Saturday, September 01, 2007

Why My Next Computer Will Be A Mac

How I Got To This Point

I typically buy a computer every 2 to 3 years. This has been the case since I got my first Pentium 60 MHz machine running Windows 3.11 during the fall of 1994.

In the late 1990s, I never really considered a Macintosh computer as a potential purchase. From what I knew of them, they were typically expensive, had a limited selection of software, and the only individuals I knew who used them could best be described as inhabiting the fringes of society. These beliefs were only reinforced when I worked at CompUSA in 2000. The Apple section was relegated to the back corner of the store and to say it was sparsely populated with customers would be an overstatement.

When I started undergraduate studies in the Fall of 2000, my bias towards Windows-based PCs only grew stronger. It wasn't so much a loyalty to Microsoft, as it was realizing that I had the most freedoms and fewest restrictions using a Windows machine. I didn't have to worry about computer peripherals or a piece of software critical to my Computer Science curriculum not working with my machine, because hey, everything was Windows compatible. In fact, the social miscreants in my dorm who did have Macs would often drop by my room and ask to borrow my computer for a few minutes since they ran into "something" that wasn't Mac compatible.

Beginning in the Spring of 2005, my resistance to purchasing Apple products began to wain. I was at Keesler Air Force Base on the Gulf Coast, and my trusty Diamond Rio 500 64MB MP3 player kicked the bucket after 5 years. The first generation iPod Shuffle had been released a few months earlier, and after seeing a 1GB version on sale at a nearby Circuit City, I decided to join the legions of iPod toting fans. I only needed it for when I ran, so the lack of screen didn't bother me. And picking up an MP3 player for a hundred bucks and change was much different than laying out a couple of thousand for a computer.

In September of 2005, I bought a new BMW 3 Series. Despite being chocked full of technology (on-board navigation, 2 optical disc drives, automatic everything), it didn't have one key feature that I had grown VERY accustomed to in my VW Jetta: MP3 CD capability. As someone who listens primarily to electronic music, I needed a way to get my 2 to 4 hour long DJ sets onto my car stereo, and splitting a file over 4 CDs just wasn't something I was interested in undertaking. Enter the 60GB iPod Photo.

Even though I have close to 1TB of music, there is still something liberating about being able to carry around hundreds of your favorite albums on a very portable device. While I could fit about 10 albums on an individual MP3 CD, it was still cumbersome to jump around between artists, albums, and genres if they happened not to be grouped on a single disc. The large capacity iPod solved this inconvenience. However, had it not been for my car's lack of MP3 CD capability, I probably wouldn't have realized just how convenient the iPod solution was in comparison. (As an aside, I was finally able to get MP3 CD capability via a software update at the dealership last week...I guess 2 years late is better than never.)

So now you're thinking, "Ok, Juston's just describing a classic case of the 'iPod Halo Effect' I've read about," right? Well not exactly. Granted, having exposure to the 2 iPods probably helped mildly deteriorate the psychological disinclination towards Apple products that I'd developed over a decade. But it hardly garnered enough of my mindshare to make me run out and buy a Mac.

What owning the iPods did manage to do was pique my interest enough in the company to follow their new product announcements more closely. And in January of 2006 they announced the transition of their computers to Intel processors. Initially, I didn't think a hardware announcement would have such a significant impact on the way I viewed the computer industry, but in retrospect, this news was huge.

Over the next year, I saw the release of Boot Camp which would allow users to load Windows on their Intel-based Mac and boot into that OS if they needed to run a Windows application. Also released was a virtualization program called Parallels Desktop which let users run Windows as a virtual machine within the Mac OS. Now I didn't have to worry about compatibility issues. This is when I truly began to consider buying an Apple Computer.

Most people recognize there's still probably a big gap between considering a purchase and actually making a purchase, especially when we're talking about a product that potentially costs several thousand dollars. So let me explain why I am ready to make my purchase of a MacBook Pro next month.

It Just Doesn't Make Sense NOT To Buy A Mac Now

In a word: Flexibility. What's ironic here is that prior to the Intel switch, flexibility was perhaps the biggest detractor from purchasing a Mac. And now I consider it to be the biggest selling point.

After I realized that I could run Windows on a Mac, I became curious as to what I couldn't run on Windows. As it turns out, there's a whole world of software developers out there that develop applications exclusively for the Mac OS. While I always knew this, I never had the reason to explore the creations of these "social miscreants" (to use my own probably ill-conceived words from earlier) until I became curious about the Mac platform. Sure, most times there are equivalent programs for Windows that can accomplish the same function. But this is a very utilitarian approach to take. What I've discovered is that (more often than not) the Mac specific programs solve the problem in a much more elegant, visually pleasing, and artistically inspired manner. I'm talking everything from somewhat unnecessary widgets to the more business savvy Numbers spreadsheet program.

Perhaps you skeptics are thinking, "Well that's kind of a right-brained conceptualization of computers. He's just enamored by the eye candy that Apple is known for parading out to their brain-washed cult of zealots." I would propose, however, that much of the eye candy is in fact indicative of something very left-brained: attention to detail. Why just make something functional when you can make it functional AND beautiful? To me that demonstrates an underlying analytical mindset that believes you should focus on all aspects of the computing experience. Function and design are not mutually exclusive, and I think many individuals had just grown to believe they were.

I'm not implying that Mac developers have a total monopoly on artistically inspired yet functional applications. But now, there's such a lower barrier of entry to trying out and using their applications than existed 2 years ago. The reality is that you can now run every Windows application available on a Mac, in addition to all the Mac specific software that exists. Your pool of available software just increased significantly, and you can cherry pick which applications you like best. I might like to run Firefox in Windows and Photoshop in OS X. If I have a Mac, I can easily do that. With a Windows-based computer, this is close to impossible. (I say "close" because there are some technically adept computer users who have managed to load OS X on a PC, but the steps involved are overtly cumbersome and technically illegal.)

For me, the increased flexibility of a Mac was what ultimately influenced my decision to take the plunge. But the usual justifications of increased stability, more frequent OS feature updates, and Apple's noted panache for industrial design really just make the choice even more obvious.

Apparently I'm not the only one whose come to this conclusion, either. Apple's marketshare has (almost) steadily increased over the past 2 years. And amongst "power users" I'd say adoption has been even faster with deeper penetration. While heuristic at best, I like to use the example of what I witnessed in Manhattan. I went to the monthly Google Speaker Series lectures/discussions at Google's Manhattan headquarters from April to June of this year. During one of the presentations, Google's Open Source Program Manager, Chris DiBona, asked audience members to raise their hand if they were a Mac user. Over 50% of the people in attendance raised their hands.

So there you have it. As I see it, the Mac is simply the best deal going right now. I've emphatically recommended the Mac to friends who have sought my advice over the past year, and I'd say I've influenced six people to go with a MacBook or MacBook Pro who were on the fence when it came to a laptop decision.

After much analyzing (as demonstrated in this blog post), I myself will be taking the plunge in October as soon as Leopard comes preinstalled on the MacBook Pros. Once I get it and have completed all the installations/configurations of my various applications, I'll post here for those of you interested in specific programs.