Tuesday 25 September 2007

Why I like PCs

I hate to jump on a bandwagon, but Stephen Fry's epic post about iPhones, SmartPhones, and technology in general got me thinking. (Everyone and their dog has referred to his blog recently, it seems, including me now. And worse, I've shamelessly referenced it and I'm not even going to talk about mobile devices.) The age-old rivalry between PC and Mac fans, Fry being a proud Mac devotee, is something that's always baffled me. And when I say rivalry, I really mean hatred for each other's choice of product. If I knew people who drove Ford Focuses (Focii?) who absolutely detested Volkswagen Golfs then maybe I could understand it, but I don't.

I've always liked PCs for the same reason I like the English Language. I learned to use each of them before their alternatives and they're familiar to me; we go back a long way. I’ve had a lot of practise so I can now use both reasonably competently, and they serve me more than adequately. I believe there are parallels in the way the PC and the English Language arrived at where they are today. They've grown, absorbing components from anywhere and everywhere, evolving as they needed to because no one organisation had control – at least in recent times. Standards have appeared, but mostly because conventions were adopted and became widespread, then were documented and made official - not the reverse. I would argue that both are better for being products of chaos and evolution, not control and design.

There's little doubt that a bog-standard Mac is more aesthetically pleasing than a bog-standard PC or laptop. But if I could have an upgrade to ‘pretty’ for my PC for £50 I don't think I'd bother. It sits under my desk, for practical reasons, so it would be a waste of some designer's efforts, not to mention my cash, for a pretty PC not to be seen. As long as it isn't conspicuously ugly, I'm quite happy. Nondescript suits me just fine. To borrow Stephen's analogy about concrete buildings, they don’t bother me if they’re the most practical solution to a practical problem. Unless they’re truly hideous, they usually only become offensive when placed next to a thing of beauty, which is why my PC doesn’t sit next to a vase of lilies.

In fact, I just wrote that last paragraph completely forgetting the small and (to my mind) attractive glossy black AOpen machine I recently built as a server. It sits on a bookcase in my lounge. I did pay a bit extra for the case, but mostly because it was small and had quiet, integrated cooling. There probably were some butt-ugly alternatives which I didn't even consider - so perhaps there are times when design is important. But I still chose the nicest case available for the technology I wanted, not the other way round. It's just a bonus that I didn't have to find a place to hide it.

Then there’s the idea that choosing a Mac or PC, Windows or Linux, says something about who I am, as if my laptop is somehow a symbol that other commuters on the train may use to judge me. If my choice of computer makes some kind of image statement, then I hope the statement is just that I don't care enough about my image for it to dictate my choice of computer.

As for the aesthetics of the desktop operating system, I quite like Windows Vista. Is that controversial? The whole Glass thing is easy on the eye, and it’s very useable. (I say that, but I frequently use a remote connection to my main machine which immediately disables all the flashy graphics to conserve bandwidth. I barely even notice a difference.) I even remember being impressed by Windows XP when I first saw it, at least after I switched off the Teletubby Hill desktop image and the Fisher-Price inspired Start Menu. I expect the Vista ‘look’ will get tired quicker than any MacOS just like XP did but mainly because of its ubiquity. And even then it won't bother me - it doesn't have to be a work of art or even visually pleasing, it just has to be reasonably intuitive to use without being downright ugly. Windows 95 looked sleek and sophisticated compared to Windows 3.1 - it just shows how our expectations change.

As with the English language, another reason Windows feels natural to me is because its history and culture don't need to be explained - I know that CTRL+Insert does the same thing as CTRL+C because it's a legacy from DOS days. (I choose that example because I'm a leftie-mouser and those keys are convenient for my right hand, so I’m happy that trick has been preserved.) I expect I could learn to like a Linux or MacOS desktop, but it would take a long time for them to stop feeling somehow foreign. My TiVo is a Linux box and I love it dearly as a PVR, but if I need to telnet to it to perform some housekeeping (yes, of course it's hacked and networked), I need step-by-step instructions for all but the most basic tasks. It’s like trying to speak Russian from a phrase book when the only words I’ve committed to memory are “hello”, “goodbye”, “two beers, please” and “thank you”.

Ultimately, I guess my point is that technology isn't religion. Nobody has to choose one computer or OS and forsake all others. We don't have to engage in some holy war over who is right or wrong. If your circumstances require you to use a piece of technology you hate, I’ve been there. It sucks, and I sympathise, even if the very thing you hate is the one I would choose.

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