Home > Geeky, Software > Apple Briefing: a PC guy looks at Macs

Apple Briefing: a PC guy looks at Macs

November 12, 2006

I spent an entire day in the clutches of an Apple Executive Briefing in Chicago, 32 floors up some building that would be big news anywhere else in the state.

And you know what?  It was great.  I don’t think I’m violating the non-disclosure agreement by saying they treated us wonderfully, had presenters whose advanced knowledge made the trip worthwhile, and I left feeling a lot more comfortable around Macintosh computers than in the past.  This is in stark contrast to some other industry briefings I’ve attended, which were little more than glorified sales pitches. 

It also led to two VERY long-winded posts which I decided to combine into a single printable .pdf document for those who are really desperate for reading material.  Or if you prefer, you can read the whole thing online below.

Day two: notes from the review:

As a tech-support guy I think it’s a disservice to our students not to expose them to different platforms so I’d like to have some Macintosh computers in our labs.  So I asked a number of unpleasantly pointed questions that I know I’d hear if I start proposing any Macs in our exclusively1 Windows environment. We covered a lot: 

  1. A working overview of OS-X and how it evolved into the super-robust operating system that it has become. 
  2. Xserve line of servers, which I have learned in the last year are really first-choice machines. 
  3. An overview of integrating Macintosh with Microsoft Active Directory. (I wish our network administrator had been there – some of this session went over my head)
  4. And finally a review of the iLife suite, which it turns out actually contains some useful stuff (and one seriously flawed component, iWeb)

Yes, I was impressed with what I saw.  The smooth integration of the Apple platform is as far advanced over Windows (Vista included) as Olympic figure-skating is over a middle-aged couch-potato on rollerblades.

Apple history and OS-X overview

At some point, Steve Jobs, the brilliant but mercurial CEO, left the company to form NEXT, whose sole product seemed to be a snazzy computer interface without a platform.  John Scully, who sold sugar water to kids, took over and started “the beige era” in which Macs became even less distinguished or useful.  His sole accomplishment was the development of a crappy PDA; The company foundered.

…until the predictable happened when Apple bought NEXT (making Steve Jobs even wealthier) and brought a spark of creative vision back to the company.  Then product development took off again and the company started coming back.  But in spite of being in full control of both the hardware and the software, Macs really didn’t seem much more stable than Windows computers.

Then came OS-X, which trashed the previous core of the Mac OS and built an entirely new foundation based on FreeBSD – a strong, stable UNIX clone.  OK, now we’re talkin!  In one step the Mac OS went from also-ran to industrial strength. 

The next step took place last year with the announcement that Apple would dump the Motorola/Power PC chip and use Intel’s new Core-Duo chip.  This would allow greater Windows system integration – even let an Apple computer run Windows.  At the same time OS-X has been expanded to be able to integrate fully with Windows networks.  And most of the hardware out there today works on both Windows and Mac.  So there’s no such thing as a “Mac” printer or monitor anymore.

The message for me is that the Apple company is willing to change to bring its strengths to the computing world.  I respect that.  Mac culture is still smug (hopefully that will diminish) but at least they have something to brag about.  In my opinion they really didn’t, before. 

The third revolution after OS-x and Intel for the Mac was “Universal” – a system for software developers so they can literally code once and output for both the PowerPC and Intel platforms.  This works impressively well. 

A huge list of changes have been made for Windows system compatibility.  Some of these are as simple as dumping ‘Stuffit’ file compression in favor of the more familiar .zip (which is built into the HFS+ file system) to the option to use whatever keyboard you like.  The mouse has gone from 1-button to 5-button and works very well. 

Click on the “Spotlight” search (looks like a stylized letter “Q”) and type in a PC term, and the Mac will automatically translate it to the corresponding Macintosh term.  The spotlight can be used to search for files, for metadata, or even as an application launcher for those of us who do not enjoy figuring out cute little icons.

One of the differences in OS-x over Windows is that the applications in OS-x are actually useful, fully-powered and integrated.  If you are used to using Windows ‘applets” and then having to spend a few hundred bucks to buy a professional application if you want to get real work done, this will come as a welcome surprise.  It actually changes the bottom line on the cost-effectiveness of a Macintosh.

For example, iChat is a video chat application that uses the industry-standard ‘Jabber’ protocol that is also used by Google Talk.  It is as slick as any standalone video conferencing application I have seen and slicker than most.  It includes file transfer to long-jump over transfer-protocol complications.  And the iChat server software is bundled with OSX server.

BonJour is a network discovery app similar to AppleTalk without all that AppleTalk chattyness.

Automator is a scripting dealie (robot icon) that can create standalone apps or finder plugins.  Automator scripts can be included in Widgets, which are html- and java- driven applications that you can create.  Basically if you can do it with a web page, you can do it with a Widget, and then some.  This concept will be familiar to anyone exploring Windows Vista.

Two crucial areas where Apples are still crippled in relation to Microsoft systems is that Microsoft still has not opened the NTFS file system (buy a license if you want access, chump) and there is no Microsoft Access database program for Macintosh.  I am sure this is not accidental.

OSx server

With OSx being a UNIX variant, it is only natural to put it in the server room, so Apple has developed a line of truly kick-ass servers.  This is the kind of engineering that I have wished for on Windows servers, with super-fast FSB, extremely slick construction (about the only component you can’t hot-swap is the motherboard), and SATA RAIDing that beats most SCSI setups for cost-effective speed delivery.  (At least that has been our experience on campus where Xserves are beginning to show up in a few server rooms)

Xserves and Xserve RAIDS can gang up for scalability to any desired size from single unit to collective supercomputer.  This probably works in a way similar to a Beowulf cluster. 

I won’t go into the details of the domain tools.  Basically they are very slick, commercial UNIX-type domain tools with Windows Active Directory flavor.  I am still trying to digest the extremely detailed handout from this part.

There are three levels of support for Xserves.  You pretty much pay for what you need, but for anyone just getting into using Mac servers, the top level would be a good idea.  It’s also worth mentioning that if you buy – don’t quote me, but I think it was more than 3 – Xserves, you get a parts kit so you can hot-swap and get back up and running right away.

OSx Server comes with really snazzy server monitoring tools (and you can create Widgets aggregate their output).  If you aren’t in an Active Directory the domains are full LDAP and as I mentioned before, there are bundled media feeds management tools.  The Apache web server is a full-GUI setup – not a feature in my mind because I never had a problem editing config files but what the heck.

And saving the best for last – no CAL’s!  You don’t buy client licenses – they’re unlimited.  The number of clients is limited by bandwidth, not by your pocketbook.  Expect to see CAL’s go away from Microsoft’s payment model as they now have to compete with ‘free’.  The fact that Microsoft has just inked an agreement with Novel (SUSE compatibility, anyone?) is a hopeful sign.

iLife

Communication is the biggest single problem in any organization.  How to get everyone on the same page, knowing what they need to know?  The iLife suite of applications can go a long way toward this goal, and it’s bundled.  But no one knows what ‘i’ stands for in iLife.

I have mixed feelings about iTunes.  On the one hand, it’s a great management program for various media including media files, and it probably runs just fine on a Mac.  But it’s buggy on a PC and no one needs that aggravation. 

Also, iTunes is fully DRM equipped.  I am suspicious of DRM because in my mind it is the next big data extinction event.  You know how there’s tons of data from old satellites and space probes, to say nothing of old word processor formats, but no current computer can read it?  Expect Digital Rights Management to tank the next wave.  Music, images, video, all lost because of “license not found”.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.  This is not unique to iTunes, but infects the whole media industry.  When they’ll wise up, no one knows.

First thing I do when I get licensed media, is rip it to an unlicensed format.  Then I have a prayer of keeping it.

Universities can store enormous amounts of in-house created audio and video created files on Apple’s servers, though, with authenticated access for students and faculty… for free.  This is a great move on Apple’s part and a huge contribution to society.  So iTunes ends up being a net contribution in the long run, probably.

iPhoto is a very slick image-management program that handles all the basic camera-to-web and printing tasks with clever integration.  In an organization most users will never need anything else, but when they upgrade to the professional version (Aperture) it’s a superset of the same familiar interface so you save tons of learning-curve time.  If you’re tired of Photoshop, check out the linked demo to Aperture.

(ugh!) Garage Band

I register disgust here because of the name, “Garage Band”.  Check out the link and think of the corporate applications for this application, and then ask yourself why Apple would saddle it with a name that torpedoes any corporate interest in it? 

But that objection aside, think of using Microsoft Windows Movie maker or Photo Story.  Now imagine if those applications didn’t suck, and you have Garage Band, an actually useful way to create multimedia publications for intranet or web.  Or instructional videos for your customers to be distributed with your products (how much does your company spend providing tech support for your customers?)

Like iPhoto, GB will suffice for most users in your company. when somebody’s job description gets video-specific enough to need Final Cut, the learning curve is smooth.  (Just imagine going from Windows Movie Maker to Adobe Premiere – gaaak!)

How could a company use video?  How about making job descriptions on video instead of in print, showing actual tasks?  Or menued tech support DVD’s for your products?  Task training documentation on video?  Quick sales-support videos?  Field-service documentation?  (Picture an industrial installation with mixed-media documentation.  In an upgrade planning session, everyone could see exactly what’s down that tunnel.  Or a field technician having procedure videos on an iPod in the field with him.)  This need not be limited to corporations – how about military training applications?

In addition to Xserve media distribution and iTunes, there’s a bundled application called iDVD.  It makes slick DVDs for playing on a regular television, which can then be sent off to a media duplicating company for a distributable product. 

Apple’s websites show examples of individuals making groovy media productions of their family photo albums and that’s cool and everything, but hey Apple, THINK OF ORGANIZATIONS!!!  That’s where a desperate need exists for improvements in communication and where Apple has an enormous advantage over Micrsoft. 

Sorry to end on a negative, but one application I really didn’t like is iWeb.  It’s as slick as any other Apple application but is limited to a number of rather sucky templates which you cannot change.  Granted it is not intended to be a substitute for Dreamweaver, but there is no way even for production professinals to create new iWeb templates.  So if your company wanted to make a custom iWeb template for your employees to use, they couldn’t do it.  How about an iWeb development kit, Apple?

I am planning to use an Apple for a while to improve my Apple support skills – and maybe credibly be able to sneak some Apple pie into the menu where I work.

APPENDIX: VARIOUS RANTS AND REFLECTIONS ON THE SEMINAR AND THE APPLE COMPANY GENERALLY

I’ve been supporting Windows machines for 11 years now, and it has always been the platform of choice for getting your business done. Yes, it was buggy and bloated and kludgy and an obvious copy of Apple’s software but it worked and it ran on whatever hardware you could cobble together from spare parts. 

And while I don’t want to seem ungrateful to my hosts, Apple is still their own worst enemy for changing the corporate perception that Macs are toys.  I couldn’t tell if my attempts at explaining this got through or not.

This is not a prejudice; it is the voice of experience.  Corporate executive decision-makers were in the trenches even before what Apple disparagingly refers to as the “beige era” when John Scully almost sank the company.  They remember Macintosh computers as the incompatible machine used by that excitable fellow with the jeans and long hair, who made the pretty stuff.

Macs couldn’t open files from anyone else’s computer, and no one else could open their files.  A simple floppy disk couldn’t go from one machine to the other.  Network connectivity was spotty at best.  And for all this, the Macintosh cost a king’s ransom.  It’s no use protesting that the Mac could too do all those things; the longhaired guy said the same thing.  Even the simplest connections meant buying more stuff, and involved setup procedures, to accomplish what any two PCs could do without spending another cent or another minute. 

Oh, but after the beige era came the Crayola years.  Remember the iMacs?  Bright primary colors.  The only other objects manufactured in those colors had the “Fisher-Price” logo on them.  You think a guy in a $1,600 Armani suit wants to walk into a meeting carrying one of those?  They could be the greatest computers in the world but he won’t touch them.

And NOW Apple has the temerity to mock its intended buyers with their smart-assed “Mac vs. PC” ads?  Executives and long-time PC users identify with the PC guy, but in the Apple guy, they see that kid who showed up for a job interview in jeans and acted like the whole company was a joke. 

Nice job, Apple.  Your ads are clever and funny but you’re making a big mistake.  You think those ads make me want to buy a Mac?  I’m not interested in being the offensive little twit.

But suppose by some accident an Apple computer does find its way into the corporate world.  The computer itself has been restyled – a bit too girlie but not bad – which is great until you turn it on.  Then we’re back to the bouncing, twirling, smooshing, swooshing, Crayola-color interface with the cutsie names.  Instead of a computer made of day-glo plastic, the interface itself simulates da-glo plastic.  It’s a pretty effective disguise for the robust machine underneath. 

Apple has a very cool CEO, but sometimes the distinction is muddled between being cool and trying to be cool.  As a PC user I’m a lot less concerned with being cool than with doing actual work.

Take “Garage Band” – please.  It is truly an insanely great, very cool application.  I can think of dozens of hard-dollar communication tasks for it, and it’s so simple even the guy in the suit can use it.  But here’s a little clue, Apple; that guy is never going to click on an icon that says “Garage Band”.  The name connotes crappyness, lack of professionalism, and the complete absence of business purpose.  It only reinforces the old image that Macs are toys. 

What can Apple do to bridge the last gap across institutional memory of the bad years?  Executive briefings like the one I attended are a great step.  But I also have a number of suggestions for Steve Jobs:

  • Dump the “Mac vs PC” ads, right now.  They’re the equivalent of negative campaign ads.  Instead, show us people we can identify with asking their co-workers; “How’d you do that?!” and getting the answer, “With my Mac.”

  • Read this article from Slate: Mac Attack: Apple’s mean-spirited new ad campaign
  • Create a few different, very businesslike but equally functional desktop themes.  We shouldn’t have to fight with the interface to reclaim our computer from the Crayola set. 
  • Make some ruggedized laptops.  I am unconvinced your sleek polycarbonate cases are as durable as the carbon-fibre frame and titanium shell of my ThinkPad.  And make a 3-year warranty standard;  I heard about the $700 motherboard replacement.
  • Rename “Garage Band”.
  • Make it possible for companies to create custom templates for iWeb.
  • Be careful telling us things like “Macs don’t crash”; we don’t believe you because we’ve seen Macs crash.  Saying “But we got better” is a claim, not a sales strategy.  At minimum, find a way to document the improvement.
  • Our companies spend a lot of money making cheap computers work and training employees to work with them.  Then our labor costs reflect the kludgy nature of the software that runs on them.  Work on expressing the cost-effectiveness of the functionality that is built into the Mac, including the short learning curves of its more advanced bundled applications. 
  • Work on that “institutional memory” thing.  Show an experienced PC user discovering a Mac and telling his co-workers about it.  You could make a very funny – but positive – ad campaign from it.

That should get you started, Steve.  I’ll give you all the help I can from this end but please stop shooting yourself in the foot by calling your potential customers idiots.


1We do have one Mac at present – an XServe RAID in the server room thanks to our network administrator’s research.  It performs so well that other colleges on campus are beginning to look at XServes.
Reflections from Day Two.

ANOTHER RANT ON THE SAME THEME, WRITTEN ON A DIFFERENT DAY

The briefing I attended was oriented specifically to Windows support people who aren’t very familiar with Macintosh computers.  I attended because, frankly, I’m an embarassment to the university when someone has a support question related to a Macintosh.  Lately, there have been changes that make Apple computers worth supporting.

The reason for my ignorance is a strong dislike of what I might loosely refer to as “Mac culture”, which can be described in one word: smug.  First, you tell me you’re better than me, but you can’t connect to my network, open my files, I can’t open your files, none of your hardware can connect to mine, and we can’t even share files by floppy disk.  The locator dits on your damn keyboard aren’t even in the same place.  That’s not ‘better’, it’s just different for the sake of different.  And don’t even get me started on the lack of a right-click context menu. 

Oh, but your computer never crashes, right?  Sorry, I’ve seen Macs crash – hard – over little mistakes and incompatibilities. But then there’s that trump card, “Macs are intuitive”.

I’ve heard many Mac owners brag that they never crack the manual.  (Fine, but you’re bragging about that?)  I remember the first time I tried to eject a floppy disk from a Mac.  On a PC this is easy: you push the button on the floppy.  I looked for the button.

“Oh, you just drag the floppy to the trash”, said the Mac owner.

Say, what?

“Just drag the floppy icon into the trash icon, and it will eject the disk.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

So over the years I have not developed a very strong appreciation of the “other” platform.  But I have watched the development of the company and product from afar.

Sorry this is so long – there’s a lot more but I am really tired of typing.  Sometime down the road I’ll do a similar report on my Linux experimentation.  It’s my view that innovation prospers when you get a bunch of people with different skillsets and tools in a room together and they start showing off and trying to one-up one another. 

Categories: Geeky, Software
  1. November 12, 2006 at 14:15 | #1

    Microsoft still has not opened the NTFS file system (buy a license if you want access, chump)

    To my knowledge Linux can read NTFS just fine after kernel 2.4 and higher.  I am not positive so please correct me if I am wrong.

    But that objection aside, think of using Microsoft Windows Movie maker or Photo Story.  Now imagine if those applications didn’t suck, and you have Garage Band, an actually useful way to create multimedia publications for intranet or web.

    That was too damn funny!!

    Man that was a great read.  I hope to someday get in on some of that knowledge.  At the current time Mac is the only thing lacking for me.  If had that I would have the trifecta. 

    I look forward to reading on your Linux experiment.  I’m sure it was fun.  Next semester I get to teach a Linux class for my undergrad sequence, so I either have to fake it really well, or learn a lot in the next couple months.

  2. November 13, 2006 at 06:41 | #2

    Apples, eh?  You will shortly sprout a goatee and find yourself listening to the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.  The attraction of Macs (I stared on DOS & early Windows) was not that they they didn’t crash (just picking up the digital pieces from one of those, payback for a bout of smugness) but that it is a rare occurrence.  And for a non-expert not wishing to become one, they seemed easier to live with than PCs.

  3. James Old Guy
    November 13, 2006 at 11:25 | #3

    I started out on an Apple 2C, great computer, crappy company,the attitude and the cost was the killer. As you stated, the long haired hippy memories will be hard to overcome.

  4. zilch
    November 14, 2006 at 06:19 | #4

    If you don’t get a consulting fee for this post, it could only be because Jobs doesn’t read your blog.

  5. November 14, 2006 at 22:43 | #5

    He already listens go Mulligan.

  6. November 14, 2006 at 22:47 | #6

    I think you have it backwards, WD; I already have a goatee but don’t know who Mulligan is.  I’m really fond of Steely Dan, though ;-)

  7. November 14, 2006 at 23:20 | #7

    I don’t know who Mulligan is, but Peter’s comment made me laugh cause I have personally met DOF.

    And don’t worry DOF the goatee is sexy!

  8. March 31, 2007 at 13:25 | #8
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