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September 15, 2003

The One Source Solution?

I want an Apple. For too long I have suffered in front of so called PC computers, the products of the Wintel monopoly. Mysterious failures, uncooperative operating systems and applications, features that are supposed to help but instead endlessly irritate... I have had my fair share of PC-related woes, and I'd rather have no more. I long for hardware that all works together, using software that is both powerful and easy to use. With cross-platform compatibility no longer an issue, I can envision the day that an Apple computer will grace my desk instead of an ugly, cumbersome box.

Of course, there is one slight problem. As I've fairly recently come off of an extended period of unemployment, my "disposable" income for the next few years is already owing to the bank of Mom & Dad. Apple hardware is not exactly cheap, as you may have noticed. The problem lies in the fact that Wintel hardware has become a commodity, which basically means it's dirt cheap. In the past year I have seen more ads for new, fairly well-equipped computers under $1000 than I've ever seen in my life. When faced with the possibility of purchasing a brand-new Wintel computer for less than four digits versus spending a minimum of twice as much for a comparable Apple computer, it causes me to pause and wonder. Suddenly trying to permanently turn off the Office Assistant doesn't seem so bad...

Recently I started thinking about computers, and why it might be that Apple computers work so well yet Wintel computers can so easily suck. How can it be that one computer maker can have such gorgeous hardware that kicks ass with killer software and another can be so riddled with bugs that its bric-a-brac hardware and bloated software can barely keep up with each other? It didn't take me very long to figure out the root cause of this superficially bewildering problem. It all boils down to numbers: specifically, the number one.

Let me ask you this: How many companies produce PC hardware? Well, in all my computers Intel made the CPU, although AMD or Cyrix could have as well. Compaq made my current computer, although the previous ones were generic PCs. I've had two different makes of modem, still more variety in video cards, and who knows what motherboards I've used. The reason PC parts are so cheap is that everybody makes them, which is also their downfall. When you put a computer together with such varied parts there is no way you'll ever be able to account for all the various configurations and combinations. Standards help, but are by no means a guarantee that things will work.

Take my current computer, for example. When I got it I promptly set aside the keyboard and two-button mouse that came with it in favour of my Microsoft ergonomic split keyboard and Logitech 3-button mouse. After trying to turn it on, I was both wholly dismayed and flabbergasted at seeing not the normal boot screen, but an error proclaiming that my drive controller had failed. In other words, my computer had suddenly lost track of its own hard drive. After a minute of sheer panic, I realized that the only change I had made was that I had put the mouse and keyboard on. I unplugged them, put the old ones back on, and voilá - it booted perfectly.

Of course, that wasn't the end of my woes. The computer came without a modem, so I set out to find one. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could get a new PCI modem for all of $22. Hey, great! Windows 2000 should detect it right off and I'll be up and running in minutes, right? Hah. I installed the modem, and was greeted by another driver controller failure. Now I was just disheartened. How do I get it to recognize a modem? After some digging and e-mails (sent from work, of course) I found the Compaq forum, and posted my problem. One suggestion was to reset the BIOS - not exactly an everyday "hey let's try this" kind of fix for a computer. Well, it worked, so I'm now happily modeming from home. But please tell me what kind of a twisted, sick sociopath makes a computer that will utterly barf when new hardware is added, or even when a different keyboard is used?

Now look at Apple. Here you have one company that designs both the hardware and the bulk of the software - both operating systems and applications - for its entire line of computers. Third party vendors for either hardware or software have but one company to go through to ensure that their product is fully compatible with every Apple out there. Instead of filtering through various processor choices, memory types, motherboard chipsets, everything goes through Apple Computer, making the process of ensuring compatibility a relative breeze. One source - that's the reason that Apple computers work, while us Wintel peons put up with reformatting, Blue Screens of Death, and general crappiness.

Here's the tricky question that I asked myself after figuring this out: Is it possible to duplicate an Apple computer in a Wintel frame of reference? Although there are umpteen choices when putting PC hardware together to make a computer, what if everything was sourced from one manufacturer, as in the case of Apple computer? Not as an endorsement but as an example, what if I decided that I was going to purchase a Dell computer next time instead? Just as if I had picked an Apple computer, I would go to Dell, pick a computer from their lineup that they had put together and tested, and be on my way. Dell will have gone through all the permutations to ensure that this particular hardware configuration would work as it should, and will have even installed and set up all the software for me. Could I get the smoothness of an Apple at Wintel prices?

I think the answer is both yes and no. Yes, I can go to one manufacturer and get a computer that should work as well as any Apple computer should. Unfortunately, the likelihood of things ending there is pretty slight. The great thing about PCs (and their downfall) is the fact that you can go anywhere, buy any hardware or software, and install it in or on your computer. The problem is, there is no guarantee that Dell ever tested what you're putting in/on your computer. Your computer may work straight from the factory like a well-oiled machine, but put in just one generic expansion card, install just one flaky application, and everything may go down the crapper.

There is one middle-ground solution that may work and even make good economic sense. With Moore's law still well in effect, prices drop dramatically shortly after the latest and greatest becomes commercially available. I almost never upgrade a computer system anymore, so perhaps it would be worth my while to simply get into a short term computer lease, where I can have at least newer technology sourced from one manufacturer and wait until I get my next new lease before I add any additional hardware. Of course, that still leaves me open for disappointment in the software department, and unless I want to go hard-core and use Linux instead of Windows, I will still have to put up with the digital slop that Billy G and his merry band of monopolists imposes on me. It will never be a true one-source solution like getting an Apple.

With a newer computer now sitting on my desk and working quite well for my purposes, I won't have to decide one way or the other for a long time. My frugal side wants to stick with PCs, but at the same time I know that I get what I pay for, so putting out the extra cash for an excellent Apple may just be what I need. Of course, I can always cut some of the price of an Apple by buying used, too. The most tempting aspect of buying an Apple, aside from a computer that works, is being able to say, "Screw you, Bill!" That alone may be worth the price of admission.


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