As the Mac turns 20, has the PC caught up?

The Apple Mac turns 20 this week, but the real question is not has it grown up, but are PCs now as impervious to gecko lizards?

Twenty years ago this week, during the year of Big Brother, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introduced the Apple Macintosh. Although the seminal advert (which you can view on Apple's Website here) sticks in everyone's minds, it's easy to forget just how revolutionary that little beige, boxy, Mac was.

At the time, Windows version 1 was still a year away, and overlapping windows and icons on the PC would not appear for another three years, in the form of Windows 2 -- later to be renamed Windows 286. And of course all those early versions of Windows ran on top of the DOS command-line operating system.

It was not just the graphical user interface that set the Apple Mac apart from the competition: it was the whole ease-of-use thing. While PC owners were getting tied up with conflicting IRQs and DMAs every time they tried to plug or unplug something, on the Mac everything just, well, worked. That PCs did not work was not necessarily Microsoft's fault, and nor was it necessarily IBM's fault. It was simply a symptom of multiple companies, industry groups and interests haggling over every layer of the PC's architecture, from the system bus to the operating system.

Apple never had that to cope with. By refusing to let its products become a commodity, Apple ensured they would become an icon of cohesive design, produced by a company that controlled almost every aspect of the operating system and the hardware, and so could ensure that the two worked together in relative harmony.

Sure, Apple Macs break down. But they are useable, and not just by the computer literate. Although the graphical user interface is regularly drawn upon as the shining example of the might of the Mac, I'd argue that AppleTalk should come a close second. This networking protocol is made possible to plug a room-full of Macs, printers and other peripherals together, and just use them. Such ease of use has only recently been achieved by the PC.

Indeed, it can still be hard to give PCs away. Take the case of Wesley High School, a frangipani-fringed establishment that sits between a swamp and a mission station at Salamo on the tiny, volcanic D'Entrecastaux island group in the South Pacific. I once stayed there for a week or so, on my way to look for a legendary tribe of women (but that's another story) and spent some time talking to the headmaster Stanley Sibunakau. On a tour of the school grounds, Stanley showed me the site where he hoped to build a library extension which, he said proudly, would house ten computers for the students. Some time later I learnt that the computers - PCs running Windows all -- had been delivered (and donated), but after several weeks were sent back because nobody could figure out how a) how to connect them up, or b) how to use them.

It was a different story on the newspaper I ran on a neighbouring island, where our aged Apple Mac Plus computers remained impervious to the crabs and gecko lizards that found their way into the innards of most other equipment. Our tattooed, betelnut-chewing accounts clerk and even our ad sales manager, a former defence minister, were able to network the Macs with ease. Not only that, but the Macs were more than capable of full four-colour tabloid separations for print. Over the years we had offers of PCs from various embassies and high commissions, but our answer was always the same: if it's not a Mac, we don't want it.

Sure our Mac Plus computers were dated, but they were still superior in many ways to PCs, and at 15 they were still going strong.

Of course the landscape has since changed. Despite jokes about blue screens of death, Windows 2000 and XP is stable enough to use for any desktop application. Networking is relatively easy and since Plug 'n' Play matured in Windows, and Apple switched to Ethernet, there is little to choose in ease of setting up networks. As for the Interface, well, that's a matter of personal preference, which is usually born out of experience. If you really want something on your PC that looks more like the Mac interface, you can always venture into the Linux world, where there are more skins for KDE and Gnome than you can shake a snake at.

I suspect that if somebody now wanted to donate PCs to Wesley High School, the headmaster would take them and know what to do with them. They are just as useful (if more virus-prone) for surfing the Web. A newspaper could be put together on a PC just as easily as on a Mac. And even the networking is manageable. Would a PC be as impervious to gecko lizards? I'm not quite so convinced by that one. Twenty years on then, it looks as though the PC has finally grown up: the Mac was simply born mature.