Sometimes cheaper is cheaper

By Greg Raven
Volume 6 no. 4 (April 1988), page 17

I read an interesting article the other day in a computer magazine that was written about the Macintosh by a columnist who typically slags Apple products. This column started off okay, with the columnist admitting how much he had come to like the Mac SE with a hard disk and Laserwriter Plus (the one Apple had recently lent him).

Then he took a wrong turn. The equipment was so nice, so easy to use, so darned versatile, that the only conclusion to be drawn was something HAD to be wrong. A psychiatrist would have had a field day with this, but let’s move on. After wandering aimlessly through some rather convoluted syntax and bargain-basement philosophy, he realizes that the ant at his picnic is the cost of the system, and this cost ($8,000) is what really separates us from them.

Frankly, $8,000 sounds dirt cheap compared to the $10,000 that Apple had to ask for the Lisa with a 5 meg Profile and an Imagewriter I back in the old days when an icon-based interface was a bad idea. Still, he claims that $8,000 is too much, even though he doesn’t tell us the basis for this claim. There certainly isn’t anything in the IBM world that measures up.

Perhaps subconsciously aware that a direct comparison is out of the question, the columnist then promoted his opinion using the construct of an apples-to-oranges comparison, putting together a hypothetical IBM-clone system for a less than $8,000.

But what is the point? It is true that you can buy a computer for less than the Mac, and there are cheaper printers than the LaserWriter. If you’re looking for cheap, there are some combination computer/monitor/disc drive/printer systems out there that sell new for about $400, cheaper than even the least expensive clone.

These less expensive systems also do less than a Mac, and that which they are capable of is more difficult than the same task done on a Mac. If price is the benchmark why not buy a used typewriter or a package of No. 2 pencils? The answer is that for the cost of a computer you should be doing more than transcribing text. And the farther away you get from what is possible with a typewriter, the more you need a computer that is easy to use. This is not the description of an MS-DOS computer.

After lurching to a halt on his first point, the columnist next goes on to make the rather stunning assertion that the complexity of the Mac requires an intense amount of user sophistication; something Apple designed into the machine with the goal of reestablishing the computer priesthood. Apple, he claimed, is dehumanizing the computer! This fellow has obviously seen one too many A> prompts; they have driven him quite mad.

Instead of taking the easy way out by making the humans conform to computer logic, Apple has taken major steps through the use of icons, a common interface, and on-screen graphics devices to humanize the computer, making a powerful tool simple and intuitive to use. While it might be just peachy to know about heaps, stacks, pointers, recursive subroutines, and all that stuff, many of us have found happiness double-clicking on the picture of a file and letting the computer do the rest. History shows that trends such as these have traditionally weakened the priesthood, not strengthened it.

Proof of this can be found in comparing the number of seminars and classes there are for teaching people to use IBM hardware and software (of which there must be thousands) to the number of similar learning environments for the Mac (of which there are very few). I would hate to be a consultant trying to make a living off of training people to use a Mac. For that matter, I would hate to have to try to train people to cope with MS-DOS. Talk about your futile endeavors. And you haven’t lived until you have witnessed a room full of know-nothing IBM-style in-house office gurus trying to get a piece of hardware or software to work.

That doesn’t mean Mac isn’t a great tool for the cogniscenti — it is. And the better you know it the better you can use it. But the Mac is also a fabulous tool for those of us with the will but not the way. I’m not an artist but I can produce art with the Mac. I’m not a typesetter but I can produce typesetting with the Mac, and lay it out in an attractive format that I would never be able to achieve were I forced to cut and wax. I’m not a machinist but I can run sophisticated CNC mills using the MGMStation. I am not a statistician but with MacSpin I can examine data sets pictorially and arrive at correct conclusions. I could have each of these tasks done for me by an expert or by a specialist in each field, but the cost would torpedo my checkbook balance.

None of this makes much of an impression on those who, like this columnist, prefer to selectively redefine words and concepts and tout meaningless comparisons in what would appear to be a call to return to the time when we would carve type out of wood blocks on our days off from copying manuscripts with quill pens.

As for me, I’m perfectly content to leave the Orwellian semantics, the handwringing, and the gnashing of teeth to the antediluvian savants; I’m too busy taking advantage of the marvelously decentralizing power of the Macintosh.

Big Brother is dead. Long live the Mac.