Why the Mac vs. PC debate is stupid
I you read this site at all, you may notice that I happen to be a PC user. I always have been, since my first PC, a shiny IBM Amiga with a 166MHz Pentium processor, 32MB of RAM, a 2G hard drive and Windows 95. Did I choose to be a PC? Not really, that’s what I got as a gift for college and I happily learned to use it. Sure Mac’s were available at the time, and the had all kinds of fancy goodness to them as well, like SCSI drives, RISC processors, and other acronyms designed to impress and confuse the neophyte. And the price tag that went with those snazzy acronyms was a wee bit of a shocker too.
Ultimately there were differences between the Mac and the PC all the way from the instruction that the CPU hardware itself would run right up to the interface you saw on the screen. These differences have changed quite a bit over time.
The good ol’ days
The early Mac’s, right up to the G5, were built on an entirely different architecture. The acronyms for MAC and PC were RISC vs. CICS respectively. RISC stands for Reduced Instruction Set Computer, which basically means the raw instructions such as move these bits here, get these bits from memory etc. were all very short and all the same length. CISC stands for Complex Instruction Set Computer, which basically means the instructions are variable in length and tend to lump more of those extremely basic operations into a single instruction. These two competing philosophies had at one time defined the core argument between MAC and PC.
In the early days of CPU manufacturing, is was difficult to efficiently translate the CISC instructions into little bits the processor could actually work on. Transistors were expensive in the CPU and it took quite a few of them to perform this translation, costing more, taking up power, and slowing the processor down. In contrast the RISC processors didn’t need those complex decode engines at all, so the hardware design was simpler and more elegant. The downside was that the people writing the programs would have to use more instructions to accomplish the same things on a RISC computer vs. a CISC computer. So…
- RISC = More work on programmers, less work on CPU
- CISC = Less work on programmers, more work on CPU
In addition to the core instruction set difference between MAC and PC, MAC continued to use more advanced technology in their designs setting themselves apart and justifying the price premium. Stuff like SCSI hard drives were reserved for servers in the PC world and MAC’s generally had better display outputs, better multimedia handling, and a generally ‘sexier’ appeal. They dominated (and still do to some extent) the school market with steep discounts and incentives for education. So when you went to school you used a MAC. I remember the Apple IIe in my classroom.
Open vs. Closed Platforms
Another key differentiation between the PC and the MAC world is this… MAC’s are ONLY built by Apple. PC’s on the other hand can be built by anyone willing to pay a little licensing fee. So while every Tom, Dick and Harry was producing PC’s creating a ton of competition, cheaper prices and saturating the market, MAC continues to hold tight control over their hardware production. This resulted in causing one of the main perception gaps that plague PC’s to this day… compatibility and reliability
- By controlling very closely the details of what processor, main board, and core components are put together to make a MAC, Apple has a much smaller chance of things not playing nicely together.
- PC’s have to try to work with every Joe Schmo’s motherboard, a ton of processor and memory options, and millions peripherals that just may have been built poorly by some underpaid child labor in China and probably doesn’t have any engineering support to make sure the related software works in the first place or gets any updates at all.
It only takes one piece of poo to ruin the whole swimming pool, so people eager to try the latest thing in their PC end up crashing their systems or causing general instabilities that lead to the perception that the whole thing is a piece of crap. Meanwhile MAC with their tightly controlled hardware setups just seem to work.
In the end the market preferred the cheap price and wide availability of the PC,which now continues to dominate around 90% of the market.
Then the hardware began to change
Moore’s law kicked in… and CPU manufacturers like (or primarily) Intel became very, very good at creating the decode engines to make the CISC processor work. While this was going on the 90% market share of the PC meant that more money was being thrown at the development of PC CISC processors and Intel and AMD began a constant battle for the fastest processor ever. Meanwhile the G3, G4, and G5 processors got a little faster here and there, but sadly lagged way behind their PC counterparts.
Then Apple made the unthinkable switch… the RISC processor was no more and Intel began selling chips to build the MAC.
Poof!!! The hardware comparison arguments went out the window. Today’s MAC is built on very much the same parts as a PC. However… exactly which processor, memory, and motherboard are used in the MAC is still tightly controlled, so an advantage for out of box functionality still lies with the MAC. At least when compared to small custom PC manufacturers or home built jobs. In reality, the big dogs like Dell, HP, etc. have plenty of time and money to fully test their products… that is until someone decides to swap out a part or two from the local PC store then wonders why their system went wonky.
Windows Aesthetics… a notch behind
MAC still gets points from me on their graphic design and general aesthetics. Face it… their engineers know how to make a cool looking product. Little by little, Microsoft has been taking cues from OSX and putting similar, and sometimes innovative things in their operating systems too. Right now I’d venture to say that the bar has been leveled. Windows 7 is pretty, stable (barring the aforementioned hardware shenanigans) and easy to use. But so is MAC, and their iLife bundle of software does a whole lot of things that people actually care to do, for free! Microsoft Live is a shallow attempt at that level of integration, they still have a ways to go.
For the record, take a look at many of the Linux distributions. If you wish to fault Microsoft for stealing MAC ideas, you’ll find many of the same user interface innovations in the KDE and Gnome desktop managers as well.
The Myth of MAC security
Say you had a product that you wanted to sell to all the people in the world… why would you choose to expose only 10% of the population with your advertising? That in essence is exactly why the MAC is relatively free from malware and viruses, simple obscurity. Are they unbreakable?… no. Any and all computer systems can be compromised given enough effort. Windows is the target simply because there’s millions of them out there, many of which are on older versions of Windows and haven’t been updated properly.
One could argue that the earlier Windows 9x implementations as well as early NT were pretty damn insecure, and be correct. After all, those were well before the ubiquitous high speed internet connections we have today. It’s a whole lot harder to compromise a system that’s new and updated though, but it still happens simply because it’s lucrative to do so. And it’s only lucrative to target Windows.
Why do I continue to choose PC?
Well, because I’m a hardware junky who likes to tinker. I dare my computers to do something wrong on me… just for the challenge of fixing them. I like to crack open fresh ESD bags and snap together connectors to build the perfect machine for what I want to do. Opening a single box and hitting a power button just isn’t as appealing to me. In addition, I have a collection of software that I’ve grown reliant on. My studio runs on Cakewalk Sonar, a Windows only program. My finances are tracked in The Register, a Microsoft Access application. My work network is built on Windows server and XP clients. Had I been a graphic designer… my situation may be quite different.
Ultimately the MAC and the PC are both tools to do what you wish to do. And these days they are both very capable of getting the job done. I can’t imagine a bunch of contractors getting into a heated argument over a Makita vs. Craftsman drill, but somehow the MAC vs. PC debate continues to rage into sometimes heated arguments and smear advertising campaigns worthy of political office.
So make your choice based on your priorities, and don’t get angry when someone else’s priorities are different than yours.
So why argue?
Well, cause sometimes it’s fun. Taking jabs at your buddy for owning this or that is a simple part of human life… admittedly I’ll poke some fun at my MAC buddies, and expect the same in return. But deep down inside, I respect MAC… a lot.