Why the best PC may now be a Mac

For years, the two worlds of PC and Mac really were separate. Opting for one meant being locked out of the other, as everything from networking protocols to file formats were different, making it very difficult to share information let alone mix PCs and Macs in the same office.

In recent times, however, the computing landscape has been dramatically altered. The result is that Macs are suddenly a hot property, coveted especially by those ‘in the know’, including by many people who still earn a living supporting Windows PCs.

So what exactly has changed?

Open standards make platforms irrelevant

Apple’s innovative hardware and software design continues to impress.

Open standards are the commonly agreed vocabulary between different hardware and software systems. And today computers are all speaking the same language and interoperating like never before. Most of what we touch on computers – whether JPG images, or MP3 music files, or DOC or XLS files – are familiar to most users and can be opened with software on any computer.

The main set of open standards that most of us are familiar with are those surrounding the internet, things like IP networking, email, the world wide web, instant messaging. It doesn’t matter what flavour of computer you use to access these things; it’s the same internet whether you use a Windows PC or a Mac. The platform just doesn’t matter anymore, and PCs and Macs easily link together on networks large and small.

Mac OS X: solid UNIX base

It may have been easy to use, and it may have blazed the trail for graphical user interfaces which Microsoft Windows could only belatedly follow, but the Mac OS was never really renowned for being a robust operating system.

That all changed with Mac OS X a few years ago. The X ostensibly meant ‘10’, as it replaced Mac OS 9. But more than that, the X meant UNIX, the most solid computer operating platform bar none, introduced as the new backbone to the Mac OS. From that point on, behind the beautiful graphical interface – an interface that Microsoft has still struggled to match with its latest Vista OS – has been a powerful and secure operating system. For those who have struggled with Windows crashes, such stability is a complete revelation.

This is probably what longtime Windows development chief James Allchin was talking about when he was quoted in a recently leaked email saying that Microsoft has “lost sight of what bug-free means, what resilience means, what security means, what performance means.” He then went on to say, “If I didn’t work for Microsoft, I would buy a Mac”!

UNIX means security

Security and computing don’t really seem to go hand in hand, do they? Viruses, worms, trojans, spyware – most computer users couldn’t tell you exactly how they work, but they are scared enough to spend a lot of money and countless hours combatting them, or in the worst case scenario, rebuilding after being infected by one of them.

By last count, there were already 114,000 viruses ‘in the wild’ that threaten Windows PCs, yet none for the Mac (or Linux, which is also UNIX-based). The reason for this is simple: UNIX is secure by design. It always has been.

Interestingly, Microsoft has always maintained that there was no such thing as ‘security by design’, that Mac OS and Linux are merely ‘secure by obscurity’; in other words, nobody bothers writing viruses for such small niche markets. Yet with its new Vista OS, Microsoft now claims to offer ‘security by design’ itself – a claim disputed by many experts who point out that the same fundamental flaws with Windows still exist.

Apple’s new Intel platform

Despite Mac OS X’s strengths, computer buyers have never been able easily to comparison shop for PCs and Macs because the latter used completely different hardware.

Now the Mac is a PC. Last year Apple adopted PC architecture in the form of the Intel processor and everything connected with it. This means you can now easily run Windows on Mac – choosing to start Windows rather than Mac OS X at system start up, or even running Windows within a window on the desktop. This can be very useful for those who crave the Mac’s stability but still need to run one or two essential Windows applications.

Apple on the up

The forthcoming iPhone puts the power of OS X into the palm of the hand.

Ten years ago, Apple was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, leaking what little marketshare it had, and certainly not able to offer a bright future to prospective customers.

Today, thanks largely to that ubiquitous MP3 player called the iPod, which didn’t just change music players, but changed the whole music industry, Apple is back at the top of its game, recognised across the world for its innovation and influence. Take note of the way Apple’s announcement of the upcoming iPhone was received – the world expects another iPod-like success. And that has had a tremendous impact on the way people view Apple generally: Mac marketshare while still small is increasing quickly, and more than 50% of Macs are being sold to people who have never owned one before. This is a trend that is only likely to pick up, particularly when Apple releases an exciting new version of OS X (called Leopard) this spring.

All this to say, the next time you replace your Windows PC, don’t rule out walking across that traditional divide between PCs and Macs. You may be surprised at what’s possible these days, and learn what Mac users mean when they say they spend less time working their computer, and a lot more time getting on with their work (and play).