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Now a response to the Mac backers

I GOT AN impassioned letter this week from a reader who wanted to know why I don't write more about Macintosh computers.

After extolling the virtues of the Mac, he described an assortment of woes that had beset unlucky friends cursed with computers running Microsoft operating systems.

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He said many of his troubled peers found inner peace after switching to the Mac, which he called the perfect computer for "a very prevalent group in our society: the computer illiterate. The really computer illiterate." He was worried that publicity about Apple's financial problems was scaring away neophytes who would benefit from the Mac's simplicity.

The letter was far more civilized than much of the mail I get from Mac enthusiasts, who tend to question the intelligence, sanity, parentage, probity and sexual practices of those foolish enough to choose some other computer. It deserves a civilized answer.

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First things first. I write about PCs because that's what most people use in their homes and small businesses. After years of disastrous marketing decisions, Apple's market share has dropped to between 5 percent and 10 percent. A disproportionate number of those Macs are concentrated in two market segments -- schools and the graphics trade. Now this doesn't mean that there aren't any Macs in the home, but any column in a general interest publication that deals strictly with Macs or Mac-only products will have a very limited audience.

Now, the sixty-four dollar question -- should I recommend Macs because they're easier to use?

Until a few years ago, Macs were unquestionably easier to get running out of the box -- and they are still marginally better. The elegant Mac operating system, with its point-and-click interface, was a major improvement over MS-DOS in the 1980s.

Because Apple refused to license its technology to clone makers, it could enforce hardware and software standards. All Mac programs basically looked and worked the same way. Adding gadgets such as printers, scanners and hard disks was easier. So was small-scale networking.

The Mac's built-in graphics spawned a new industry -- desktop ** publishing.

But no matter how insanely great the Mac was, most users didn't think it was worth the hefty premium Apple charged. That's because PCs have never been as hard to use as Apple enthusiasts believe. There are more than 120 million PC's running Microsoft Windows, and a few million more still running creaky old DOS. Those machines aren't sitting in closets. And their users aren't all rocket scientists.

By the time Apple cut prices and licensed clones to match the PC competition, the Mac's ease-of-use advantage was already dwindling. This wasn't Apple's fault. Microsoft just kept trying to make its Windows operating system better.

The release of Windows 95 almost two years ago made PCs look and work a lot like Macs, which was no accident. While the faithful on both sides will fight duels to the death, an alien suddenly dropped behind a PC and a Mac would probably have difficulty telling you which was better.

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Most of the Windows 95 horror stories I hear involve people converting older hardware to the new operating system, or trying to run old, DOS-based games.

Most of the new computer buyers I talk to have had excellent out-of-the-box experiences, whether they buy PCs or Macs.

When you start looking at basic software such as word processors or spreadsheets, the difference disappears. The leaders in those two important categories -- Microsoft Word and Excel -- are almost identical on both platforms. Their files are compatible or relatively easy to convert.

If you're intent on Web surfing, Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer are available for both machines, although new PC versions tend to get delivered first.

On the Mac side, adding hardware other than printers is still easier, thanks to the Mac's standard Small Computer Systems Interface (SCSI) port. Same goes for networking. And if you're serious about graphics, the Mac versions of most high-end programs are always ahead of the PC releases.

On the other hand, you'll find far more hardware and software available for PCs in almost every category.

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So there you have it. I still think PCs are better choices for all but graphic artists. But if you're a computer illiterate and plan to stay that way, the Mac or one of its new clones is still a superb machine for low-end computing without a hassle.

Pub Date: 5/11/97


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