smaller brands, build their own computer, or properly overhaul any system a big prefab might sell you. Well that, and it’d be really nice if Apple would ever make a mouse with a proper right-click button.

Want more? Look here for a very interesting look at the future of Apple and the significance of “AntennaGate” by Michael Malone.

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