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Feel Compelled to Hate Microsoft? A Few Guidelines for Action

May 20, 1996

Question: How many Microsoft engineers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: None. Bill Gates just declared darkness the new standard.

This joke, popular among engineers who write Mac software, speaks volumes about the animosity Mac loyalists feel toward big, bad Microsoft. They argue passionately that Microsoft, even though it remains the world's largest developer of Mac applications, would like nothing better than to put Apple out of business.

Is their evidence compelling?

In recent years, Microsoft has integrated its engineering corps to create shared code between Windows and Mac versions of the same products. This generic code is cheaper to produce but tends to be optimized for the dominant Windows platform. Not surprisingly, Microsoft's Mac applications look and feel increasingly Windows-like.

Given the difference in size between the Windows and Mac markets, Windows favoritism is hardly surprising. But even though the shared-code approach was designed to speed dual-platform development, Mac versions still ship, on average, more than seven months behind equivalent Windows versions, and the lag is growing.

When finally released, Mac versions of important Microsoft products tend to be bulky, ponderous memory gluttons with scores of features that few use or even understand--and they often perform more slowly than equivalent Windows versions. Mac Word 6 has alienated so many users that Microsoft offers a bizarre "downgrade": Buy Word 6, pay $20 more and Microsoft sends you Word 5.

So Mac loyalists have some good reasons to hate those unmentionables from Redmond, Wash., and presume the feeling is mutual. Yet a couple of times per year, Bill Gates puts on a wounded expression and trots out his "I-love-the-Mac" monologue.

You might not believe him, but what's to hate about a platform that Microsoft sold much more than $300 million in software for in the last year? As a colleague of mine said recently, "If Microsoft wants to kill the Mac, all they have to do is stop developing for it." And leave that kind of money on the table?

And given how many Mac users love to hate Microsoft, why do most of you reading this use Microsoft products even when superior alternatives are readily available? (Me too--I wrote this in Word.)

Sadly, the superior product frequently loses in the marketplace--as Mac users hardly need to be reminded. Once a product like Word is ensconced, it's amazingly hard to dislodge. Unfair? Wrong question; after all, this is business.

And face it: Most software requires considerable effort to master--even on the Macintosh. The best product for you will nearly always be the one that you know how to use, or the one you can get the person in the next cubicle to trouble-shoot for you. For office productivity, that's usually a Microsoft product.

So what's a Mac lover to do?

* Assert your independence. Gates' darkness standard is only funny because sometimes it seems disconcertingly close to reality. But you don't have to stumble around in the dark. Give other companies' software a chance, particularly if you're not already locked into a Microsoft product.

Most business users buy Microsoft's productivity applications as a suite, assuming superior synergies between programs from the same vendor. This is nonsense. Other Mac programs often work better together--or with Microsoft products--than Microsoft products work with each other. Check out, for example, Claris' Filemaker Pro database program and Corel's WordPerfect.

* Don't overbuy. The big bruisers are hardly essential; if your business demands are like most people's, try an integrated package, such as Claris' excellent ClarisWorks, for a fraction of the cost.

* Give the devil its due. Microsoft produces some great applications that have mightily helped the Mac survive in the face of, yes, the Windows onslaught. Hate Microsoft if you must, but use the products it does well. Excel monopolizes the Mac spreadsheet market not just because it's Microsoft, but because it's a superb tool for any serious number cruncher.

* Use wisely. Avoid the worst excesses of Microsoft products by installing their minimum versions; few of us need every fancy feature.

So relax a little about the Microsoft boogeyman and adhere to these guidelines. Your productivity--and blood pressure--will thank you.

* Charles Piller, a senior editor at MacWorld magazine, can be reached via e-mail at

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