Friday, September 15, 2006

We Have Found Two Problems

I'll be the first to admit these Apple ads are a trifle on the smug side, if pretty funny.

However, this one, which touts the Macintosh's immediate usability right out of the box, is as true as true gets. I've had the pleasure of taking three brand-new computers out of their packing cases in the last four months: This PowerBook that I'm typing on now (bought for me by my employers; I can't afford that kind of luxury), a Mac Mini for Freddie's birthday present, and an Acer Aspire laptop that I acquired for the local Historical Society, on whose board of directors I sit.

Both Macs were an absolute pleasure to unpack and start for the first time. Apple is so concerned with providing a sleek and seamless user experience that even the packaging the computers came in was very carefully designed. After plugging it in and turning it on, you're presented with a very brief (I think it was five steps) wizard that asks you what you'd like your computer to call you ("Percy Whips," in my case), how you're going to connect to the Internet, whether you'd like to register with Apple, and a few others. Once you're done with this, you're on the Desktop, ready to go. That. Is. It. Firewall on by default, Net connection working, a representative set of iLife apps ready to be launched from the Dock. Go. Have fun.

I really and truly didn't know how good I had it until I unpacked the Acer laptop last night. OK, I won't hold the packaging against them; pedestrian, like opening a box of cereal, but not objectionable. It wasn't until Windows XP reared its ass-ugly face that I started to get that oh-shit-here-we-go feeling. First, you did get something similar to that five-step interview wizard -- but it was conducted in a nasty little underdesigned window, not the welcoming immersive experience that Mac OS X gives you, and while the interview was going on, thousands of other little windows were popping up and disappearing in the background with baffling messages in DOS-ese. Why the hell can't these windows be suppressed if they're giving me information I can neither understand nor act on?

Then I had to reboot. Twice.

When the hullaballoo had died down, I was presented with an incredibly hostile-looking screen that told me I was in grave danger because I had no anti-virus software running. Wow. The first time I boot this thing, and the first thing I'm presented with is a shrieking, blinking-red reminder of the shoddiness and vulnerability of the OS I'm running. (The first thing I saw on my Mac was GarageBand.) I've heard horror stories of Windows machines being booted without virus protection and becoming so polluted with crap that they're unusable within four minutes. So now the first thought I have is that this thing is searching for my house's wireless network (one of the thousand superfluous messages I saw on boot) and it's completely unprotected! Yikes! Better get that digital condom on, toot-sweet!

Whew! There's an icon for Norton Antivirus there on the desktop! Hit it, quick!

"Please insert Norton Antivirus Install Disk."

I mean, WHAT??!?!!?!?! You give me a free copy of Norton Antivirus, and you can't be bothered to install it on my hard drive before you ship it? And while I fumble with the disks that came with the laptop, grubby little hackers in Russia are installing god-knows-what on this computer, which only seconds ago you told me was desperately vulnerable?

Now there's a well-thought-out experience!

Well. So. I got the disk inserted, Norton's installing itself, and then a weird little window pops up in the lower right of the screen. It's not branded, so I can't tell who's trying to talk to me. It says, "We have found two problems. Would you like us to fix them? [Yes] [No]."

I'm beginning to get a throbbing in my temples and a strong desire to go get the vodka bottle. The large Norton-branded window in the center of the screen continues to tell me how many thousands of virus definitions it's loaded and how many thousands are left to go before I'm safe, but as to the nature of these "problems" and exactly what "fixing" them entails it is silent as the grave. I click "Yes" with some reluctance -- I wish they'd provide a "Uh, yyyyees..." button -- and the little window goes away. I'll never know just what the fuck those "problems" were: Massive kernel panic? A corrupted .dll file? Mayonnaise spilled on the disk drive? Got me, Chuck-o. I'm just a dumb Mac user.

So the machine had finally settled down, I was now safe from viruses, my firewall was running. So I decided to check out some of the fab features the Historical Society had paid for. A sort of crab-shaped icon on the desktop advertised itself as "AvRack." I clicked it. And absolutely fell off my couch, roaring with laughter.


No, I mean seriously. What the fuck is this thing? I've had to reduce it in size about 20% to make it fit in this column, but the labels and icons are still readable. To judge from the presence of the "Recorder" and "Equalizer" labels on the wings (ears? antennae?) of the thing, it's a media-recording and -playback interface with playlisting capability, but sweet Jesus on a Segway did you ever see anything so unrelievedly, mortifyingly, hilariously ugly? I'm a goddamned grownup, for Christ's sake -- and, presumably, so are the majority of people who can afford laptops -- is the expectation that I am to be somehow impressed by the planet Saturn on a dongle hanging off the default skin of my media player?

OK, OK. That's a cheap third-party dingus placed on the desktop by Acer to fulfill some kind of contractual obligation, and not part of Windows XP. But Boy Howdy is it symptomatic of the Windows world, where cheap, gimcrack -- and above all, butt-ugly -- software abounds. Yeah, cheaper, blah blah. Yeah, more compatible, yadda yadda. Yeah, more games, woof woof (some of us don't give a rat's ass about games). Most of these objections are, if not outright myths, then easily refuted. The truth is that Corporate America forces its slaves to stare, day in and day out, at deeply repellent, hideously badly designed, user-hostile garbage. And because the slaves can't fight back and demand better, because the goddamned IT Department, peopled with Morlocks with Microsoft Certifications in all kinds of drudgery, has a vested interest in keeping the status quo ante.

I'm a Mac. I'm not a PC.

(There, that ought to generate some Comments. Heh, heh.)
(PS: I use an XP machine extensively, although not exclusively, at work. I'm not iggerant.)


Jerry said...

Hi guy,
Windows is any form is a piece of major SHIT.
I have three Macs and three Pc's
there is always something wrong with the Pc's. My oldest Mac is 8 years old
a fucking dinosaur in technology.
My Pc's are much newer.I work in design and graphics and it takes the Pc''s almost twice as long to
work the same file.The Mac being almost geriatric by comparison works with little effort.
Mac's use memory different and work with ease . . .Windows,I have never seen a machine work so hard to do so little.

Matt said...

Great post.

One could argue that your experience was defined by Acer, and that, had you bought a better brand of PC, your experience would have been much different.

One could also argue that the availability of generic PCs, in contrast to the anal-retentive brand control of Apple, represents a more, uh, democratic approach to the medium. And hey, as Rumsfeld said, democracy is messy.

But one could say all that and be wrong. I can't argue with you. But I also don't know if I can afford to buy an Apple.

And that, I think, is where the? an? interesting conversation starts: sure, Macs are better designed than PCs; sure, they're sleeker; sure, they're more fun to use.

But so is a Mercedes, as compared to a Daewoo. So is a BMW, as compared to a Ford. Simplicity and ease-of-use are luxuries that not everyone can afford.

It will be interesting to see whether Apple's increasing market share forces Microsoft to create a more user-friendly system. It seems like that might have happened with the Zune. Will that kind of thinking be extended to the world of PCs?

Mike said...

I recently built a new machine with ubuntu. Not one problem, straight out of the box. All the apps a normal user would need. Anybody could drive this thing.

With ubuntu, there is no reason for anyone to use windows. Uhm, except for MS flight sim and a few other games, which is what the pc I'm on now is for.

Mr Fiddlehead said...

Heh heh. Fabulous post, by neddie jingo. Excellent, spot on, hear hear, and all that rot, what what.

I have to agree mike about some of the linux distros out there these days. I've seen ubuntu installed and it looks like a very nice user experience, certainly compared to windoze, or winblows, or whatever anti-honourific you might wish apply. I've been using Linux redhat distros exlusively since about 2002, although I'm expert enough in the unix world that I've been able to slog my way through. I'm not certain that I'd recommend redhat Fedora Core 5 to a novice yet, mostly because yum is so goddamned slow and for reasons that only the sky fairy knows the engineers responsible for making these decisions decided against using apt. But it's still a good overall user experience compared to windows. I haven't screamed at my computer once since abandoning windows back in 2002.

The reason I bring this linux thing up is that while the Mac is a nice user experience, and I've been tempted to buy myself one of them perdy macbooks, I just can't bring myself to go along with the corporate goons that have infected the world with iTunes and the hateful iPod. Why anyone would want to tie themselves down to Apple and the DRMed crap that is the iPod is beyond me, but the marketers have done a good job and I live with the consequences when choosing an alternative.

As far as matt's comments blaming Acer for the horribleness of the experience, I'd like to point out that this is the status quo when it comes to installing windows machines. The only way to do it safely is to do so behind a firewall on a Mac or linux box or your router. My experience with installing windows machines (Dell, IBM, HP, etc) is that one spends hours getting rid of all the shit that is infecting the hard disk on purpose. And that goes for software like Norton Anti-Virus as well, which should be classified as a trojan IMNSHO.

The bottom line is that if you want to use a windows box, do so from behind a firewall, and not a firewall running on a windows box, and don't ever use Internet Explorer. Go get yerself Firefox and use it exclusively for browsing.

Over and Out.

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

The best (and only semi-positive) Windoze installation experience I ever had was when I had to get a new hard drive. It's not that bad when you install just the OS on a fresh drive. That way, you don't get all of the pre-installed trial versions and other useless junk (Saturn on a dongle?!!) cluttering everything up. If I ever did switch back to Macs, though, I'd definitely have to have a PC-style mouse. I couldn't live without a right-hand mouse button.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Nice, dude. I agree. Wish I could afford a Mac. My pc has crapped th' bed so many times (not crashes- I'm talking exploding hard drives- all data GONE) so many times that I have a date every month where I back up EVERYTHING to another machine.

I do all my important visual creative work on my old 7200 Power Mac and squish it and floppy it over.

I could never understand what they were doing in th' mid- to late- 90's, though, when I was a Mac professional. I worked for three companies and each time my job ended up being bussing all data from Macs to PCs and putting Macs in dark closets. It was heartbreaking.

All that aside, I've been working on a PC for years and it's still a god damn mystery to me. One approaches it with fingers crossed. Something goes wrong and you're just fuckoed. Back in th' day when I was working on PowerBooks and IIci's and si's and PowerMacs I could have it all sussed out within a couple of days, down to hardware.

They never scared me like this. PCs always made me look bad.


Sean M said...

I fix Windows computers for a living. Neddie's pretty right-on, but I'd like to add this point: it's moving towards an ugly sort of class thing where Windows is the proletarian OS (not in the good way) and Apple produces a bourgeois OS - only the bourgies get to use computers that just work. Everyone else gets the litany of externalized costs that characterizes Microsoft's approach - and Wal-Mart's, and McDonalds', and so on. All of a piece.

Neddie said...

But so is a Mercedes, as compared to a Daewoo. So is a BMW, as compared to a Ford. Simplicity and ease-of-use are luxuries that not everyone can afford.

Here's where things get interesting. Sean M. recapitulates your point by bringing class distinctions into the matter -- that Windows is for Morlocks while Macs are for Eloi, if you don't mind an H. G. Wells metaphor.

But the simple fact is that the BMW/Ford dichotomy is outdated. Macs are simply no more expensive than a production PC of similar capabilities and speed. Sure, you can drop $2000 on a PowerBook (I think we're now calling them MacBook Pros), but the same amount spent on an HP machine gets you significantly less computer (smaller monitor, smaller hard drive, 1.2 GHz Intel Core Solo processor to the Mac's Intel Duo 2.0 GHz). And let's not forget that the MacBook Pro comes with built-in fripperies like the iSight webcam, FrontRow and iLife.

There's a Mac for every pocketbook, starting with the Mac Mini I bought for Freddie at $599 -- granted, I had to add a mouse, keyboard and monitor, but I brought the whole thing in under $800. Its Dual Pentium processor kicks ass -- it boots OSX in about 10 seconds -- and he runs extremely graphics-intensive games on it without a hitch. And yesterday he asked me how to save to MP3 a song he'd created in GarageBand. A Dad's heart soared with pride.

This old canard about Macs being the BMWs of the computing world is nonsense. I'll grant that it was true ten years ago -- when we still had to argue that ease-of-use was worth the extra money. But now you can get a computer that works well, is relatively free from viruses, and isn't butt-ugly on the screen. (Whether you want to call Apple's brand control fascistic is up to you. But I use MS Office on both platforms, and I can guarantee you it's a whole lot prettier on the Mac. Apple does have high criteria of compliance to the Aqua standard, and I applaud them for it. Nothing prevents Microsoft from demanding the same compliance.)

So, as the hardware converges, the major difference comes down to the OS. And I still insist that the reason that Macs haven't made their way into the corporate world remains the hidebound policies of the IT Department, who don't want to have to support a platform they weren't taught about in the Microsoft Certification classes they took.

The company I work for (whatever its other multifarious sins) has no problem supporting both platforms. Some of us use Macs, others use Windows boxes, and everybody's happy. Why the hell can't it be that way in any networked computing environment owes to atavistic perceptions that date back years and are long dead issues.

I'm intrigued by Sean's use of Marxian language to distinguish the two platforms. Under Late Capitalism, it's still very much in Capital's interest to dictate the Means of Production. And we workers are in no position to take action for something as frivolous as Freedom of Choice of OS.

Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For MacOS in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.

And speaking of economic matters, Mr, Fiddlehead, what have you got against the artists getting some actual dosh for their wares? Back during the Great Napster Controversy of 2000, I found myself unable to answer the question, If digital music is freely distributable (a nice word for "pirated") through a worldwide network, how the hell is a musician supposed to get any money for his work? I never heard an answer to this question that didn't involve some variant of "Find yourself another line of work, chum." For a class of artist who notoriously receives a wholesale ass-fucking from the existing distribution structure, free distribution seemed like the final nail in the coffin for creative musicians. I have absolutely no problem with plunking down a buck for a song and preserving my conscience -- and ensuring that the artist gets at least some remuneration for his work. If DRM protects artists' intellectual-property rights, then hooray for it.

Tell me how I'm wrong.

Mike said...

I'm all for musicians making money. As a hanger on who often drank more free drinks than the band took at the door for merely running the board and hauling amps, it's pleases me to see bands get paid. However, neither Apple nor Microsoft help in that area.

Bands get paid significantly less for a download from itunes than they do for buying the same number of tracks in CD form. In addition, when I buy a CD, I can play it at home, in my car, at the office. I can rip a track and make a mix cd. I can loan the cd to a friend. If I buy a different brand of portable music player next year, my tunes keep working. If I buy a new computer and install fresh software I'd like my music to still work. With a DRM'd file, I can't do any of that.

Given a choice is between $1 for an iTunes track and $0 for bittorrent track that lets me listen when and where I want, I know which one I'm getting. I'd love to be able to buy music online, but the price in restrictions is way to high.

For the most part, I now buy music when I go to a club. I pay my $5-$20 to get in, and then buy a CD from the band. The bonus of buying from the band is that the CDs are cheaper and the band keeps a far larger percentage than they would if I went to Tower/Virgin/whoever.

I think isrkfzae are at the Croc tonight.

Matt said...

Sure, you can drop $2000 on a PowerBook . . . but the same amount spent on an HP machine gets you significantly less computer

Yeah, but the point is that you don't have to buy an HP machine. There are cheaper choices that match or exceed the specs of the MacBook Pro.

This old canard about Macs being the BMWs of the computing world is nonsense. I'll grant that it was true ten years ago . . .

The Mac mini has changed the playing field, but it has only been around for about a year and a half. That hardly makes the BMW comparison ten years old, as you suggest. And I can still buy a Dell tower or a Lenovo notebook for much less than a Mac.

I work on a PC desktop -- one that I "built" myself from parts two years ago. Because of that, I avoided all of the frustrations with pre-loaded junk that you mentioned in your post; I was also able to have what I thought was a wonderful learning experience, which has given me the ability to perform individual upgrades on specific parts of the computer as it ages. I've had the luck to never have experienced (to my knowledge) a real virus. Never had anything explode on me, either.

In the end, though, I do have Mac envy. Perhaps, with prices dropping, I'll finally be able to indulge it. I'm looking forward to that day.

roxtar said...

I've had the experience of replacing entire PCs every 12 months or so because they had become so kludged up with viruses and spyware that they were rendered virtually unusable.

Since Firefox, however, I have had no such problems. None. Nada. The Dell Inspiron 7500 laptop I'm using right now is a hand-me-down from my son-in-law. It's so old, it's still running Windows 98SE, and doing so reliably, lo these many years later.

I'm not a brand loyalist. I'd switch in a heartbeat if I saw a reason to do so. But since I'm not a power user, a $400 combo platter running Windows meets my humble needs. (Although if I had a couple of hours to fart around with GarageBand, I'd probably be convinced to cough up the dough and get a nice Mac.)

Will Divide said...

Never owned a Windows machine myself. Currently on a five-year-old iMac G4 on which I was happily running sys 9 until last May. From a technical perspective, the upgrade to X.4 (a Pard, a Panther?) was flawless, though I was pissed Appleworks wasn't bundled in and the Co. sent the sys 9 environment platform into the Phantom Zone...

BUT both of those problems were remedied in a jiff w/ a little help from friends, and the machine remains a dream.

I can testify that corporate Amerikkka's visceral dislike of the Apple extended to Wall Street, where for YEARS analysts bad mouthed the product and predicted the immanent demise of the company.

Now true, Apple lost the plot for a while under what's-his-name, but the core business (education, graphic design) and product (the OS) was sound as a dollar. I had to endure an old school chum, a big noise in finance, over lunch one day go on and on about how Apple would be gone in two years (This was, oh, '93? '94?).

After that meal it hit me that there WAS a cultural divide surrounding Macs and that a lot of apparently smart people hated Apple simply for being what it was; self-integrated, user-friendly, non-corporate.

This is the subject for a whole 'nother post but -- I will leave you with the observation that iTunes and iPods have changed the media world we all inhabit in profound, lasting and, mainly, good ways. It a field of introverted geeks and so-called geniuses, Jobs stands out as a genuine visionary.

roxtar said...

I suspect many people are still waiting for Mac to fulfill The Betamax Prophecy.

roxtar said...

Oh, and while we're on the subject, there's a few chuckles to be found on the subject at McSweeney's

Jennifer said...

"What the fuck is this thing?"

It looks like an old IUD...

Kevin Wolf said...

Nothing really to add to this excellent post and illuminating comments. I did the Mac thing then, when time came to upgrade, found it cheaper and easier to switch to an HP PC.

No fan of Windows, but everything is working, there's tons of free (and spyware free) apps that work with it to do the stuff I want to do, and using non-MS apps, like Firefox, is easy and thus far virus-free.

No complaints either way. They're just tools, after all.

Devil's Rancher said...

I've heard it said that Windows machines are only cheaper if your time is worth absolutely nothing.

We have to run windows in accounting, due to our CPA (outside firm) needing compatibility. My main invoicing person showed up at 8 am yesterday with a new HP printer because her Epson had died. It took her two and a half HOURS of juggling disks, wizards & reboots to be able to print the first invoice.

That time was not cheap.

Jill said...

1. There are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don't.

2. There are two kinds of people: Beatles people and Elvis people.

3. There are two kinds of people: those fucked by PCs and those fucked by Macs.

4. There are two kinds of fucking: Bill's kind and George's kind.

David Harmon said...

I have a friend who does tech support for one of the few Mac clusters within Citigroup. He has assured me that he literally spends as much time maintaining four Windows PCs, as he does forty Macs. It's not just about "externalized costs", either...

For years, Microsoft has been methodically trying to shackle their users to their own platform, not only through the "training effect" and corporate intimidation, but also through premeditated insertion of "incompatibilities" with other software. They have regularly attempted to subvert public standards in this pursuit. (a.k.a. "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish".

Way back in DOS days when I was working on mouse drivers, I personally saw how Microsoft Word (and no other word processor) tested for "mouse driver compatibility" by scanning the driver code for the embedded Microsoft copyright notice. (If not found, it would still sort-of work, but not until you clicked through a scary message about "incompatible mouse driver found".) I also saw a Windows (3-something) beta that specifically checked if it was running on top of the competitor DR-DOS, and if it was, threw up another scary message.

And don't get me started on "Plug and Pray", or Winmodems, or Internet Exploiter and Outbreak Express....