Apple Strikes Back


A Bite of Nostaglia

The blood feud of the tech world is the Mac vs. the PC.

It's been decades of fear, loathing and nighttime attacks, duking it out over which computer does what better; but with Microsoft's (MSFT) fortunes fading and Apple (AAPL) on the rise, it may be time for this little nerd fight to take a cue from Belfast, Ireland: Getting along is now in everyone's interest.

Last week, I had the temerity, impudence and crudeness to recommend a mere PC -- in this case an Alienware m5550 laptop -- over a comparable Apple product.

From what I then heard from Apple fans, you'd have thought I was boiling children alive.

"Blatantly false," said one. "I was disappointed to see you hinge your entire article on an ill-informed shot at Apple Computers," growled another. "Please explain to me what limits in Apple software you are 'plagued' by," barked a third. And my favorite: "Your review comes across as biased and amateur."

Oh, I really love this job. You see, though I'm sure there are other people out there who've owned and used more Macs, I have yet to meet them.

I bought the original Apple II more than a quarter-century ago, and I've used the machines steadily ever since.

At Columbia University, in the 1980s, I used the first Mac and the first outboard 20-megabyte hard drive to run the early iterations of desktop computer-aided design tools.

I worked on the first generation of desktop Avid editing systems while at VH1 and MTV in the early '90s. I created award-winning programming using Adobe After-Effects video tools and Digidesign's ProTools audio software while I was at "ABC News." I hold TV ratings records with content made on Photoshop and Quark Xpress. I often spent 17 hours a day sitting in front of a Mac Quadra. In fact, I owned a Mac Quadra -- and the first outback portable Mac laptop.

And although I don't use a Mac at home now, the designers and some of the word shufflers in my shop do; we swear by them. The studio that produces my radio show uses Macs. And I will probably pull the trigger on a new MacPro sometime soon.

Given this history, I believe I can safely say I know what Macs do -- and what they don't do.

Pick of the Crop

Back in the day, Apples really were superior. After all, Apple Computer was the first to snag -- er, commercialize -- the elegant, noncommand-based, pull-down-menu concepts developed at the Xerox Palo Alto, Calif., Research Center in the late 1970s.

Sure, back then you grotesquely overpaid for a Mac, but it was worth it. While Windows and Unix machines were lucky to print a page, a few grand spent on an Apple and -- zap! -- you became a member of an elite club: The desktop publisher, movie maker, graphics shop and music studio in one. Having a Mac back then was heady, glorious, iconoclastic stuff. I lived it. And I loved it.

But alas, those days of Apple's idiosyncratic greatness are over. Apple is now a mainstream brand. And a rather bland one.

Apple products run on the same parts as other computers do: Intel ( INTC) chips, the same displays made somewhere in the Pacific Rim, and similar video cards; they run the same software, such as Microsoft Office, use the same Internet and have the same versions of games like Quake.

The company's iPod/iTunes digital content products are the overwhelming market leader. Does anybody own anything other than a nano or shuffle or iPod? Hardly.

And Apple's desktop machines, matched with its iLife media tools and proprietary networking standard Firewire, offer the easiest way to build a home media server, other than having a pro installer step in and do it for you.

And let's not forget Steve Jobs' new ascendant role in Hollywood. (Can his company, Pixar, make a bad movie?) Jobs is soon to be confirmed as the reincarnation of Walt himself at Disney ( DIS). And that does nothing to negate his access to private capital and his undeniable genius.

The Modern Mac

Want to see how midmarket Apple has become? Do what I did late last Saturday night, and hit an Apple Store.

Inside, the uber-Apple vibe is in full effect: The place was jammed. It could have been a nightclub filled with local scenesters and tourists coming in from the burbs.

I descended the tubular crystal elevator that leads to the Apple Store and before me swept the full Apple line: MacBooks, MacPros, iMacs, monitors and iPods. All were sleek, efficient and cold, like lunch at Nobu in Las Vegas.

And make no mistake, Macs are good, even lovely machines. But is Apple the leader of design and performance? Let's see.

In my mind, there is simply no comparison in terms of fit, finish and features for an off-the-shelf Mac to a top-of-the-line custom-made PC like a Voodoo or Alienware -- Voodoos come plated in gold, if you want that.

For raw design, Macs are nice, but the style is getting weary.

Apple MacBook Pro

They're all the same: rectangles in white or silver or gray. Macs aren't ugly by any standard, but they're like a Toyota Avalon or a Lexus.

Nice design, gorgeous lines, but if you're looking for breakout style, a Lexus won't get you there -- and neither does a Mac.

So let's compare the offending Alienware m5550 to an Apple MacBook Pro 2.0 ghz with a 15.4-inch screen.

For case, finish and screen, both the Alienware and the Apple are on par. The MacPro is a bit lighter, the Alienware has a bit nicer casing and finish.

And I'd give the Apple the edge in performance. It's not a big edge, but the Apple chips are faster and Apple's all-in-one software tend to run a bit cleaner than similar Windows machines.

But taking a look at the keyboard, Alienware wins handily. The travel on the keys is better, the board is bigger and the layout is cleaner. Trust me, if you battle repetitive stress injuries the way I do, Alienware's the way to go.

As to software, yes, Apples run Apple code and they run Windows, Linux and whatever else. But if you're getting a Mac to run Windows XP, you're not making the ideal choice.

Apple does have software -- Boot Camp and Parallels -- that run both XP and Mac OS. But you'll tie up a ton of hard-drive space to fit both operating systems on a single computer.

Plus, Parallels splits the dual core processor into two sides, one for Windows and one for Mac, which defeats the purpose of getting a dual-core processor. You'll see significantly slower performance running software in Parallels. What's worse, Parallels does not support all the Windows add-on software like Active X.

And Apple as a company will not and cannot support the customer services issues that arise on dual-mode programs. If you have a problem in dual-boot mode on a Mac, you'd better hope you're right with the universe, because you'll be on your own.

The headaches worsen if you're using Apple computers on a mixed network. In my shop we are, yes, "plagued" by the incompatibilities of file formats, Web-coding standards, delivery specifications and transfer protocols. Apples work great, but trust me, you do not want to share my struggles with Apple running on a virtual private network, or getting Apple-specified audio files to work outside of Apple equipment.

For the occasional Windows program running on an Apple, dual-mode Apple solutions are great. But if you're working with crucial information -- like your money -- you can be asking for it if you plan to run Windows for an extended period on a Mac.

Here's the truth: Apples are just like any other computer. They do some things very well, and other things not so well. Pretending otherwise is just obstinacy.

If Apple as a company -- and as a culture -- cannot transition from its chip-on-the-shoulder past into a legitimate major market brand that does not bully and litigate against those who disagree with it, the company is doomed to become like Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessep in A Few Good Men: a hero whose damaged life renders him a fearful bigot who destroys all the greatness he fought so long and hard for.

In the new world of a rising Apple, the company, and its enthusiastic fans -- you know who you are -- need to take a cue from your own marketing.

Think different, not "better."



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.

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