The Era of Consumer Computing: Of Apple, Microsoft, and the Future.

Bear with me a bit as I lead into what gives this article its title.

If you check my About page, you’ll see that since August of last year I’ve switched my household entirely to Apple. A 24-inch iMac Extreme, a 2.2 GHz MacBook, a Time Capsule 500GB, an Airport Express, and just last week an iPod touch.

In short, I spent a reasonable chunk of change, but it was time for new computers and I wanted to upgrade to “n” networking, etc. The time was right and I went back to Apple after many years of them, frankly, not making a computer I wanted.

Still, no sense in patting myself on the back after reading about Roger Ehrenberg making the Apple move. Individual machines for each member of the family, plus a group iMac in the kitchen, plus a MacBook air for travel. Good for him. And good for Apple. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

I was talking to someone the other day who labeled me an Apple fanboy. (Yawn.) I explained to him that little of this alleged fanboyism was present when Apple stopped making computers I wanted from 1999 until late 2006.

Further, I explained that Mac OS 9 was not a whole lot “better” than, say, Mac OS 7.6. Some interesting stuff, yes, but the same ol’, same ol’ underneath the surface. From a “modern” perspective (preemptive multitasking, memory protection, etc.) it was not up to Windows 2000 or, later, XP standards — though it had other advantages. From a stability/performance standpoint, ultimately I’m a UNIX fan. (I was also a big-time OS/2 guy, despite how ugly the interface was, but let’s not go there, ‘K?)

My point is that my Apple support has to do with Apple making smarter moves in this century. One of the few things I disagreed with is their seeming disdain for a mid-level (“prosumer”, if you will) computer. The 24-inch iMac answered enough of my gripes to make that a realistic option but, geez, it took years for them to get there. Years in which I bought PCs from Dell, HP, and Gateway (and no, XP Pro was not that bad).

Contrast that today with getting a new PC running Microsoft’s Vista — which anybody but the staunchest Apple-basher has to admit is a bust (so much so that all MS seems to talk about is Windows 7.0) — and where was the future going to be? Apple was the way to go.

Turns out Ehrenberg had come to the same conclusion. In fact, there’s an analysis he did between Apple and Microsoft, and in his conclusion he sums it up very nicely:

Microsoft has to decide what it wants to be. “Bet the ranch” projects like Vista are not the future. While the Company can say it beta tested Vista to death, if it takes 5 years, billions of dollars and millions of man-hours to kick out a commercial product you’ve got a problem. What top young pro wants to be part of that?

Yep. And the fact is you must build your future on a good mix of experience and “top young pros”.

Without this, the battle is lost. And right now, Microsoft needs to focus on those dimensions if it wants to maintain its role in shaping the technology of tomorrow. Because we have firmly entered the Era of Consumer Computing, an era with which Microsoft has little experience and even less success.

Absolutely agreed. I’ll even take it a step further. In the past, IT departments clearly influenced the choices of consumers’ systems. Use a PC at work, better use one at home. Consumers were less demanding, and figured that was all there was to it.

But consumers are more demanding now; in this age of the web and open standards they expect computers to “work” with each other. It’s becoming less of an acceptable excuse for incompatibility to simply say you should run the exact same thing everywhere. Different platforms, different devices, but same data, is getting to be the expectation.

What this means is that consumer choices are going to push back on IT more and more in the future. Yes, it’ll be a slow process, but it’s already started, and the tide will not be turned.

This does not mean I’m saying IT will lose “control” (which seems to be their fear), or even that they should lose it. As a former network admin I know such “control” helps hold the organization’s infrastructure together, and is a necessary component. I’m certainly not advocating a Lord of the Flies approach to IT departments.

However, they will have to adopt, which is hardly an impossible task. More difficult? Sure, in the beginning. But like any new process or technology the wrinkles are ironed out and things settle down. Didn’t we do that with laptops? VPNs for work-from-home employees? The Internet? Palms? Smartphones? This list goes on and on, and every one of those developments brought challenges to IT groups. We take them for granted now, but they did not come without a shift in thinking (and, unfortunately, in many cases, outright resistance).

The hurdles you have to jump lead to benefits you may be blinded to when looking only at those hurdles, and not further down the track. I don’t claim to actually see the finish line — no one has that kind of vision — but I do like what I’m seeing beyond the next few hurdles.

4 thoughts on “The Era of Consumer Computing: Of Apple, Microsoft, and the Future.

  1. You couldn’t pay me to go back to any version of the Mac OS before Jaguar. Even OS 9, the last grasp of the days of old, would leave one exasperated as the entire system crashed. Ambitious users would experience this frequently, if not daily.

    On OS X, one doesn’t have to watch memory or any other such burden. An App may go down from time to time, but I can’t remember the last time I had to reboot due to something going awry in the OS.

    Although I agree that Safari can drain memory faster than any other App and will suddenly quit when loaded up with too many tabs. But it’s random and unpredictable. Sometimes 10 tabs will take it down while other times it purrs under the load of 50.

    Analogous to Mac user’s OS experience, many Windows users feel the same, with a twist. Oddly, they pine for the old XP, which is less troublesome than the newly released Vista.

  2. Yacko,

    I do somewhat similar “crash prevention” (I prefer to call it maintenance) as well. However, it’s as much because of habit and good practice than because I have to or I’ll crash soon.

    A lot of “geeks” like to brag about time between boots. In a production environment this kind of thing is absolutely critical, but that’s a far cry from a consumer machine that is tinkered with all the time. For me the bragging right is that I never have to boot until such time as it seems a prudent measure anyway.

    However, my comment about pre-Mac OS X operating systems had less to do with time between boots and more to do with using it while it’s running. Mac users frequently downplayed cooperative multitasking, for example, but anybody who used a system with preemptive for any length of time knew better. Far too much of the Mac OS through 9 were modal and slow. Lack of crash protection didn’t help either. The last great Mac OS release prior to X was, in my opinion, 7. I remember how amazing that seemed at the time. After that it was all just usability enhancements — frequently in the form of shareware licensed or “borrowed”.

    I don’t want to get into a major discussion over old Mac OS’s, but to me 7 was significant and, nearly a decade later, all we had was 9, which was really just the same thing significantly dressed up. It was waaaaaay past its prime, and Apple knew it.

  3. > Further, I explained that Mac OS 9 was not a whole lot “better” than, say, Mac OS 7.6.
    > Some interesting stuff, yes, but the same ol’, same ol’ underneath the surface. From a
    >“modern” perspective (preemptive multitasking, memory protection, etc.)

    That’s sort of true and sort of not. Under extremely heavy usage (including a memory leaking app) on OS 8.6 and 1GB, I could manage 2 days uptime. All it took was an eye on memory usage. Now, doing the same thing, different apps (with the leaker gone), on Tiger and 4GB I have not been able to go much longer than 30 days, and I have to do as much memory watching with Menu Meters. The biggest problem under the two systems? Browsers. Losing 10 to 30 MB for every web site/tab open is a burden. And yes OSX has virtual memory management, yet it does not operate as quickly or as nimbly as I would like, leaving a tight situation going on for hours yet freeing as much as 1GB occasionally at a moments notice. So I end up doing the open app/close app shuffle and every so often a force quit all the while watching mem use on the menu bar. You know, since OS 8.6, there has been carbon compatibility, and that carbon extension did bring a limited dynamic memory allocation where the OS doles out memory to apps, in this case just the carbonized ones. By choosing what order to launch things it was possible to maximize stability and even have a fairy stable force quit available. So I’m a bit realistic about the OSX step up. Is it much better than the OS 8.6 experience? No doubt about it, but it is funny I do find myself doing similar crash prevention in order to maximize the experience and avoid an OS death spiral.

  4. I’m labeled a fanboy too Tom … it seems that if say anything positive about Apple and critique those who say outrageous negative things about Apple – you are a fanboy.

    Apple is gaining mindshare from the iPod/iPhone – and my Apple repair business is booming – it’s incredible actually. More and more people are asking me about buying and more and more are switching as they deal with the headaches of Vista.

    Interesting – especially after I’ve done one of the most famous critiques of Apple EVER on the internet called “The 5 Things Steve Jobs Has Misled About Over The Last 30 years.”

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