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ATPM 12.04
April 2006



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by Wes Meltzer,

We Didn’t Start the Fire

In a month’s time, three well-known Web celebrities write publicly about their experiences Switching, and at least one more is outed as a Mac user. The bloggerati cheer this, and speculate that once and for all the forbidden fruit will be democratized.

Does it feel like 2002 again?

As late as 2004, I can remember the flood of people who were enthusiastically exchanging their PCs for Macs. It felt like 1984 and the dawning of a new computer Utopia; somewhere along the line, it turned into the Prague Spring instead, a false dawn that would only be replaced with disappointment and retrenchment. The flow of celebrities cheerily hefting Macs slowed to a trickle, and soon the most famous Switch stories were from people like Evan DiBiase, who were famous as a result of the switch.

But in the last few months, I’ve been heartened by the excitement over the new Intel Macs in certain quarters, and all that buzz may be generating a little more Switch activity.

This month, John Gruber has the report: He breaks the news that two big-name bloggerati, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo and Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of the Penny Arcade Web comic, both bought Macs to replace their problematic Windows PCs in early March. They’d already written about the experience separately (one, two), but of course nothing beats John Gruber writing about you. (Hint, hint.) It seems there’s something in the water; or, as Gruber put it, “Switching is afoot.”

The tricky part, according to Gruber, is that all three of these guys—Marshall, Holkins and Krahulik—are natural Mac users, people for whom Windows is not a natural state of being, yet there are certain barriers holding them in place. In their case, it’s knowledge about how the platform itself operates and what they feel that they’re competent to do to their own computers; Marshall says he “can open up [his] PCs and install things and actually do a certain amount of maintenance on them,” and Holkins goes further:

I have edited autoexec.bat files in order to optimize the amount of available conventional memory, and I liked doing it, liked being the sort of person who could. As a PC user, enduring the grotesqueries of that experience is something that we are actually proud of.

In other words, Gruber says, this is familiarity at work. Windows users are familiar with their Windows machines; they know all of the weird quirks, they know the way to make the computer behave exactly as it needs to, and they’re highly reluctant to take on the task of learning that all over again. My analogy is a car with some funny quirks, which you learn to navigate until driving a different car has you utterly dumbfounded.

It’s worth noting that the phenomenon extends before March; Andrew Sullivan, another big-name political blogger, extended his own congratulations to Marshall when he announced that he’d acquired a Mac.

Gruber received a reader e-mail that sums up the entire situation from Apple’s perspective:

When I was a boy 20 years ago, I heard someone on NPR point out that the reason that people spend so much time and money at mediocre (at best) restaurants like McDonald’s was that they were consistent in their mediocrity.

Trying out a new restaurant could be good, but it could also be terrible. At least with McDonald’s you know that every location will give you pretty much the same surly service, moderately clean dining areas and bland, overly processed food. And that really describes the PC experience to me.

On some level, that could be the great success of any Switch campaign, to make the Mac seem more familiar. That’s why Apple treats its stores like a cross between a clothing store and a car dealership, both environments where the try-out is crucial, rather than making them ordinary electronics stores.

What’s going on now? Did someone spike the water?

It’s what’s called the Zeitgeist—a word apparently only I have ever used in ATPM; it means “the spirit of the time”—and I think Ross Rubin at Engadget nails it perfectly, in his Switched On column, “The Contractor and the Architect.” Rubin says, in essence, that Microsoft is happy to be your general contractor, which can be flexible to fit a wide range of requirements but operates without any particular genius or flair, and might not always work out right. Apple, on the other hand, is the architect, who fuses what you want with his style and his ingenuity to produce a holistic solution.

This has already proven to be the Age of the Architect in electronics, a time when plummeting manufacturing and supplies costs democratize the market for high-quality, design-oriented goods, just as the 90s were the Age of the Architect in automobiles. (Cf. low-end Mercedes and BMW models, and Volkswagen’s success.) How do I know that? My TiVo, my PowerBook, my iPod, and my cell phone. That bodes well for Apple.

Also, I think we’re going to hear a whole lot more about Switchers now that there’s a way to boot Windows XP on your Intel Mac. (More on that later.)

Incidentally, I wrote about my own experience Switching, though I didn’t qualify as one of Gruber’s “familiarity” users since I was a Linux user who wanted an easier-to-use Unix, and I decided after writing this column that I would link you in case any of you are deluded enough to care.

Sputnik, Chou En-lai, Bridge on the River Kwai

  • Speaking of booting XP on Intel Macs, it is now possible. (The reason it wasn’t before is that the Intel Macs use Extensible Firmware Interface as their boot-loader, and Windows XP expects BIOS instead.) There was a $13,000 contest to find a workaround solution to the problem, and it was solved very quickly; contestants narf2006 and blanka now have a working solution, which you can download if you want to try it out. Gamers, eat your hearts out.
  • I admit it, I was wrong about the big Apple Event. It was about Intel minis, although they aren’t very exciting (or different), and the iPod Hi-Fi, which is a boombox for the iPod. It’s pretty, and if any of my adoring readers wants to send me an iPod with a Dock Connector, I’d be happy to get one and report on it for you. As far as that goes, though, Tim Bray isn’t sold on its “audiophile” quality: “It seems fantastically dubious that something 43 cm wide, with a listed bass floor of 53Hz…weighing 6.6Kg, and costing $349, could actually produce ‘audiophile’ sound.” Well, Tim?
  • What would happen if Microsoft were to acquire the iPod, and redesign its packaging? This video, which shows the hideous steps to turn a gorgeous package into the usual Microsoft atrocities (with stickers and logos everywhere), is really a joy. Goes to show you, some people just never change.
  • On that note, Jason at 37signals reminds us, whenever we’re tempted to pan a new Apple product, that many of us (myself included) panned the original iPod on its release…and now everyone on Earth either owns one or wants to. He pulls quotes from a MacRumors forum thread from October 2001, with great quotes like this one: “I’d call it the Cube 2.0 as it won’t sell, and be killed off in a short time…and it’s not really functional.” Wow. An hour’s worth of laughs, at least.

• • •

And that’s our month, folks. Come back next month, when the triple threat of graduation, warmer weather, and baseball season will have turned my brain to mush. You can have a good laugh at my expense, instead.

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