Spiking the guns in the PC war

Future Tense for Mar. 24, 2008

By Steve Welker

I grew up in the war years.

Not the shooting wars.

The computer wars. First "big iron" vs. desktop computer and later PC vs. Apple Macintosh.

Usually, I fought on the losing side.

IBM vs. Digital Equipment Corp.? I learned programming on an IBM machine in the late-1960s. We punched software code into a stack of cards. Remember those “hanging chads” from the 2004 election in Florida? I learned to hate them when John Kerry was still a shavetail lieutenant.

The first time I saw a DEC system that let me type program instructions on a video terminal, I turned my back on IBM faster than Rhett dumped Scarlett. The first computer that truly warmed my heart was a DEC PDP/11; I spent hours basking in the glow of its VT100 terminal.

However, Digital Equipment lost the mini-computer wars in a combined assault by IBM and personal computers. Compaq eventually acquired DEC and Hewlett-Packard later swallowed Compaq. I turned off my last PDP/11 at least 15 years ago. A junk dealer broke it up and “mined” the gold and silver from its circuits.

I shed no tears for that old DEC; I had moved on to personal computers. But I continued my habit of backing losers. Given a choice between a Radio Shack Tandy and Texas Instruments' tabletop machine, I bought a TI-99/4A. Instead of a Commodore 64, I went with Amiga. Instead of an IBM PC XT, I chose a Hewlett-Packard.

Back in those early days while personal computers began revolutionizing business and entertainment, some people fought long and hard over such platform choices. We were caught up in a torrent of innovations both in hardware and software. The costs were high, but many businesses felt their loss would be much worse if they fell behind in the race for digital supremacy. At the same time, young employees like myself saw a quick path to advancement if we mastered the tools our bosses were buying.

I never bought an Apple, even though I learned software programming (BASIC), disk-operating systems commands (ProDOS) and how to use a spreadsheet (VisiCalc) on Apple II and IIe machines. Our corporate computer gurus all had IBM experience using “big iron” mainframes and were loudly contemptuous of “those little toys.” The word came down from headquarters that anyone using an Apple for “professional” (on-the-job) purposes could be fired. If any manager or supervisor insisted on buying a personal computer, I had to be an IBM.

Then in 1984, during the Superbowl telecast, I watched an attractive blonde athlete-actress throw a sledgehammer through a dictator’s face on a huge video display and heard the fateful words, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

I had found the love of my life. That would be my wife, who I married on May 26, 1984.

I didn’t fall in love with an Apple Macintosh until 1987. By then I wasn’t alone. Macintosh users’ passion for their machines quickly became legendary. But where passions run high, and lots of money and power is in play, fights break out. Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, I watched the platform wars being fought in schools, government offices, corporate board rooms and across the Internet.

About 10 years ago, I quit the battlefield. I was transitioning into a job with responsibility for both Macintosh and Windows PC computers. I thought it wouldn’t help matters if people thought I favored one side over the other. So I declared my neutrality. After all, Microsoft Word, Excel or an Internet browser runs much the same whether it’s on a Mac or a PC. The only difference is that I spent five times as much time fixing broken PCs as Macs and, in 15 years, I only saw one virus infect a Macintosh.

The Macintosh then and now had the superior operating system. Its machines cost more than most PCs, but they tended to have greater reliability -- drives rarely failed, monitors seemed to last forever -- and offered more features. They ran right out of the box, so they were a breeze to set up.

But they never really caught on with the public. For years, Apple had only 3 percent of the market.

In 1997, I was reminded this month by an article in Wired, Apple teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then the company brought back founder Steve Jobs as its president and CEO.

Since then, Apple has regained its positions as the most innovative computer manufacturer. It's also one of the best industrial designers and, in a new role, a leading force in computer electronics. Its iPod music player occupies a dominating 70 percent of the market. Its iPhone is a transformational communications device. And because Steve Jobs has insisted on keeping control of Apple's operating systems, more people than ever before are buying Macintosh computers.

That Wired article says the Apple Macintosh now occupies 6 percent of the personal-computer market.

The computer war sputtered on into the 21st century, but without much force. The guns were spiked two years ago In a little-remembered tour de force in programming. In March 2006, San Francisco-area software developers Jesus Lopez and Eric Wasserman won the OnMac.net prize for developing a way to run Microsoft Windows XP and Windows-compatible software on new Macintosh computers. Since then, Apple Computer has released a free program, Boot Camp, that lets people easily load and run Windows XP on Intel-powered Macs. The software now is a standard part of its operating system.

PC enthusiasts always had two long-standing criticisms of the Apple Macintosh. One is that the Macs cost more; the other is that Macs were slower than PCs. I’ve never accepted the first argument, because the Apple-designed machines generally are far more reliable over a lifetime of use. As for the second, it turns out that Windows XP runs very, very fast on the new Macintosh models.

Now a financial powerhouse, Apple continues to innovate. Its latest machine is a laptop so thin it can fit into a manila envelope. It's so light that one well-known reviewer recently, and accidentally, threw his out with a stack of newspapers.

As for the PC war, today it's played for chuckles rather than blood. In 2006, the advertising agency TBWA developed the "Get a Mac" campaign for Apple. Comedian John Hodgman plays "PC" and actor Justin Long is Mac. (Ironically, Hodgman is a long-time Macintosh enthusiast). The campaign proved so successful that there now are more than 40 different "Get a Mac" television and Internet ads for the U.S. market, a dozen for the British market featuring comedy duo Mitchell & Webb and a dozen for Japan with yet another comedy team, the Rahmens.

Personally, I'm trying to decide whether to give up my neutrality. I'm hoping to get a job with an all-PC company. However, my middle son needs a new computer and I believe he will be happier and more satisfied if it's a Mac. To further confuse matters, I usually work on a Linux box, even though we have two Macs within easy reach.

The PC war still goes on in my mind, even though it's almost sure to be a fading memory for most people ... in the future.

———

Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com. His e-mail address is steve@stevewelker.net.



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