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When to buy a PC
Balance and truth in Advocacy

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Some people think that because I advocate Macs, and think that they are superior (overall), that I would never recommend an IBM-Compatible PC. That just isn't true. There is a place in the world for PCs. It is just that if the world was running on reason, and not on FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and unreasoning Doubt), the marketshare would be more like 50/50 or 60% Macs -- with the remainder divided among other platforms. But in no case would I say that there should not be other choices, or that other choices don't have a place. There are even quite a few cases where I would recommend PCs. Sometimes running Windows98, sometimes UNIX or NT.

So this all begs the question -- with the Macs being easier to install, use, maintain, support, upgrade, and they have a longer and cheaper life cycle, and I advocate Macs so much then when and why would I recommend a PC?

Big Business

Macs are better -- but Macs are not perfect (by any means). The Macs are easier to install, support and use -- which gives them a serious advantages in SOHO (Small Office/Home Office), Homes and Schools. This is because people don't need to be experts in everything computers just to buy a decent system, or to be able to use the system (configure it), or to upgrade the system. They need to self support and know enough to support themselves (which is easier on the Mac).

But in the big offices (Fortune 500 or just large companies), there is already an IS (Information Systems) staff, providing the installation, configuration and sometimes even training. These guys are highly trained, and highly specialized -- so why not use them? Under those circumstances, one of the biggest advantages of the Macs is diminished. When you have a staff that can come to your beck and call and keep things working, and when you don't have to learn everything about Windows to figure out why something broke or didn't install, then PCs are pretty easy and painless.

Even in schools now days, they have to have IS staffs to maintain the PCs in administration and elsewhere. Since you already have those experts maintaining some systems -- they are usually fighting to just take over the whole shebang, and control all the machines. Sure they cost a fortune -- but it is easy for many to not have to face the purchasing and maintenance decisions, and leave thought to someone else.

Having IS doesn't make the PCs as cheap on a station per station basis as the Macs to support -- especially over the machines lifetime -- if all things were equal -- but it certainly comes closer. And not all things are equal. Like software choices for big business -- 15 years of half-informed companies (through the brilliant decisions of their "management") writing proprietary software that only runs on one platform has eliminated a lot of choice -- that goes against the Mac, and all other platforms except PCs. Many companies (IS Depts.) are getting unusually adept at the PCs flaws and is being smart -- they do things like buy only one brand of PC, use standardized models (eliminate choices), only certify a make/model after extensive testing, keep a few boxes to pirate the parts from (or keep extra parts on hand) just to keep the others running, and so on. When you do all that, the PCs reliability is tolerable. The cheap PC components that break down more often, are no big deal when you keep spare parts -- and some PC parts (motherboards) are cheaper and more available. Few companies keep extra Mac parts on hand (due to infrequency of need) -- and so downtime due to repairs can be greater with Macs, even when breakdowns are less frequent. Personally, I'd rather have machines that break down less -- but when things do break down, the PCs can be easier to run to a store and get extra components, and there are more parts on-hand (from all the broken machines). If you doubt this, visit the back room in most large companies and IS departments and look at the dead machine pile.

I know that a smart company could keep an extra Mac on hand, and just swap machines while they are fixing the broken one. I also know that it is often cheaper in downtime just to buy a replacement machine immediately, rather than to hold someone up waiting more than a few hours or days for a machine (and you could then repair the broken machine at liesure or use it for future parts). But companies usually don't do this for Macs like they do for PCs. Let's face it -- it is not always a fair world.

I hate swapping components myself, because there is often reinstalls, and games of "figure out why things stopped working" -- but that is what many IS people do. Yes, it costs money and time -- but you have to keep these PC experts on hand just to keep the PCs working anyway -- so why not keep them busy? Of course this contributes to why IS depts. in PC companies grow so fast and so powerful (because you need them for everything), and why they are always so overworked. IS is also usually an autonomous department, and the only people they report to (higher management) doesn't usually have a clue as to what they are doing specifically, nor understand how those decisions are going to effect the company in the future -- so many are companies a happier having an IS staff rather than not having one. And once you have them, it is far easier to just pay them to hide the pain from you.

In many larger business, you usually have IS staffs that are highly trained in PCs (and certified), and basically clueless about Macs. They think that because they know PCs that all knowledge applies -- so they choose things like Novell Networks for the Macs -- which is one of the single biggest causes of Network crashes on the Mac (or for bringing the Network down). IS chooses it because it is good for IS (NetWare has some cool tools for remote administration) -- so that decision is made for reasons, just not reasons that are good for users. IS also doesn't know Mac software, so they often pick poorer cross platform or PC apps (ports) for the Mac -- the wrong apps increase unreliability, and help reduce the interface quality and consistency -- and then the Mac advantages matter less. In other words, if you have IS making decisions for the company, most of the time, they will choose things that drive up the cost of Mac support, and increase Mac instability -- not for any nefarious reasons, they just don't know Macs. Later they, and users, blame the results of their experiences on the Mac, learn to hate the Mac, and then it becomes a battle to try to keep the Macs around. IS is often sure the Mac is just as unstable as the PC -- and in the worst conditions, it is. So there is more harmony by just ignoring user productivity and choice -- and letting IS make mandates.

Of course in a perfect world, they would know Macs as well, and put all software (even Mac software) through the same level of qualification testing. Usually testing is only done on the PC, and then Macs (and Mac users) suffer.

Which brings up something else -- it is hard to find good Mac IS people. Macs are pretty creative and nonconformist -- and IS is often about process and conforming, strange mix, very rare. You can find some IS people that know Macs, but other IS people usually ridicule them and they know how to lay low and go with the flow. Often they are driven out of IS and companies first, since they don't "fit the agenda".

None of this is to say that Macs aren't usable in big business -- if Macs are done right they can be far more cost effective. But they aren't usally done right. If you are going to have to fight a company of mindless PC users who don't want to learn and improve themselves, or if you are dealing with an entire IS staff that is untrained in Macs and bigoted against them, then that can be a costly fight? Sometimes the PC is better, for all the wrong reasons.


UNIX is great for servers -- and a lousy OS for actual usability. It was an anachronism in the 70's -- and seems to grow slower (in usability) than other OS's. But it is good for Servers. Why? The answer is pretty easy -- once you throw a ton of expertise at knowing all the things that can go wrong, and once you get over the hurdle of configuring it and using it, it just works. It is damn reliable, and damn powerful, and there are a ton of people that have learned all that stupid-knowledge(tm).

Stupid-knowledge(tm) is my little phase for knowing things that you shouldn't have to know. Like knowing about how to reconfigure a registry file manually. No truly intelligent human should ever have to know that crap -- it should just work -- so knowing it doesn't prove you are smarter (knowledgeable), it just shows you that the designers were stupid (and didn't do a good job). The Mac requires users to know too much about things they shouldn't have to, but it is still the best -- DOS and Windows are littered with this stuff -- but UNIX is king of this domain. You want to really know UNIX, and you have to start by thinking about what some drugged up hippie-geek would think was cool in the 60's, and you're on your way -- it isn't about empowering users, it is about empowering geeks. Think everything configurable via some text file, and you've got a treasure trove of stupid-knowledge -- but once over that hurdle, things are versatile, powerfuly, and geeks are elevated to god-like status, bow to the master of stupid-knowledge.

All that wasted time setting things up, is more than made up for with years of the machine just sitting there and working. Macs work great for low-end servers, and servers that need to be self-supported. SUN and IBM make some killer high end servers. But in the middle, NT and PCs running LINUX are king. If you don't have the IS staff, the former can be excellent choices -- but if you have a staff that already knows PCs and servers, then having them set up a PC server can be a powerful and cost effective solution. Too many people discount the capability of Macs as servers, and way too many ridicule Sun's or various IBM solutions as too expensive (without really looking at the lifetime costs and scalability) -- but for mid-level servers (not too scalable, and you already have an IS staff), I would certainly consider looking at the PC.

In the home

Even in the home, PC's are usable. If you don't touch anything, and just use the machine as a turnkey solution, they work fine. In business it is pretty much the same. Out of the box, the machine will work, it is only when you change things (add things) that it gets unstable. (Now days -- it has gotten much better in the last few years). If you buy a PC with everything installed it should be pretty tested and reliable. Or if you have a pro/goof consultant set it up for you, and you don't change anything, then it should work fine.

Turnkey solutions are great for many, you just turn the key to use it, and never touch anything else. If you actually want to use it, or change things, the hurdles to learn the Mac are far smaller than what you might have to leap over to learn Windows -- and Windows is an embarassment to good OS design. But if you aren't they type to change anything, or to try to learn more than you absolutely have to, then the Mac again loses one of it's advantages.

Over the past 15 years there has been a migration as well. The Mac started off elegant and simple/clean -- but it is a computer, and computers are complex. As Apple has added more and more to the Mac, it has become more and more complex and confusing, and there is less stability (or more than potentially can go wrong). That is the cost of more features and more power. PCs started off as slapped together pieces of stuff that almost behaved like an engineered whole -- and they've been adding stuff to it year by year. But the PC companies (Microsoft) keep having the Mac as an ideal to shoot for -- they have been trying to make it as good and easy as a Mac. They have not gotten there yet -- but they've come a lot closer. 15+ years of mimicing and incremental improvements are paying off. So much so that to the uninitiated and uninformed they are nearly the same. So much so that probably 8 or 9 times out of 10, when you add something to the PC it actually works! These are fantastic strides. The Mac has gone the other way -- it used to be one out of 10,000 things you added or changed and you'd have a (1) problem -- now failures of some sort (or incompatibilities, etc.) are probably 1 out of 100. That is still 10 times better than the PC, and most on the Mac are easier to fix -- but there are too many failures. Much of this is because the Macs are getting more choices, and with choices come bad choices (and bad companies) -- so everything in life is about tradeoffs. The PC can overwhelm users in the sheer number of choices (most of them the wrong ones for them) -- but the facts are that now most of the time the PC will actually work. So while the PC isn't as good as a Mac, it is good enough (for most people). I can't mention how many hours (days, weeks) have been wasted just getting PCs to work how they are supposed to. But so much has changed that I am no longer afraid (and by that I mean white knuckled, night-sweats, dreaming of hours wasted trying to get the most basic things working right for someone) to recommend a PC to someone -- like I would have in the past. Now it is just a mild shudder, and a rare trip to configration hell.

Also businesses have become so single-solution (Wintel), proprietary and closed, that in some cases, people just need a PC for their home. For most people just transferring files back and forth using the same office Applications (like Microsoft Office or Word Perfect) is good enough and nearly seamless. For most of the rest, running emulation (SoftWindows, VirtualPC, etc.) is good enough for the few "must have" Apps. For some of the rest (when they need a Mac only Application, or a feature that a Mac version does better than the PC version and they still need fast PC compatibility), then hardware PC cards in a Mac can be a viable solution as well (but this does drive the cost up, and still has some shortcomings). But there is a still a segment where a PC is just the better choice, because there is no choice. They have to fit in at work, or else get a new job, or get less usage out of their computer -- and since the latter two are impractical, sometimes the former is just the only (reasonable) choice. For them the PC is better, even if it will cost them more or be a less pleasant experience.


At one end are the turn-key users -- those that will never touch anything and don't want to know, or need to know. At the other end of the spectrum are the geek-elite. Those that want to know everything -- even that they shouldn't have to know. They are what used to be known as the high priests of computerdom -- those in the know. They don't really care what is easier. I don't even think they even like easier. Computers are toys and hobbies that they don't expect to work right. Recommending a Mac to them is like telling a painter to just take a picture -- the tedium is the reward! They want to suffer through the research and learn all the stupid-knowledge. It helps them impress their friends. They want to tune, tweak, pick, replace, and so on. They are like the owners of British cars who actually don't mind when things break, and look forward to another chance to take things apart.

Whether these geeks are hard core gamers (that are hand building machines from all the hottest parts, to get 1 frame per second more speed) or they are just someone that wants to save $50 on hardware (by wasting $5,000 in their time) -- they want to tinker, tweak, and tune. Sorry, the PC is better for that. I've built a few new Macs from parts, and more old ones -- but Apple has never made that easy. With cloning gone, the ideas of serious customization and hardware-geeking, is just not a Mac thing. Macs just work out of the box. So where's the challenge in that? They will not be happy with a Mac until they grow out of that stage, and they just want a tool to use.

I've built a few PCs as well -- it is not an unpleasant experience for me (a geek) -- I even liked the challenge of research and enjoy the tinkering. So I understand where they are coming from. Of course when I was done, I had something that I personally have no real use for (my G3 emulates a PC well enough for everything but the first person 3D games, which I play on the Mac). But it was fun wasting time and learning about all sorts of computer stuff, even if much of it was stupid-knowledge.

If you know anyone that wants to buy a really well built P55C/200 (MMX Pentium) with ATX motherboard, Intel LX chip set, real SoundBlaster 64 card, all name brand parts, 64 Meg SDRAM, fast UIDE drive, and so on, I'll sell one for cheap.


The point of this article is that PCs are usable. Maybe I don't say it enough. Some seem to think that because I advocate Macs that I want to eliminate PCs or that I don't think they are usable -- they are. They are certainly a lot better than nothing. There are many niches where the PCs are better, and there are many cases where I'd recommend PCs, and I'd use a PC -- but I still think the Mac is better as a general purpose computer for more most people.

I as a Mac Advocate will not be blinded by the superiority of the Mac into not realizing it's flaws, or ignoring the advantages of the PC. It is just that I value a quality engineered solution more than most, and choose accordingly. I advocate purity of design (usability), not just a tolerably usable implementation. But I know that the PC is a usable implementation and a decent tool. I think all users should stay objective, and reassess the technology every now and again -- or at least be open that things do change. I still would much rather give my Grandmother a used iMac over a brand new Pentium III 500 -- since the former would probably serve her needs better and give her a more pleasant computing experience (1). The same for many others that just want a tool and not a forced hobby -- but there are certainly other cases where I would have no problems recommending a PC.

(1) This is where my biggest pet peeve is, people that don't think and always recommend what they think is cool, instead of trying to understand what the user needs (and is likely to need for the forseeable future). Instead many advocates (PC ones especially) just pick bigger and faster, and think that is better. This is like trying to use a sledge-hammer to tap in finishing nails! You need the right tool for the job -- not just the biggest and fastest.

If you can't think of anything other than the strengths of one platform, and weaknesses of the other, then you need to learn more and consider whether your bias is blinding you. To be the best kind of advocate, you need to be open minded, educated, fair (even when people don't like it), able to consider possibilities you don't like and and able to learn. Then knowing all of that, you should help people make the right decisions for them (not for what you want them to have). Of course more often than not the right decision will still be the Mac.

Created: 05/02/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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