Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

Think different

Think different
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I try to make a habit of not responding to replies to posts on ideasonideas. I feel that I should make my full observation in the initial post. From there I believe that each topic should be left open for the community to discuss. Quite simply, I feel it’s my role to present some ideas, not defend them.

With this next post, I imagine that there’s no way to avoid some negative reaction. Perhaps I’m wrong, but this topic seems to raise the ire of nearly every creative in the land. So, in what appears to be my weekly aim to make readers think that the people at smashLAB are “big stupid-heads”, I’m going to start this post by saying it: we use, and will continue to use, PCs.

What this post is, and is not

Oh, I can already hear the gasps and guffaws. So, let me take a moment to clarify the impetus behind this piece. This post is in no way intended to discourage or belittle any Mac user. To the contrary, it is intended to document some of the questions we faced, and decisions we made, as a result of weighing the pros and cons of each operating system for our studio.

In short, I wish to present the notion that the seemingly abundant reasons for a design studio to depend upon the Mac platform have dwindled; whereas, the Windows environment offers some strengths that many Mac users would with time find quite indispensable.

I was a dyed-in-the-wool Mac-guy

In 1996, when I for the first time tried to work on a PC, it was clearly deficient to the Mac OS. The applications just didn’t work as well, type control was abysmal, and sending files to the print-house felt like quite a harrowing prospect.

I can’t imagine that anyone would argue that the Macintosh was a quantum leap ahead, and that Microsoft responded at a snails-pace. In 1984, there was no question as to why the Macintosh was superior. For that matter, in 1997, the Mac still seemed to have a strong lead on the Wintel alternative.

Upon testing the first version of OSX however, it was clear that the new operating system was less than ready for prime-time. As such, our studio toyed with the notion of a world without Apples (gasp). In turn, we decided to give the PC another try. Although initially apprehensive about the solution, I found that after a week I had for the most part forgotten that I had made any transition at all.

Our studio ran as a completely Wintel-based operation for the better part of four years. Although I had a soft spot for my old G4, I cannot stress heavily enough how great a relief a single-OS world was. We no longer had to deal with cross-platform font issues or forked files. We experienced greater standardization in our office, and I.T. time was halved. We still had a Mac in the office for web-compliance testing; however, that soon became the only duty we placed upon that shiny little box.

I should note that the greatest level of resistance we noted was from new job applicants and some other designers. New hires would often turn a little pale upon hearing that their new work environment was PC-based; nevertheless, every one those individuals later acknowledged that the transition was easier than they had imagined.

It is just so pretty

With all of this though, the lure of the siren did catch me. I walked up to a Mac again in January of this year. I looked, I clicked, and I was in awe. What a beautiful machine. I raced home and called my business partner, “Hey, do you think we could give this Mac thing a try? I hear it’s really stable.” The truth is that I love beautiful things–stability had little to do with my interest; yet, I felt this was a sound way to convince a non-Mac guy to give it a spin.

After many weeks of research, deliberation, and questioning of peers, we decided that we would buy a Mac. It was a rather exciting experience. The packaging was beautiful, and the notion of a new set of computing solutions wasn’t without its allure; nevertheless, we encountered one question that we simply couldn’t get past: For the tens of thousands we would have to invest in order to switch, what notable improvements would we find in our office?

We ran through a set of questions, and searched for empirical facts to help us make this decision; however, we were hard pressed to find a rational answer to support the switch. Would they increase our efficiency? Hardly. Would they run faster? Seemingly not. Were there tools available on them that were not on our beige boxes? Nope. Sure, there were benchmarks and exceptions which could be used to counter the above statements; however, when looked upon dispassionately, many of them seemed more like propaganda than hard fact.

Certainly, the stability and security of a UNIX-based OS was very attractive considering the number of problems reported with Windows. When we looked at it more closely though; has our security ever been breeched? No. Do we have problems with stability? Occasionally, but 98% of the time, the complaint was due to an Adobe product misbehaving. And it’s not like other operating systems don’t have security and stability problems. Most times they’re just not as publicized as those affecting Windows.

We spent a number of weeks, trying to find ways to justify our switch to the Mac, and at the end we came back empty. I have to stress this: I wanted to move to the Mac. I wanted our little design agency to have those beautiful boxes at each desk. That said, while staring at a minimum outlay of fifty-thousand dollars to make the transition, I needed more to justify the cost.

Then it hit me

I quite love the Macs. They look good and they are nice to operate. I appreciate the attention to detail that they exude. They are without a doubt, the most aesthetically conscious computers available in the marketplace today. As such, it was hard to come to our conclusion.

My impetus for considering the Mac ultimately came down to one of style. I liked the look of them, and how nice they felt. That being said, when the marketing was pushed aside, I acknowledge that they simply wouldn’t allow our firm to do the things that our current solution did.

Our firm has always been different. We’re less fun than many others and I sometimes think we are more about strategy than design. I do not challenge the Macintosh’s superior styling and design; however, I do question the price of aesthetics in this instance. I believe in function over form. Let me restate that. I believe in both, but in my mind function should win.

What Mac users are missing

Beyond the cost factor, which realistically is a very compelling reason to choose the Wintel environment, there is one big reason why I’ll choose our Wintel solution over the Mac OS, and that’s Outlook. Mac users will respond, “You haven’t done your homework–we have Entourage.” True, however, Entourage is simply not the same as Outlook.

Although many confuse this application as an email tool, it’s so much more. Outlook in tandem with the MS Exchange Server is a powerful contact management and group collaboration solution. We use it for all aspects of our daily operations. For the small studio, it is an incredibly useful tool. To most designers, this is likely quite droll; however, for firms such as ours, who are working to build consistent process, efficient job management is a big issue.

Of course, there’s more. What about ensuring operability of template documents when they reach the client’s hands? We build templates to ensure consistency in any operation’s correspondence. This allows them to maintain the type standards, as laid-out in their identity, in every piece they create. We find it useful to work with systems that our clients understand and which we can walk them through as necessary.

Additionally, there’s the fact that most interactive shops require a team of developers who generally prefer to work on PCs. Frankly, there are efficiencies to keeping everyone on a single platform. Sure, BootCamp allows for dual booting; however, I am hard pressed to believe that most will use this function on a day to day basis.

These are just a few of my points; however, I believe that they help to illustrate a few of the things that helped us make our decision.

Never mind the zealots

People love their Macs. Some seem like those crazed Saturn drivers, who like to go to big barbecues together. Hey, I don’t really get it, but it seems to make them happy, so what the heck?

That being said, it’s weird when you ask someone about their computer, and they get this glassy, zombie-like expression, while spittle collects in the sides of their mouths. (I half expected some of them to offer me some really nice Kool-Aid, and an invitation to meet their leader.)

I suppose that in all of our research, I would have appreciated a little less passion, and perhaps a tiny bit more objective counsel. Honestly, that silly little box is just a tool. It doesn’t do the job for you.

We think different

One of the things that the Mac-camp of designers continued to reiterate, upon being asked about their preference for that particular OS, was that Macs are the industry standard. This phrase came up over and over again, a little like a mantra, “Industry standard… industry standard… industry standard…”

That seems like bunk to me though. The horse and carriage was an industry standard for some time–that certainly didn’t make it the only method of travel. Technology changes, as do user needs.

Isn’t the phrase “think different”? I suppose that’s what our firm is doing by choosing something other than the “industry standard”. That’s right… we’re sticking with these horribly ugly, but highly functional beige boxes.

Do I love the Wintel solution? Most certainly not. There are a number of deficiencies, and from all reports, Vista seems less than market-ready; moreover, it looks like a cheap knock-off of the OSX GUI.

The choice to employ Windows is not one we make wholeheartedly; however, at this time, it is the most effective platform for our firm’s needs. Although this very well may change with time, I don’t regret choosing to stick with this system. In fact, if you’ve never considered it before, I feel comfortable noting that it’s worth a look.

I should clarify one point. I’m not trying to change your mind. If you love your Mac, you love it. If you feel that way about your PC, fine; nevertheless, in all of my searching for objective feedback on which OS was the most sound, I found little other than evangelical hyperbole from each camp. My hope is that this lends an alternate voice to the debate.

Aren’t there better things to be discussing?

I have presented this topic in an effort to address some questions that others didn’t seem as able to answer when we asked. I’m not interested in starting a grand debate with this; however, from a business perspective, I think that choosing an operating system is a relevant discussion point.

That being said, I almost loath broaching the topic as I fear that it may spur even more pointless debate. For all of the talk about designers asking bigger questions, I believe that the Mac/PC question represents perhaps the greatest collective waste of effort known to a single industry. Has there ever before been a brand-loyalty topic that has commanded quite as great a furor?

Instead of seeing the bulletin boards filled with posts regarding preferences for one system or another, I’d love to find boards wrapped with relevant debate amongst designers, regarding potential ways that we can make change, help others, or improve the environment.

You’ll endlessly hear Mac users celebrate the efforts of Steve Jobs, the brilliantly creative showman, who has raised an almost evangelical following for the machines he sells. He’s a marketing genius. He has sold us on the idea of “insanely great”, and subsequently convinced us that these machines can make our lives better, happier, and even inspire revolution. He has equated the Macintosh to Gandhi, Edison, and Picasso. I believe there are few others who have pulled off as great an act of brand-wizardry.

Not as many speak as enthusiastically about Microsoft’s systems or their leader; however, it must be noted that Bill Gates, has contributed more than $3.6 billion to global health organizations, via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This organization has given away more money than anyone in world history. Am I part of the Gates’ fan club? No, but I’m starting to think that perhaps I should be.

Maybe we need to put the computer back in to perspective. It’s not a revolution, and it doesn’t define you. It’s a machine. If your identity is wrapped in it, perhaps you need to get away from that box a little more often. As a designer, you are measured by your ideas, output, and commitment–let’s accept that the time has come to stop worrying about the colour of the boxes beneath our desks.

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