Apple Apprehension

It is an anomaly among artists and designers to use anything but a Mac. And yet, I have somehow resisted. I own and enjoy the standard-issue iPhone and iPod, but no Apple computer has yet to gently (but forcibly) grace the contents of my wallet.

Classic Mac vs PCI happily work in Windows XP and Windows 7, the former augmented with a number of extensions but largely intact. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge that Mac OS X is more usable and elegant in most respects (especially in comparison to XP), it’s just that I know Windows well enough to anticipate and circumnavigate its quirks without precognition. When I’m knee-deep in my zen-like state of creative flow, designing with amazing tools like Adobe’s Creative Suite or programming in capable editors like Notepad++ or Textmate, the operating system is strangely incidental. Truth be told, application compatibility is really the only thing keeping me from ditching commercial experiences altogether and embracing Ubuntu one hundred percent.

There exists one caveat in my previous statement. While certain projects have required that I use a Mac for small stretches of time, I had never been given the opportunity to experience one as my primary machine. This changed when I started at McAfee, where each talented designer is equipped with a shiny Macbook Pro.

The emotional attachment Apple fosters between their products and consumers is fascinating. Never have I seen so many otherwise frugal individuals gratefully fork over piles of cash for what are, with the exception of the top-tier Mac and Macbook Pro, modestly powered machines. It is a testament to their brand that even after paying a hefty premium for their devices (and doubtlessly for adapters, peripherals and AppleCare plans), these consumers defend the company with a level of fervor typically reserved for political and religious discussion. Merely expressing curiosity as to the pros and cons of the Zune experience on Twitter resulted in no less than five individuals mocking the competing device without owning one themselves.

To those of us who use (and largely enjoy) Windows and Linux, this relationship appears undeniably parasitic. The only explanation is that the Apple experience is so overwhelmingly amazing, so above-and-beyond anything competitors could possibly attempt, that it manages to counterbalance the money and energy we shower it with.

While I will never understand complete and total brand zealots (especially designers, who without objectivity will predictably mimic their idols), after three months with the device I’m finally beginning to see what sets Apple apart. Simply put, my Macbook Pro is a joy to use.

Impressions

My Macbook Pro desktop (tricked out with Candybar)I maintain that these machines are still modestly powered for their price, but what isn’t factored into that statement is the performance boost you get from a more efficient operating system. I’m not technical enough to reference (or conduct) benchmarking, but the OS X experience feels snappy.

The oft-mimicked visual style of the operating system is irrevocably slick and polished. The much-maligned (and still incorrect from a matter of simple perspective) table-top dock has started to feel natural and omnipresent. Setting the bar high in terms of aesthetics has resulted in a vibrant developer community that matches or surpasses Apple’s precedent. Simply put, unofficial Windows XP themes usually look like crap; CandyBar and IconFactory’s dock and icon customizations are stunning. Platform-dependent software such as Coda, TextMate and Tweetie are simple, modern and beautiful. Frighteningly enough, my initial distaste for the lack of free and open source software is slowly being replaced by a willingness to pay for quality applications.

Furthermore I’m scared to admit that, despite the ridiculousness of rampant Apple taxes, I’m beginning to feel that twinge of an emotional connection to this device. That said, the experience is far from perfect. Commercial applications often suffer in comparison to their Windows equivalents. Virtualization is a necessity in order to speak the same language as every other PC on the planet. Startup times are nothing to shout about, and be prepared to devote a segment of your bag or suitcase to a medley of display adapters to accommodate Apple’s strange adoption of nearly-proprietary “standards.”

Conclusions

Despite those quibbles, Macs are truly great personal computers I’ve had the pleasure of using and recommending to friends and family. For a lot of people, these really are the easiest-to-use, most appropriate computing solution. I hope to see their level of polish and innovation continue to influence larger competitors as it obviously did for Windows 7.

But as important as it is for Mac OS X to positively challenge and influence Windows, it is also equally important for other products to challenge Apple’s dominant position in other markets. The success of the Palm Pre, Google’s Android platform or the newly-announced Zune HD lies not solely in whatever market share they manage to scrape away, but in the features and innovations they introduce that challenge all competitors. The path to success is littered with failure, not previous successes, and that extends beyond Apple’s Cupertino halls.

To dismiss competition is to permit our favorite brands to embrace complacency. To blindly evangelize Apple’s superiority is to defy what makes them a great and admirable company: their ability to exceed our expectations and surpass previous solutions with untold advancements in usability and beauty.

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