Many of the great pop-culture debates of our time involve intense rivalries — Yankees versus Red Sox, Britney versus Christina, Ford versus Chevy. Among these great discussions stands one that has shaped the technological world: Macs versus PCs.
Ten years ago, the computer world was different than today, and it seemed like Microsoft had bested its rivals. Beleaguered was a popular phrase used to describe Apple, and Linux was less than a year old and unknown outside small circles of avid coders.
But today, the decision is not so clear-cut, and Apple has made a much larger comeback in Yale student and faculty computing than its 10 to 12 percent national market share would indicate. According to Yale Information Technology Services’ registration records, nearly 20 percent of University students and 33 percent of faculty choose Macs over Windows PCs.
With a reinvented, cutting-edge operating system and a cool, sleek design, Apple is clawing its way to technological equality on campus. Products like iPod and iTunes have transformed the Apple brand into a status symbol as much as a technological tool, and alternative platforms such as Linux have moved out of the shady realm of hackers and into the public eye. The debate is renewed.
Mac has seen a recent rebirth in relevance due to the popular iPod and iTunes products. While the actual percentage of the market using Macs may still be low, Apple has been gaining product recognition among potential buyers. A recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that many Windows users who were put off by Apple’s prices might now consider switching because of the introduction of the Mac Mini — a cheaper alternative to the iMac and PowerMac desktops.
Max Engel ’06, a Mac user and computing assistant, said choosing a computer was difficult for him because he had experience with both Macs and Windows PCs, but frustration with bugs, crashes and general unpleasantness that plagued his Windows experience outweighed the cost of the Apple PowerBook he purchased.
He suggested that extreme customer loyalty could be the Macintosh platform’s most powerful aspect, forming what he described as the “Cult of Mac.”
“I am not just a Mac Specialist CA, but someone who has a sweet fondness for his computer and the brand behind it,” he said. “I have an Apple bumper sticker on my car, a patch on my hat and a poster in my room. You don’t find that kind of loyalty with Windows users, and there is a reason why.”
Macintosh’s customer service is also helping it make up ground against Windows. Katie Levine ’07 said Apple’s support was knowledgeable and helpful when she had computer problems.
“They know what they’re talking about,” she said.
Levine said Apple’s warranty service is prompt and the company “bent the rules” to accommodate her when her iPod was damaged.
ITS Director Philip Long said while Windows permeates all areas of academia, Macintosh computers are most prevalent in the humanities, especially art, and Group IV disciplines. Linux is most frequently used for social sciences and Group IV subjects, he said.
“We need to track the market,” Long said. “It’s both what Yale students and faculty are doing and what the broader market is doing that are going to affect what we do in the future.”
ITS has remained relatively neutral in recommending incoming freshmen to purchase one brand over the other. There are computer clusters for Windows, Linux and Mac computers, and ITS has discount programs for both Apple and Dell.
Long said that ITS does not try to show favoritism to one brand in meeting the different computing demands of students and faculty. But for most students, the decision comes down to whether or not it can get the job done.
In Yale’s Computer Science Department and CS computing cluster, also known as the Zoo, the UNIX-based Linux is the platform of choice. The Linux operating system benefits from a usership that actively tries to improve its function.
“The Zoo is constrained to use some kind of UNIX because it is the standard for operating systems teaching, and most academic software of all kinds is written for it,” said Anthony Di Franco ’05, a computer science major and member of the department’s student advisory committee.
He said Linux was chosen based on price, availability of software and the relative frequency of updates.
Outside of the lab, computer science majors are not necessarily tied to Linux. Reuben Grinberg ’05 uses a Mac because of his preference for Mac OS X, the Macintosh operating system, and the Apple design.
Grinberg said he was attracted by the compatibility between Macs and Linux, and the large number of programs which have been ported — or modified to work on multiple platforms — by open-source organizations.
He said the “less is more” philosophy of Apple products was also a reason he chose to go with a Mac, pointing to Apple’s strong focus on interface design and list of “Human Interface Guidelines” on its Web site. These specifications for Mac-compatible products echo Apple’s mantra of simplicity.
But interface and compatibility issues are not enough to unseat the current champion of the platform wars. Microsoft has inertia on its side, with many students, such as Ashish Vatsal ’05, using Windows because years of familiarity are hard to simply toss away.
“I like the look of OS X,” Vatsal said. “But if I switched to a Mac, I’d have to start over, and I’d lose the level of comfort I currently have with a PC.”
Likewise, the cost of switching from Windows, specifically Apple’s higher price-tags, concerns many students.
Jeremiah Graves ’05 said his Windows system was adequate for his needs and purchasing a Mac was not worth it.
“I’m mostly doing word processing,” he said. “Buying a Mac seems like overkill.”
Graves said his experience as a Windows user would make switching more difficult. He said he is more comfortable using Microsoft programs and prefers Windows Media Player to Apple’s iTunes.
While many Windows programs, like Media Player, have equal or similar counterparts on competing systems, they are not always functionally identical. And, in the case of commercial software such as Microsoft Office, a new license often needs to be purchased. There are free alternatives like OpenOffice, but users cannot open all types of files.
Long said while Yale has evaluated OpenOffice, the program is not superior to Microsoft Office.
There is, however, evidence that history alone is not enough to keep people on Windows. Many students expressed security concerns about Microsoft products, and this worry is beginning to cause a migration to other operating systems.
“While UNIX has been around for many, many years, there’s no doubt that the center of innovation is around Linux,” Long said. “Our own experience is that any well-managed Linux system is as secure as any other system. Linux was built with security at some part of its core. Windows is sort of the opposite extreme.”
Yale recently moved its e-mail system to Linux servers.
“Linux is really exploding in the back-office area with servers,” Long said. “We can see the source for it — we know what’s going on. It’s economic, and colleagues at other universities are using it as well, so we can learn from them, too.”