Nerd-World Problems

From Gates to Jobs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mac

Growing up in the Greater Seattle Area during the 90s and 00s was a good place for a young nerd. There was technology everywhere and everyone around me seemed to do something or other in the Tech Industry. If the San José region is Silicon Valley, then the Seattle area is surely Silicon Sound.

One of my earlier memories is of sitting in front of an old 386 PC wandering around MS-DOS trying to see what else I could make it do. I was raised on Microsoft Products, and I was a Microsoft Fanboy. For a time my dream was to grow up and work for them. Microsoft was a household name when I was little and when we moved to the Redmond area when I was eight-years-old, I soon found myself surrounded by Microsoft employees; and my father was one of them before long.

It was in this environment that I fell in love with Microsoft. I absolutely loved the company and they could do no wrong in my opinion. I read Bill Gate’s autobiography while I was still a Cub Scout (although I don’t think I finished it), and my desire for walking in the footsteps of Microsoft’s founder even led me to my unsuccessful attempt at reading Donald Knuth’s “The Art of Computer Programming” at age 10 (shortly after I started computer programming the year before.) I even penned an Amicus Curiae brief to send to the US Supreme Court in defense of Microsoft — while they were being prosecuted for Monopolistic practices — arguing that the very existence of competitors like Sun Microsystems was proof that Microsoft could not be a Monopoly. It was a a very naive argument.

So then, what changed? How did I go from swearing by Microsoft to swearing at Microsoft? (figuratively of course) Well the short answer is that I became disillusioned with Microsoft’s products and the attitude of its employees. It started when I became frustrated with our slow computer in the mid 00’s. This was an era of aging Pentium 4 processors, and XP was approaching its 5th birthday — it very bad time for Microsoft. I was working on a dell desktop that put out massive amounts of heat and moved like molasses (I think it was a Dell Dimension) with it’s Pentium 4 processor. The machine strained under the weight of anti-virus software, and a number of other taxing programs, and I was getting tired of it. But I didn’t really know there was another alternative until I stepped into the computer lab at the local high-school.

I had used Macintosh’s in school computer labs before, but had never liked them. In fact I maligned them frequently as sub-par and confusing machines. But at this point I hadn’t used one for about 5 years and I was not expecting what I found in this small lab. It was an iMac G5 and by today’s standards it was a weak computer, but it blew me away. The Operating System was somewhat like I remembered only much better (this was the first time I had ever used a Macintosh running OS X). It was nice, but I really didn’t want to admit it. I was a devout Windows user and to like using a Macintosh was tantamount to blasphemy. But it was a nice machine by comparison to what I had been using and it just seemed so intuitive and graphically rich. Although, it wasn’t really the pretty graphics that impressed me but rather, how effortlessly it rendered them. It really didn’t take long for me to start wanting one of my own.

I’m not sure how I managed to convince my mother that I needed a Macintosh for school and my approaching college career, but by 2006 I was in possession of PowerBook G4. However, coming from a Windows background, I experienced a measure of buyer’s remorse as I found that many of the programs I had used would not work on this new machine. It was nice but I hadn’t really realized that Windows Executables did not run on it, and this was frustrating since all my software was for Windows. Since my father worked for Microsoft he was able to get me Office for Mac at a discount and I soon had the office tools I had grown up on, but was disappointed to learn that Microsoft has designed a different UI for their Mac version of Office. Office for Mac was a bit sluggish as well, and I wasn’t sure how to use it’s different UI, which frustrated me. However I bit the bullet and started looking for other solutions to this and other issues.

I soon did find new programs to accomplish the tasks I needed, but I never quite found a good set of Office tools that made me feel at home (something I still maintain that Microsoft has accomplished with Office despite it’s bad programming). Soon I got my hands on my first ever video game for Mac: “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell”, and I was very pleased with how well it ran, as opposed to my previous experiences with games on my old computer. Eventually I started to really like the tools at my disposal on my Mac, and really liked how well everything worked (including Apple’s Customer Service).

I still clung to my loyalties however, and I was not ready to say that Microsoft was terrible as so many of my fellow Mac users did. However I was beginning to realize that Macintosh was making better machines and better products. Every time I used a Windows Laptop or PC at a store I felt like I was taking a step back in time to a more primitive piece of equipment. The programs ran slower, and the machine felt flimsy compared to my Aluminum PowerBook. But what really bothered me was the comparably sluggish nature of the computer. I soon made the mistake of airing my frustrations with some of Microsoft’s products to Microsoft employees. Understandably, they were defensive. But I was struck by the fact that they refused to accept any weakness in their product. Instead they would retaliate and attack the quality of Apple’s products, or call them toys and all-looks-but-no-works. This reaction was to be expected, but I couldn’t help but notice how passionately they attacked the Mac without being able to provide a solid reason as to why it was inferior. But then things started to change in the public’s mind, if not Microsoft’s. In 2007, Vista was released.

Vista was a dark chapter in Microsoft’s history, and one that I’m sure they would like to forget. But it was here that my last ties to Microsoft began to be severed. I was appalled. Not by the operating system. But by the denial. Countless Windows users and Microsoft employees alike would only sing the praises of the new operating system and reject any criticism. But that was not all, they refused to accept the fact that many features in Vista were direct copies of the OS X environment and thus proof that Microsoft had begun a game of catch-up or that the Operating System they had previously ridiculed was now becoming the model for how they were to build their own. I was now becoming completely disillusioned with the company as more and more faults of theirs became readily apparent. Then, when I came to college, I tried my hand at Linux.

My experience with Linux was very different from the one I had with OS X. Linux was not user friendly, it was hard to use and buggy. But since it was a community project I didn’t hold it up to such high expectations as I did the commercial Operating Systems, and I really liked how I could tinker with it. But what I really learned from Linux was about the internal workings of Operating Systems. Linux forced me to work more in the Command Line, and I soon found that OS X worked the same way since they were both Unix-based Operating Systems. And now as began to examine the internal workings of Unix, I became fascinated with the elegance of its design. But when I examined Windows more closely, I found that it lacked this elegance. It wasn’t that the OS was all bad, it just seemed that it was designed in a reactionary way rather than a methodical one.

That put the final nail in Microsoft’s coffin for me. Everything else I have learned about the design of the Operating System has only further alienated me from Microsoft’s product. It’s not that I fault the company for being close sourced and agressive, rather, I fault them for a lack of vision, and above all, because the culture which surrounds them refuses to admit its failings. Today Microsoft is a faltering giant, much in the way that IBM was in the 70s and 80s when they refused to see the changing season and the rise of personal computing. They have done a lot of good, but as they continue to play a game of catch up against their competitors, they are hardly an inspiring company.

Now Apple is by no means a perfect company, and Steve Jobs was not a saint; and for that matter, Microsoft is not Evil and Bill Gates is not the devil (however the jury may still be out on Ballmer). All in all Microsoft Window is not all that Bad. It has it’s perks, and Microsoft does have moments of lucidity in which they produce good merchandise. It would be nice to see them revamp their products in the way that Apple did in the late 90s after their decline, but I think it would require more risk than Microsoft’s executives would be willing to take, and might result in too little, too late.

So am I an Apple Fanboy now? I guess, but because I’m older that loyalty is no where near as strong as it used to be for Microsoft back in the 90s. Today I use both Mac OS and Linux regularly. They are not perfect either but I’m quite comfortable with them. And when it comes down to it in the end, that really what matters: that your computing experience is comfortable and fulfilling. For some people that is achieved with Microsoft products; but for some of us, we choose Unix.