Mac Musings

Cheerleading, Misinformation, and Moving Ahead with Mac OS X

Daniel Knight - 2003.02.10

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I popped over to The Mac Night Owl, this past weekend and read Gene Steinberg's latest commentary, "A Few Pet Peeves to Chew Over" (no longer online).

Pretty much everyone agrees that Steinberg is one of the most consistent OS X advocates on the Mac Web. He admits that some people are content with OS 9, but he continues to extol OS X as the heavenly kingdom. He chides others on the Mac Web, notably Charles Moore of Applelinks (and Low End Mac), over their failure to adopt OS X quickly and their complaints about the sluggish performance of OS X compared to the classic Mac OS.

I have a fair bit of respect for Steinberg and his general expertise, but as someone who never found OS X compelling until 10.2 Jaguar - and as someone who still uses a lot of Classic Mode software - I have no trouble calling him a cheerleader for Mac OS X. Steve Jobs (whose other company just bought a boatload of Intel servers) should be proud when well-known Mac advocates so consistently preach the OS X gospel.

But Steinberg doesn't see himself as a cheerleader:

Every time I get a letter suggesting I'm just a cheerleader about Apple, I have to laugh. I have delivered my share of criticisms about Apple's shortcomings. The difference is that I try not to be negative for the sake of negativity, and I make an effort to use facts and reasoned speculation, and avoid getting things wrong where possible.

Steinberg has an excellent track record. Yes, he delivers his share of criticism, but when it comes to OS X, the tone seems to be, "Adopt it now despite its shortcomings. It will get better. In fact, it's already better than that abominable OS 9 you're still putting up with. Repent. Join the 21st century."

Ah, the evangelism of a true believer.

Then he launches into an attack of an article published on Low End Mac last week, although he fails to acknowledge the source or link to the two articles mentioned in the following paragraphs.

I don't claim perfection, but when I see so-called Mac Web sites delivering information I know to be absolutely incorrect, I wonder where they get this stuff. In recent days, I read a complaint from someone moaning about the difficulties of transferring files from a beige G3 to a new Mac. The dude seems to have forgotten about file sharing and Ethernet cables. Another commentary suggested Apple couldn't use IBM's new PowerPC 970 chip, because it wasn't backwards compatible with 32-bit, ignoring the fact that IBM's own literature on the subject says precisely the reverse.

I just wonder where they come up with such information, since it's obviously not true, and how they can call themselves journalists when they lack a fundamental understanding of the basics of Mac technology and the ability to do a little research. Not that I'm demanding perfection, mind you. Just a little better understanding of the way things are, or maybe I'm asking too much.

Get a clue, Gene. "So-called Mac Web sites"? That's really beneath you.

If Steinberg had read Why Apple Can't Use IBM's PowerPC 970 in its entirety, he would have seen it followed by a counterpoint, Why Apple Can Use IBM's PowerPC 970. I know, because I edited and published the first half, and I wrote the second half. It was precisely to address common misconceptions about the PowerPC 970 that we presented this in a point-counterpoint fashion.

By the way, My Turn is a reader column: "Your Opinion, Your Turn." We never pretended that Mr. Pietrasz was any sort of journalist or expert. We published his article, as we do every My Turn column, as the viewpoint of a Mac user in the field.

And we counterpointed it with the kind of detailed explanation and understanding of the realities of the PowerPC 970 that Steinberg complains are missing. Not that I'm demanding perfection, mind you. Just a little better understanding of the articles you criticize - or maybe I'm asking too much.

We don't like having our reputation smeared in passing, even if the article doesn't name Low End Mac or link to the article in question. (We could ask why Steinberg doesn't do that, since it's common practice on the Web to link to articles you discuss - as we do here - but then it's his website, and he can do what he wants to. For the benefit of our readers, we try to provide links to any article we discuss on Low End Mac.)


Here's exactly the kind of thing that leads so many of us to label Gene Steinberg a cheerleader for Mac OS X:

On the other hand, I can single out Apple Computer for its share of blunders too. No, not because Mac OS X, for example, is missing a handful of features that some depended on under Mac OS 9. That's something that can be remedied either with third party utilities or by future feature additions to the operating system. This is, to me, a non-issue.

It's always something like, "No, it's not perfect yet, but Apple will make it better, and you can use these third-party utilities to add the things Apple hasn't seen fit to add yet." The implication is that because OS X can be better with third-party software or will be better when Apple gets around to it, users should adopt it now.

Sorry, but in the real world, until the old solution becomes a bottleneck or the new solution provides such a vast improvement that it justifies the investment in time and money to make the switch, most people stick with what they know works.

Given time, slow pokes like myself and Charles Moore eventually made the transition, but it was neither a fast nor a painless process. Both of us still gripe about the abysmal OS X response to the mouse and keyboard. Sometimes Cmd-C for copy just refuses to work the first time - and it's driving me crazy.

We're not ivory tower academics. We're not staff technology writers with unlimited budgets and loaner hardware from Apple. We're not consultants who make a living getting other people to buy hardware. We're real Macintosh users with older software, low-end hardware, deadlines, and budgets.

In that respect, we're probably a bit closer to the average Mac user than those who get to work with cutting edge hardware and the latest versions of every piece of software - something else readers have faulted us for. We can't afford a new 'Book every year or two, let alone a Windows XP laptop just so we can avoid the "tunnel vision" inherent in using a single platform. (This could also be a good argument against monogamy. "But honey, I had to know what the competition had to offer so I could be sure I picked the right spouse.")

We all agree that Mac OS X is a wonderful operating system and that it has a fair bit of room for improvement. We all agree that some people have absolutely no need to ever upgrade their computers from System 6, System 7.x, Mac OS 8.x, or Mac OS 9 - not even those who have computers fully capable of supporting OS X. After all, OS choice isn't just about superiority; it's a matter of familiarity, convenience, and taste as well.

Some writers make classic Mac OS users feel like second-class citizens, while others acknowledge that theirs is a different but equally valid solution. I think that very much sums up the difference in attitude seen at Mac Night Owl and other pro-OS X sites compared to Low End Mac and other sites that celebrate the power of the old Mac Way alongside the new. (And then there are the reactionaries, such as the Mac 68k Liberation Army, who seem practically Luddite in their dedication to the Apple excellence of the past. Isn't diversity great!)

The way some OS X users look at classic Mac OS users is reminiscent of the way Christians sometimes look at Jews, Protestants at Catholics, and the Macintosh team undoubtedly viewed the Apple II group. And, of course, the way Mac users look at Windows users and vice versa.

Sometimes newer is better. Sometimes it's just different. Regardless, it doesn't invalidate what went before it. It does, however, provide an alternative that some will choose and others will reject.

Think Different.

It's the Price, Stupid

But I wonder how many sales Apple has sacrificed over the years because its prices were perceived to be much too high? How many would-be Mac users have decided they couldn't pay the price of admission and gone elsewhere? It will take a while to change such impressions, and it may be too late for some.

Now we are on the same page. Even at $999 for the entry-level eMac, Apple will continue to be perceived as a more expensive computing solution. Sure, we know it's better, but when consumers are being bombarded by $699 Windows systems, they have to wonder if the Mac could possibly be worth 40% more - let alone with a processor running at "only" 800 MHz.

...if Apple wants more people to switch, it needs to use better bait.

Apple needs to take a page from the Dell playbook and offer a $699 Macintosh that gets people to pick up the phone or visit its website, see the options, and very often choose to buy something more expensive than the relatively stripped bargain basement model. It's not exactly bait-and-switch, but if Apple wants more people to switch, it needs to use better bait.

Rather than complaining about "uninformed" writers on the Mac Web, we should be doing our best to counter misinformation and promote the Mac as a real alternative to Windows. The cost thing is Apple's concern, not ours. After all, we can always recommend a refurbished or gently used Mac if the cost of brand new models is too high.

When are we going to see the hard-hitting ad that hits us between the eyes and shows up the real differences between the Mac and the Windows platforms for all to see? Is Apple afraid Microsoft might consider that just a bit much, and will only overlook Switcher promotions if they are kept warm and fuzzy?

That, Gene, is the big question. Unless Apple is content to sell 3 million Macs a year for the foreseeable future, it has to become more visible. The switcher ads make us smile and feel good about the company, but that's just the first step in getting people to plunk down their hard-earned dollars for a Macintosh.

Those of us who love the Mac do have a love-hate relationship with Apple. We love the product. We hate the tiny market share. We love the innovation and generally high quality. We hate seeing friends buy Windows PCs because "Macs cost too much." We love our productivity. We hate it when people think Macs are only for graphics - and can't "run Microsoft" (meaning Office).

The Mac Advantage

Mac users may hate to admit it, but Windows today isn't the flaky thing it used to be. Windows 2000 was pretty darned good, and Windows XP seems to be pretty solid. By integrating the browser with the OS, Microsoft has had an important advantage that Mac couldn't touch until Apple delivered Safari.

Apple needs to push the Mac's advantages. Like viruses: Can anyone name a virus that infects Mac OS X? Anyone? With five million users, you'd think someone would have come up with a virus by now.

Or how about Apple's Mail application. It doesn't rely on your ISP filtering spam. It lets you decide what's spam and what isn't. It gives you control.

Macs have traditionally been very easy to migrate between. You could pretty much drag the contents of the old hard drive to the new drive or computer and be ready to go, although sometimes you had to reinstall the OS. I don't know if OS X is as friendly, but Carbon Copy Cloner seems to make it very easy.

Windows, on the other hand, has been a nightmare for upgraders. Unlike the DOS era, you can't just copy files to a new drive or computer. And if you have to reinstall the OS, you may have to call Microsoft for an activation key. This is far less friendly than the Apple Way.

The Mac Advantage is a better computing experience. No viruses. User control of spam. Easier to migrate to newer hardware. And many other things.

Apple needs to brush off the old 75 Mac Advantages idea and update it for OS X and Windows XP - although they may want to wait until OS X has a few more of those "missing" features and a lot more "classic" Mac users have made the switch.

After all, nothing is going to discourage a switcher more than Mac users griping about shortcomings in OS X - not even Apple's prices. Apple needs to create a version of OS X that's compelling enough to get those with 233 MHz beige G3s, iMacs, and PowerBooks to make the switch and be happy about it. Until then, Apple doesn't have much of a home court advantage while 20 of 25 million Mac users continue to work with the classic Mac OS.

How much longer until Mac OS X 10.3 and the NeXT batch of classic Mac OS capabilities are added?

Update: Mac OS X 10.3 Panther was released in October 2003, eight months after this column was published - and it did address quite a few issues old timers had been complaining about.