My anti-Mac bias rears its ugly head

Once, a long, long time ago, I had a Titanium Powerbook (well, actually about 5 years ago, but that's an eternity in computer years). I bought it for its off-the-shelf multimedia capabilities to support a small consulting business I was running.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Once, a long, long time ago, I had a Titanium Powerbook (well, actually about 5 years ago, but that's an eternity in computer years). I bought it for its off-the-shelf multimedia capabilities to support a small consulting business I was running. While the business never really took off and I ended up heading in a different direction, the PowerBook hung in there remarkably well editing videos and photos and managing the family's growing music collection. The built-in capabilities highlighted Apple's traditional niche of multimedia and a very easy-to-use interface for it's iLife suite. It wasn't too long, though, before I began teaching and administering a Windows-only network and found myself needing a Windows computer more and more frequently, while the time I had to edit home movies became virtually nill.

My need to use a few Windows applications became more pressing, OS X was still far less mature than it is today, and Macs were still G4-based, ruling out virtualization and Boot Camp/Parallels (neither of which existed yet). Thus, my brief love affair with Apple ended and I became just another Windows guy.

Fast-forward to 2007 and I'm now pretty fluent in Active Directory and my users are asking me when we're moving to Vista ("We're not," I tell them, much to their surprise). I use Linux almost exclusively at home and work, as do my kids (although I have one die-hard Windows kid, for whom I maintain an XP machine), and use Remote Desktop to do what I need to do with my Windows-based servers. Why bother with Linux, though? In a nutshell, it's free; I can pick from a wide variety of looks, feels, and distributions; switching between said looks and feels only costs me download time (due to some smart partitioning); and it runs, with the occasional quirk, on any hardware I can throw at it (within reason, of course; don't bother with the Pentium IIs). For the few remaining applications I have that require Windows, I can run them in virtual machines, but can still use an operating system with volumes of free and useful software for most of my work.

I have the added incentive, however, of handling all of the purchasing for my school (and, de facto, most of my district). Thus, when I see anything that's free, I'm always inclined to try it. If it's free and highly functional, I'm likely to stick with it. Not only am I cheap (my wife can attest to that), but I, like most people in my situation, fight to keep and stretch every last bit of funding I can find. I'm in no position to make a widespread switch to Linux right now due to some legacy apps, user preferences, and existing investments in a largely Windows platform. However, the better I understand it and the more my students, teachers, and staff are exposed to it, the better prepared we will be if we can make the switch in the next few years.

Why don't I ever mention Macs, though, as platform of choice for my school (or just for me, now that most of what I do can be handled independent of platform and Macs easily support dual-booting and virtualization)? One of my readers called me "the wrong expert" when I failed to mention Macintosh as an option for parents looking to buy their kids a computer (I want to buy my kid a laptop). He said:

Ok, let's start with my bias... I've been teaching for 14 years, most of the time using technology in the classroom. I started with Apple IIe's and have used every generation of Mac and Windows OS since. I've also worked in two schools where every student was given a laptop 24/7 to support instruction.

That being said... In a 21st Century classroom, a lot more should be happening than word processing. Check out ISTE's National Educational Technology Standards for kids http://cnets.iste.org/ and The Partnership for 21st Century Skills http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/. Web design, video production, web 2.0, podcasting/audio production, digital story telling... For kids today, these are necessary tools for instruction. Could this be done on a $500 laptop - maybe, but not without a ton of time and knowledge a teenager shouldn't be expected to have. Maybe a better tool would be a Macbook - it will easily last a 9th grader through high school and comes with all the software to easily do any project a teacher would desire. One thing I've learned over the years - buy a kid junk and he'll treat it like junk. Buy your kid a real tool and he'll treasure it.

Not actually bad points. However, last night I was at a friend's house. She runs a scrapbooking business and has begun focusing her efforts on digital photography. When she bought her Macbook a year ago, it seemed a perfect fit. However, the company for whom she consults uses Windows-only software, so she bought a copy of XP and began dual-booting. Now she has quickly filled the hard drive with two operating systems, application software, and countless photos. It's time for an upgrade, and she'd like to have a larger screen so that she can run demonstrations for clients. Apple makes a gorgeous 17" Macbook Pro, but she can walk into Best Buy and purchase a 17" HP for $1100.

Sure, the HP is running a dual core AMD processor and lacks the RAM or high-end video card of the Mac, but will be more than adequate for her purposes. And therein lies my bias against Macintosh. Sure, they have gorgeous, well-designed, intuitive products. Are their products easier to use than their Windows or Linux equivalents? Sometimes. Will Macs ever compete in markets where most of our users operate? Probably not. She doesn't need the power of a Macbook Pro any more than our students do and certainly can't afford it any more than most of our students can.

I don't tend to talk about Macs in a very positive light, not because they're bad products. On the contrary, they are outstanding for what they do. What they do is simply not what most of us need or can afford when really nice products can be had for less. Wine drinkers on a budget know that $10 will buy something very drinkable; not many folks can distinguish between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle. Neither can most of our users distinguish between a Core 2 Duo running OS X and a Turion X2 running Ubuntu or Vista.

So I probably won't recommend Macs in this column; it doesn't make me less of an expert, it just makes me cheap and practical. For my users who can tell the difference, I just might recommend a Mac sometime; it all depends on what they want, need, and can afford.

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