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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 systems.

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 RAM-besotted machines.

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

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