From Microsoft to Macintosh

Some experiences with Microsoft help to explain why Bill Gates is stepping down. Perhaps Windows is not the only fulfilling religion one can follow. Le Monde diplomatique editor Truls Lie on his conversion from PC to Mac.

Let me tell you a summer story. A musician at a party in Oslo tells me enthusiastically about his new Apple MacBook Pro. Rolf Wallin had purchased the latest in computer technology. And my neighbour – a civil engineer turned artist turned writer turned documentary filmmaker – also chimed in as an enthusiastic Mac user.

Right enough, switching from a PC to a Mac must be like converting from Protestantism to Catholicism. From something rigid and business-like to something flexible and light-hearted. But could I part company with my old friend the PC? I have been a PC user for 20 years. First of all, the PC and Windows were my companions throughout the ten years I worked to build up the PC industry in Norway – initially through program development, and then software distribution. In actual fact, I was the first official Microsoft distributor in Norway – and in the 1980s, I introduced the word-processing software Microsoft Word to the entire IT industry. We even sold the first computer game – Flight Simulator. Around the beginning of the 1990s, I developed the Vega program for the PC; at least 5000 Norwegians eventually used it to process their customers and clients. And then, with the renaissance of the newspaper Morgenbladet, I too decided that we would use cheap PCs, although all the other newspaper publishers used Macs. I even developed Morgenbladet‘s editing and subscription system on PC/Windows.

Today it is rather the opposite – it is unusual to use a Mac for publishing. Windows now dominates 95 per cent of all small PCs and laptops – only 5 per cent use Macs. So why the uncertainty over Windows?

At the same time as the uncertainty set in, I discovered that Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founding father, was in the process of leaving the company – albeit he was going to take two years to do so. After 30 years in the company, and as the world’s richest man, he wants instead to be a philanthropist along with his wife through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ten years ago, the plan was to wait until he reached retirement, but he adjusted this plan by 15 years. The Foundation, whose assets amount to approximately 30 billion dollars, will support global health and development – one half of the foundation is especially dedicated to neglected diseases.

All this is happening at the same time as Microsoft is encountering problems. We know that Microsoft was slow off the mark regarding the Internet – Bill Gates was formerly unaware of what was taking place in this arena. Today, as its foremost challengers, Google and its Internet companies are neck and neck with Microsoft. Gates has chosen Ray Ozzie to be his successor – as chief software architect he will respond to the Internet companies. Now Ozzie is not the new kid in town. At one time he was a developer of Lotus Notes, the first larger memo and email system – which IBM took over in 1995 – before Microsoft conquered the market with Outlook. Ozzie was radical enough to predict the significance of the Internet. This IT guru – something Bill Gates can never claim to have been – started the Groove company in 1997,1 where he applied his network approach to “peer-to-peer” technology. Today this is known as file sharing, where people share music and other media over the Internet – to the chagrin of copyright owners like record companies. Within Microsoft, Ozzie’s motto is “Complexity kills”, which has led to the next version of Windows being delayed by several years – since Windows programs have to be fully integrated with each other.

With Ozzie at the helm of Microsoft and the dominant Windows market in Norway, why should I allow myself to be tempted by Apple Macintosh? Nostalgia? Sentimentality for my student days when I was among the first users of Apple Macs in Norway, (Apple II with no hard disk)? Or the San Francisco era with Apple Macintosh II and IT’s founding fathers’ scene at the creative UC Berkeley?

Yes, I admit it. I am tempted by the anarchism of Mac world – even if today this is somewhat diluted by the design focus of Steven Jobs. I remember Jobs in the 1980s, a pleasant dialogue, (over cocktails) between us from the press at an IT expo in Las Vegas – for which he was dressed in 1980s black complete with self-assured, amusing bow tie. He preached in true church fashion. On the other hand, Bill Gates’ gaze wandered like that of a schoolboy in a dreary suit. Jobs was the guru with the ideas, Gates emulated and bought up the others. Yes, Gates, do you remember you skirted my question about your Windows being a copy, not only of Macintosh but also of the multitasking (called Concurrent DOS) of the operative system competitor, Digital Research?

I am an old IT nerd and I know quality when I see it. So perhaps today I’m feeling that enough is enough, that I am tired of belonging to the majority. That my interest in what is diverse, free, and small – in belonging to a minority – has elicited certain sympathetic tendencies in me. The desire to convert to Mac won me over, so I made the choice I thought for a long time I would never make. I changed religions. I didn’t want to have to go through any more Windows rituals, installing new versions of Windows and so forth. In July I became a convert. Yes, the newspaper you’re holding right now is published on a Mac, this is the main reason I need a computer.

Was the transition from Windows to Mac a totally smooth one? Of course not, you pay the price for changing faiths. And I don’t just mean in the financial sense, but also in the sense of long, laborious nights filled with doubt. You cannot change your friends without being punished for it. After all, it’s not just a question of moving data from one machine to another.

I had originally planned to spend the summer converting the data and programs – the editing and subscription systems, layout, emails, contacts, and suchlike. But no, habitual innovator that I am, I just couldn’t wait and threw myself headfirst into pastures new. So, with the aid of my new aluminium-grey, minimalist MacBook Pro, (which was delivered to my door) and a few graveyard shifts, it was all done in the space of a week.

Yes, it was a painful experience. So let me pester you with some informative minutiae. I was going to transfer a couple of thousand contacts – collected over 13 years in the newspaper business – from Microsoft Office for Windows over to Microsoft Office for Mac. Simple – same manufacturer, same Bill Gates. I selected the export function in Microsoft Outlook for a file I simply wanted to move. But no, that didn’t work. I began to struggle – even though I have experience in programming, have had IT responsibilities in several firms and know about file formats, field types, Scandinavian script and indexes… No, Microsoft did not deny it; they simply did not provide a direct conversion from Outlook to the same program on a Mac, (where Outlook becomes “Entourage”). For two days, I busied myself with attempts between address books, calendar data, piles of emails, and with countless calls to Microsoft and others – but no luck. Comments about contacts were cut if I detoured via Excel on both machines, so that proved an unproductive route. Additionally, it would suddenly become impossible for fields, which were supposed to be able to correspond, to recognize each other – the Norwegian and English versions (the only versions in existence for Macs) being a case in point. I had to go through Word to re-locate the Norwegian letters �, �, and �. The import functions did not recognize tabulated or comma-defined fields and records – the address book’s notes contained such messy affronts to the field structure. Anyway, I didn’t really mean to bore you with the details but… A fourth email from – was it the top technical department at Microsoft they said? – informed me that I had to go to a third-party supplier in order to transfer the data between the two products sold by Microsoft. And they gave no guarantees, or could take no responsibility – they recommended, off the record, that I spend 10 dollars on the “O2M” program produced by the Internet company With the last remaining dregs of optimism I could muster, I downloaded the conversion program from the Internet. Other employees I spoke to never explained why the programs didn’t work. But here at last was apparently someone with know-how and a nose for quality – it worked perfectly! Suddenly address book, email, and calendar were operative on the Mac. I often get up to 100 emails a day so it is an absolute necessity that this tool is up and running. And so, having started to use Microsoft’s Mac program, which unfortunately crashed frequently, I switched to Mac’s own outstanding email, calendar, and address book programs.

One more thing: after that, all that remained was to get Microsoft’s word-processing software Word to work, since I use “macros” to clean up the most common errors and to automatically format the style of the articles. But no, these could not be transferred from Microsoft’s Windows program to the same Microsoft program on the Mac. Why couldn’t Gates have hired Ozzie ages ago? I ask you. During yet another telephone conversation with Microsoft in Oslo, I was informed that I had to transfer the code into new macros or else write them all again. Ok, it worked quite well in the end – after yet another night in front of the screen.

But did Word itself work satisfactorily on the Mac? No, it most certainly did not. It works slowly, screen displays “hang” when you scroll, the keyboard is faster than the screen and Word performs like a “beta” version that was launched into Mac world untested. As if that weren’t bad enough – Microsoft Word freezes during use, crashes, shuts itself down, or breaks up. It is incredible that the world’s largest software company proffers such an unstable program. What is more, when Word “closes down”, it takes along with it a variety of other programs – so you find that whenever Word “hangs”, email, address book, and layout programs all cave in too. Word makes certain fonts disappear until you restart the machine and some documents even have to be saved in other non-Word formats to enable Word to continue to work.

As Microsoft’s Norwegian distributor in the mid-1980s, did I really introduce this program to Norway? I remember bragging to 120 IT dealers about Word’s advantages over WordPerfect – anyone remember WordPerfect? – at what used to be called “the IT Centre” in Oslo’s Waldemar Thranes gate.

Anyway, I’m a patient man so I tried to call Microsoft about the problems I was experiencing. I was eventually referred to a user support line, (calls are charged and there are specific rates for calls from mobiles) where they tried to wriggle out of it by stating that any problems were not due to faults in the program. What’s more, I kept getting disconnected when I called the support line. After a week, I asked whether or not Microsoft was aware of this: – “Oh yes, unfortunately this company no longer provides user support,” Microsoft told me over the phone. They did not offer support for Microsoft products in Norway, but I could always send them an email and they would try to help… hmmm. In the long run, the solution is to convert to the free shareware product OpenOffice for Mac. For many, Microsoft’s days are numbered – with or without the late arrival of Ozzie.

A final detail: A week later, I received a call from a Microsoft representative – or freelance customer service operative – who wanted to know whether I had been satisfied with the service I had received during my calls to Microsoft support or if I felt there was room for improvement. I was quite busy at the time but she insisted that it would only take 10 minutes. If I could just provide simple evaluations on a scale of 1 to 9? I tried to explain the problem, but she could only enter responses using the numbers 1 to 9. Could I provide an evaluation of their technical expertise?

So why do you think I chose Macintosh? The new Macbook Pro is elegant but I didn’t just fall for the design, there was the flexible performance too. Right from the start, Macintosh always had an inbuilt Windows system. In addition, the MacBook Pro now has a dual Intel-processor, instead of IBM-processors as in the previous models (G4 and G5). They are no longer sufficient. All Mac models now come with this dual processor, the core of the machine that processes the programming code. With this “heart transplant”, the new machines can actually run Windows. It follows then that one should be able to run old Windows programs, which were difficult to convert, in a window on the machine – like this newspaper’s accounting system. Security is the concept of the day, so after investing NOK 40 000 I was under the impression that I had the added option of using “some” Windows. But now it seems that Job’s new machine is actually unable to run Windows parallel to its own operating system – only in place of it. This is completely impractical and unacceptable; you’re actually better off using two different machines.

Ok, so I had a fast Intel processor, but things are moving too fast out there. Another phone call to Microsoft reveals that they have not adapted Office for Mac for the new models containing Intel processors. What?! Microsoft will not release the next version of Microsoft Office for Mac until 2007. In the meantime, those of us with these models will have to use an “emulation program” that positions itself between programs and operative system – facilitating a process of interpretation to enable it to function… in simple terms, this means slow-running programs. And what about Adobe, the producers of our publishing tools? On the telephone to Adobe, I found out that they were waiting to see how sales of the new Intel-based Mac went before deciding whether or not to adapt Photoshop, Indesign, and the other programs to the Intel processor. But maybe next year, with the CS3 version, said the woman on the phone.

To produce the layout for Le Monde diplomatique using a tool that constantly asks me to wait before I am able to proceed was simply not acceptable, no matter how patient I am. I could be sitting for 30 seconds before one page was sent to the printer for proofing. And pasting in a three-word article title from Word to Indesign could mean waiting another 10 seconds. Was I going to spend more of my time staring at the hourglass than working? Would I have the paper ready before the deadline? So I went to Office Line in Oslo to ask if I had to buy another G4 in the meantime. “Oh no, there must be something wrong with the machine, it shouldn’t run that slowly. Come on in so we can all have a look at the machine,” – at any rate half the shop’s employees would take a look, they said.

There I was told that Apple is changing all the old machines over to Intel – in spite of both Microsoft and Adobe – so just forget it! I left the place with more memory in my machine and my wallet 2500 crowns lighter. Double the memory was not enough; I was told I needed four times the norm because the Intel emulation took up so much space.

Ok, so now it worked a bit better. Sitting here working on the paper you’re now holding, Indesign works tolerably.

Welcome to a Mac-produced newspaper. I won’t go into the problems I had with the newspaper fonts procured for Le Monde diplomatique. Or how a reasonably-priced but powerful screen from the electronics retailer El-kj�p had inadequate resolution and had to be exchanged for a more expensive Mac screen from Apple. Or how the subscription system is running. Or how all the accounting data has to be re-entered because we had to change from the accounting program Mammut over to Firstoffice.

So did anything go well? Ok, transferring my favourites from my browser…

But those stable digital screen displays are a joy to behold, the more intuitive and animated window arrangement, the clear, small script – I have always believed small is best. Heat from the machine is now diverted; replacing the need for that irritating whirr of the fan. And the keyboard is great. And a host of other things I won’t concern you with, being in a critical and resigned frame of mind today.

Instead let me tell you what other people think: Bill Gates is not the only one deserting Microsoft. On the way out of one of Oslo’s more frenetic cafes one afternoon – with my new silver-grey Mac in tow – I gestured to an acquaintance, the writer Vetle Lid Larsen, that my table was free. He shouted over: “Ah, you’ve got one of those Macs! I’ve just gone from PC to Mac too – I love that machine! Great machine, so easy to use!” I also remember a colleague who said that her husband had been going on about the new Intel Mac all month. I am not alone in converting these days. While we were standing there talking Mac in the caf�, Anne Grethe Preus came over to tower above me – she’s not exactly small in stature. Yes of course she too had a Mac – these musicians you know… She stared curiously at my aluminium-grey Mac – actually she had an old G4. Maybe she should make the change?

See also "The new chief geek", Financial Times, 17 June 2006.

Published 25 August 2006
Original in Norwegian
Translated by Nicole M. Fishlock
First published by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 7/2006 (Norwegian version)

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) © Truls Lie/Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) Eurozine


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