Fie on Both Their Mouses!
Mac or PC? It's the argument that just won't go away. Now, I 'll confess. I am a "Mac Person"; have
been since the first one rolled out in 1984. Over the years, I've bought seven Macs, and I'm in the
process of getting my wife and my mother each one of her own. I've also used plenty of DOS and
Windows machines, and bought and used several Amigas (remember those?). Once upon a time,
you could find me poking my way through the demanding syntax and command lines of Unix-based
You know what? None of these systems work as well as they should. Worse, as they've become
more powerful and feature-full, they seem, subjectively at least, to have gotten all the more
cantakerous, clunky and prone to misbehaviour.
Maybe it's because the number of things that can go wrong has risen in proportion to the size of
the system software. Maybe it's the fact that we now sit in front of these things all day long.
Whatever the cause, we're all familiar with machines, Macs and PCs, that crash without apparent
cause. Device drivers inexplicably change their settings or interfere with each other. The network
has a little hiccup and our computers freeze. Then, when we restart them, they give us angry
little warnings telling us that we've been bad users for not properly shutting them down. Then
there is the matter of application software. The manual for my new publishing application is
about the size of the King James Bible. The newest version of Word has so many buttons,
doo-hickeys and menus, that there's little space left for my text. I guess I've made the mistake of
assuming that a word processor is supposed to help you write, not to run the equivalent of a print
shop inside your computer.
Fortunately, some help is on the way, and not a moment to soon. Four years after Doonesbury had
fun with the Newton PDA, its successors, the Palm Organizer, the Handspring Visor, various
Windows CE devices, have become remarkably dexterous and useful tools for business and
education. They all boot up in seconds, not minutes. Some boast truly intuitive interfaces and
integrated applications. They don't cost the equivalent of a semester at college.
There is also the trend toward networked applications and "groupware". In this model, the
complicated stuff, the stuff that requires all that user attention and causes so much aggravation,
can reside on the server and when you need it, it's just there. It's up to the System Administrator
to keep it sorted out and runnning, of course, and she's actually grateful not to have several
hundred users mucking up the works on their indivdual, expensive, complicated, and
This brings to mind the current evolution toward a net-centric, as opposed to OS-centric view of
computing. New operating systems, and platform independent software such as Java, will provide
truly robust internetworking abilities; this thanks to the recognition that computers are
telecommunications devices, as well as computational engines. This evolution, now underway and
quickening, promises to further resolve compatibility issues and enforce interoperability between
systems. Look for this trend to advance rapidly in the next two years.
A little further down the line, perhaps as soon as five years, we may finally see a truly intuitive
user interface. Using three-dimensional metaphors, animation, and sound in new ways, such
"front-ends" are just now entering the mainstream via the Internet. When they arrive on your
computer, much of the nonsense with losing icons under windows and navigating through
imprenetrable Find File systems will finally go away.
There's much more that we can and should expect. Some of it will indeed come to pass. Some of it
will prove infeasible, either technologically or in the market-place. The point, however, is that
today's systems have much more in common than we tend to believe, and many of these areas of
commonality entail deficiencies. What they do well, they similarly have in common.
Perhaps it's time to let this Mac versus PC argument go, and leave it to the engineers. We might
then turn our focus toward how these remarkable and presently finicky machines should best
serve as tools for work, recreation, discovery and education.
by Sean McGlannahan, ©1999