Mac Essay: Real-life Retrospective on "Switching"

On December 19, 2002, I purchased an 800MHZ 12" iBook, my first Mac ever. I was stoked. I had spent weeks staring at it on Apple.com,reading about it on epinions.com, and hearing about the all around benefits from my Mac friends. At first glance, the iBook I bought was somewhat alien, but as time passed I came to realize that was only because I treated it like a PC, which is more or less a common thing, or so I'm told. One of the well-wishers I knew told me that the main problems he had with his first Mac had to do with his over thinking everything, the way one does when using Windows. I had used Windows my whole life, and was used to things being in odd places, bearing indecipherable names, requiring inordinate amounts of time, effort, energy, and waiting for my brother (a Windows programmer) to respond to my email, the subject line of which invariably had at least one exclamation point. Based on the ads I had seen, I expected all this to change. It did… after a while, anyway.

What they don't tell you when you buy your first Mac is that even though things are in fact easier, there is a pretty rough transition period where your outgoing email has at least as many exclamation points as your Windows email did, and where you mutter under your breath about how ridiculous Mac Evangelism is. Funny, though, because for me it was right about this time that I started to notice things that I had, until that point, taken for granted.

I'll say right off that I was fortunate enough not to fall into the OS 9 trap. Lucky thing, too, seeing as how it's going extinct and all. My Mac friends were distressed by OS X, and told me over and over that OS X wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Additionally, that until it had been upgraded a few more times, there was little use in using it for a primary OS. I refused to take this into account. My response was simply that whether OS 9 was better or not, I refused under any and all circumstances to buy a brand new computer and then use it to run an obsolete OS. This is sound logic, and once they saw that I was getting along relatively well in OS X, they decided that this was a reasonable way to see things and came along for the ride.

However, having used OS 9 only twice in my entire existence, I'll not dwell on it. For me, Mac was an OS X experience from day one. That isn't to say that it was smooth sailing, though. The first thing that killed off my users' euphoria was that there seemed to be considerable system lag that even my Compaq, running Windows 98, didn't exhibit. Eventually, I decided that it was the lack of RAM causing the problem. I went and bought a 256MB RAM module, which eliminated most of the lag. Next, I started using iCab, Camino (read: Chimera), and Safari beta 1 instead of IE, which sped things up considerably. By then, things were pretty good in hand. Although I still, on occasion, had trouble finding things, or figuring out precisely which things I needed to find in order to get some work done. This was a pretty serious trial for me, as I expected that I'd get the hang of Mac OS pretty much right away. After all, that was what they advertised. When this didn't happen, there was a certain malaise that washed over me. I was satisfied that I'd spent my money in a reasonable fashion, but there was no reason to get so excited as I'd seen other people at the mention of the M-word. There were annoyances. For example, in order to quit an application you had to get into the pull-down menu instead of just killing the window, and from day one this got on my nerves to no end. I couldn't see the point of it (I do now, but this is retrospective). And spending money on RAM for a brand new computer to me was ridiculous (I still stand by this one). There was no reason for a company, which was the object of frightening amounts of adulation, to sell a computer barely able to run its own OS until you upgraded it. But what was done was done. I set into a regular routine, and began to forget that the brand name was different, and just dealt with what came.

I remember, shortly after this period began, advising a friend who was thinking about buying a new computer that there was no reason to buy a Mac if he wasn't familiar with the OS. Despite the borderline psychosis of their users, it was just another computer. The key phrase was "Yeah, there are advantages, but there are just as many drawbacks." I believed this for a long time, but as I got more and more used to my Mac, I started to see that this just wasn't so.

When your background is Windows, there are certain things you take for granted about computers: If you do X it'll freeze; if you do Y it'll crash; if you aren't careful and slow about everything you do, you can expect that it'll freeze or crash, or freeze then crash. Because of that, I treated my Mac accordingly, for quite a while. But, as all ascetics are wont to do, I got lazy and started to indulge. Windows kept me disciplined in that once I became lazy, there was a crash or a freeze, and I had to spend time watching the blue screen check the C drive for errors after I'd gotten so frustrated that I just unplugged the damn thing. This, I thought for a long time, was what computers did. Even the Millennium Falcon broke down every so often, so what was I to expect? But after being lazy from time to time and getting away with it, I started to test limits, as it were. I would run three applications at once, and switch between them quickly. I made demands on my system, which was something I had never done before. I wanted to see how far I could push it before it'd show me where the limit was, teach me the rules. But there were few. And then I started to take this for granted as well.

These changes weren't immediately apparent. In fact they were more or less unconscious. But there were also some things that I did notice. For example, I'd stopped looking for an extra "Apply" button to click after I had "Ok'd" the change for some settings. I stopped habitually feeling around for a second mouse button. I stopped wincing in anticipation of an "Illegal operation" every time I opened an application. I stopped expecting to be prompted to reboot after I installed even the smallest application. Why? Because these are things Mac users don't haveto do.

It was about this time that I started following the Mac sites. I wanted some cool applications, and there were a lot of them available for free, so there was no reason that I shouldn't take advantage of them. However, this was a new activity for me. I never looked for software for my Compaq because new software just made the damn thing unstable. I don't know if it was my Compaq in particular, or if this is a Windows-wide phenomenon, but every time I installed software, I'd restart it and it would work fine until the next time I booted it, at which point it would inform me that some operation I'd apparently performed was illegal. Sometimes this was a thing that would last for as long as the software was installed, and would continue until I removed it. Having found that this wasn't the case with Mac, I was suddenly really excited again, like the day I took my iBook home, and I found myself installing apps I didn't even need, just so I could mess around with them for a while. All of this just because I could. And what was more was that I knew how. This is an important factor because I have never been a “computer person.” Computers aren't my thing. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't even know what HTML stands for. I just know that when I have to write a paper, it requires a word processing application. But somehow, I convinced myself, I'd become that word. I'd become savvy.How this thing that I perceived as a transformation took place I was at a loss to say. What I knew was that I wasn't sending out any more email with exclamation points. I was diagnosing and fixing my own system problems. This was an altogether new thing for me because I had no idea where to even begin to look on my Compaq when something went wrong. All I knew was my brother's email address.

Of course, it dawned on me one day that I had not in fact become that word. Despite that through my Mac I actually had two websites (elementary websites, but sites nonetheless), despite that I knew what most of the folders on my hard drive were for, and despite that I could decide to get my Mac to do something and then actually make it happen, I still wasn't (and am not presently) savvy. Because with a Mac you don't have to be. And that's the catch. That's what it comes down to when you talk about the difference between Mac and PC. The fact is that I can't write a single line of code, or tell you which ports are open, and I still don't know what HTML stands for, or what ODBC does. I don't need to know, either. Because that's what a Mac does: it removes the computer from your experience, and allows you to do things you want to do, rather than forcing you to do computer things you barely know how to do. It allows you to forget your computer, and remember to work. And that just plain kicks ass.

My PC paranoia has not completely faded. For example, after hearing people complain about having to reboot once in a while, and realizing that shutting down isn't an absolute necessity (on my Compaq, sleep mode somehow disabled the modem, and required a restart assuming you could get to the Start menu before it crashed on you), I recently decided that I trusted my Mac enough to put it to sleep rather than shut it down. There are no problems. When I have an idea in the middle of the night that I need to write down before I forget it, I don't have to search for a pen or paper and then try and make out my handwriting in the morning. I don't have to wait for my iBook to boot up either. It's a freeing experience. At this point, all that's left to do is wait until the rest of my PC paranoia fades out. I wish it would hurry, though. I really want to see what else I can get this thing to do.