What the Trade Magazines Still Won't Tell You

Mac's Superiority Remains Multimedia's Most Underreported Story

June 28, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

A year ago I wrote a column describing my long and futile quest to get the popular CD-ROM game "Myst" to run on my PC.

Of the dozens of responses to the column I received, most were variants on the same theme: Get a Macintosh.

These readers knew something that growing numbers of American consumers, lured into the home-computer marketplace by inflated claims to "ease of use," are learning: Getting a Windows PC to work with sound and video can be a source of infinite technical headaches. If you are shopping for a home computer because you want to "join the multimedia revolution," there is only one sensible choice: Get a Mac.

This sounds like a hard sell, so let me say right off that I am not now nor have I ever been on Apple Computer's payroll. But like every computer columnist, I'm barraged by readers and friends who want to know which of the two species to invest in: The IBM-spawned, Intel-chip-based, Microsoft-code-driven PC or the Apple Macintosh. And the answer I give them is the same I hear from multimedia professionals: Get a Mac.

Believers in the PC, which owns about 90 percent of the personal-computer market, use the VHS-Betamax analogy to suggest that the war between the two computer systems is over and the Mac, like the Betamax, is history. And it's true that corporate America is dominated by PCs.

Creative America, though, has chosen otherwise. Walk into any newsroom, desktop publishing center, design studio or online service office, and nine times out of ten you will see a wall of Macs. That hardly suggests a technology on the verge of extinction.

The Mac, unlike the PC, was designed to be a multimedia computer from the start. The Mac lets you pop in a CD-ROM and play it without the tedious and sometimes insurmountable installation routines Windows requires. CDs run more easily on the Mac, and with fewer hassles and system crashes. Hooking your computer up to the Internet is a lot easier with a Mac, too.

These facts are common knowledge among computer journalists, yet they're not exactly shouted in the pages of the dominant trade magazines -- most of which depend for advertising on the manufacturers of PC software and hardware. The Mac's multimedia superiority is the biggest underreported story in the computer press. You won't often hear it stated directly -- but it's lurking behind the stories that appear, each time DOS and Windows are upgraded, promising that, finally, your PC will be as easy to use as a Mac.

The latest round of promises -- culminating in the release of Windows 95 this August -- will be just as loud and just as overstated. Want to name a file with a real name, like "1995 Household Budget," instead of the cryptogram your PC has long required -- something like "1995hsld.bgt"? You already can on a Mac. Windows 95 will let you do so, too -- but not if you want your pre-Windows 95 software to be able to use the file easily.

Mac partisans have touted its advantages for years, but PCs were always cheaper, and that's why many of us initially chose them. I've written on a PC every day for the past seven years, and I'm writing on one now. But last year I finally took my readers' advice and invested in a Mac as well. And when publishers want to know whether to send me a review copy of a CD-ROM in a format for PC or Mac, I look at the two computers that sit side by side on my desk and answer, without hesitation, "Send the Mac version."

Of course, that Mac version doesn't always exist -- because multimedia publishers look at the market numbers and want to sell to the vaster PC crowd. But the PC-only publishers may prove shortsighted. Sure, they can sell more copies of a game or an encyclopedia initially. But once their customers are through fiddling with Windows drivers, "INI" files and the rest of the PC's absurdly Byzantine architecture, their vast consumer market could disappear overnight.

Business analysts have already offered plenty of explanations why Apple, despite its system's quality, wound up with so small a market: It kept prices high and systems proprietary while the computer boom fed on price wars and open systems. But today the price differences are academic. Powerful, cheap Macs for the home abound, and more are on the way, as Apple grudgingly begins to let other companies clone Mac-style computers.

As far as I can tell, the main reason many consumers still choose PCs over Macs -- beyond the slanted trade coverage -- is simple momentum. People hear that PCs own the marketplace. They don't want to buy into an evaporating technology. They want to own what everyone else owns.

But computers are more versatile than VCRs; they evolve. Macs can now read most PC files. The rise of the Internet means that computers of every species are now communicating with one another around the globe. Apple isn't about to abandon the legions of Mac devotees -- to "orphan the system," in trade parlance. Ten percent of the personal computer market is still a pretty big market.

Much of this argument is old hat to serious computer users. But it's important to say it again, strongly and clearly, in a publication that does not rely on ads for screaming Pentium PCs.

Last week I sat down at a PC to review the hot new "Johnny Mnemonic" CD-ROM game. It took an hour of head-scratching on the part of two experienced computer journalists to get the thing properly installed -- and once it started it refused to proceed past the end of the first scene.

Meanwhile, I never did get "Myst" to work until I got a version to play on my Macintosh.

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