Web View #3: When Platforms Get Personal

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My colleagues are blessed with close relatives who know little to nothing about computers (see our recurring " My Mother's iMac " column). This affords them -- the colleagues, not the relatives or the computers -- the opportunity to act as computer gurus, Mac evangelists and all-around wireheads to their adoring kin.

I am not blessed. My parents know their way around computers: growing up, my brother and I colored on the backs of old punch-cards and printouts of my mom's latest Cobol program. As a family, we embraced the PC era early. By the time I was ten, we had an Apple IIe and I was going to computer camp in the summer, learning Basic and using it to break the primitive GUI in the library's computerized card catalog. For seven happy years we puttered along: I did schoolwork on the Apple IIe, my father and mother spent their workdays manipulating data in Unix. We were a command-line family.

Then I became an editor on the high school yearbook staff, and I had to learn how to use Macs and PageMaker 1.0 in one fell swoop. It was traumatic. I was young; I recovered.

Fast forward to the mid-nineties. Stints on the school newspaper -- I was a sucker for student publications -- and a local software company had made me fluent in both Windows and Mac interfaces. I learned how X Windows worked soon after that, and all was well in my GUI little universe.

Until my parents got a new computer.

To be more accurate, they inherited my old Performa back in 1996. Eager to leap into the GUI age, both Mom and Dad hunkered down in front of the new-to-them machine, acted properly deferential when I booted it up, oohed and aahed over the "Star Trek" screen saver I installed... then promptly went back to using a PS/2. Dad began mumbling about learning NT. Mom signed up for a DOS class. They were careful to tell me all this after I had moved 3,000 miles away. I smacked my head and came to the conclusion that my role as a Mac evangelist was roughly parallel to that of a missionary ignored by the natives.

"I want to get online," complained my father. "I can only surf at work."

"You're using a Performa with eight megs of RAM," I shot back. "You can get online. Just don't surf with the images on."

"Then what's the point?"

I flew home for Christmas bearing another 4 megs of RAM as a Christmas present. When they were at work, I found the Performa (exiled to the guest room), installed the RAM and signed my parents up for a year's worth of access at the local out-of-the-garage ISP. I set up FreePPP for them. I showed them how to get online.

And my parents -- who could spout Cobol subroutines in their sleep, who sliced and diced .db files with impunity, who could rattle off concatenated commands like schoolgirls reciting Backstreet Boys lyrics -- shrank back on the bed when I fired up the computer, dialed into the ISP, then opened Netscape.

"You surf," my father said magnanimously to my mother. "Ladies first."

Mom looked at Netscape's front page. She clicked on a few links to subpages within the Netscape site. "Go on, Mom, visit the Washington Post ," I urged.

"If I leave Netscape, won't it close the application?"

My moment had come. I could be a real GUI evangelist, and lead my people around to the Mac gospel by the back door.

"No, Mom, for two reasons. First, Netscape is the application, not the site itself. Although Netscape has a Web site, you can use the Netscape application to surf to other Web sites."

"I see..."

I turned back to my captive audience. "When you're working in a Mac, you can usually close the window of the application you're working on -- see how this is a window in Netscape? -- and it doesn't automatically force-quit the application."

"I got it," Dad interjected impatiently. "Now let me surf to the Packers' web site."

Fast forward two years. My parents periodically queried me to find out how to do something on the Mac. Dad cancelled his subscription to the Washington Post , arguing that he could read it for free online. Their questions got more sophisticated -- "Why can't I open three windows in Netscape?" "Because you have almost no RAM!" -- and I urged them on, sending The Macintosh Bible , a new modem, and other computer geegaws back home.

Then my brother -- my free-spirited, professional-musician, nonconformist brother -- went out and bought himself a Gateway.

"You bought a Windows machine ?" I asked. "How could you? Didn't you see any billboards telling you Mahler thought different?"

"He never had to look for composition software for the Mac," my brother shot back. "I bought this machine because it runs the software I need."

Ah, I thought. Software availability versus ease-of-use. The Hobbes' Choice of any computer consumer.

Then -- aha! -- I had a revelation. My parents were not your average computer consumer. My mom had discovered CAD programs and was now drafting electrical plans; Dad was munging databases for some Beltway company. They were fearless enough to devise their own software solutions in the interest of working on the Mac. The GUI would keep them loyal, I was sure.

Then I flew home for Christmas. My brother had brought home his computer for the holidays, as had I. Mine, a sleek G3 bronze PowerBook, fit in my messenger bag. His had taken up the entire backseat of his car and was now humming in a corner of my parents' exercise room. I was suffused with a warm missionary glow as I got off the airplane -- the streamlined elegance and simple GUI would surely persuade my parents, who were in the market for a new machine, to buy a new Mac.

I walked in the house, put down my bags, then walked upstairs to behold my brother's new machine.

My parents were already there, gazing reverently at a giant monitor. My brother held court in front of the monitor, about which were arrayed a number of small peripherals.

"I suppose the sheer mass of your computer has compelled those speakers to orbit around it," I crowed, pulling out my trusty laptop.

"Shush," my parents said absently. "We're watching The Matrix . His computer lets you do that."

"What else does it let you do?" I asked, deciding it was better to know one's enemy before attacking.

"I can scan pictures. I'm transposing the entire works of Metallica to bassoon quartet scores. I can play sounds. I can--"

"We bought a computer just like it," my dad said, bouncing on the bed like a little boy.

The missionary glow, I realized then, was merely the light from the fire the cannibals were using to roast their Mac evangelist.

"Oh, look," my mom cooed. "Your computer's apple lights up. How cute."

Cute? Three years of tutorials typed into email up in smoke. Three years of impassioned monologues on the virtues of the Mac OS -- fallen on deaf ears. My parents had rejected Apple, the company that introduced me to personal computing.

I went over to the local out-of-the-garage ISP -- which had now expanded to provide rural Virginians with e-commerce consulting and tons of consumer hardware -- to pick up my parents' new machine. My mom pulled her minivan up the curb and popped the trunk, the quicker to tear home and begin watching The Matrix on her very own machine. My brother clambered out, the better to watch my expression as I loaded the machine into the car.

The ISP proprietor came out, wheeling a dolly loaded high with boxes. "Here you go," he said. "Your dad will be able to watch the Packers in RealVideo now."

My brother thoughtfully avoiding smirking. We loaded the giant monitor, CPU tower, scanner, speakers and other periphera into the van. Mom sped home.

The new machine now holds a place of honor in the den. My parents -- the same people who pecked at email and Netscape with a touching mixture of uncertainty and doubt -- are now scanning photographs like pros, merging mail lists online, and plotting their Web site.

Windows is frustrating to them, but not for the reasons I had hoped. They're old-time geeks; they like using command-line programming and the graphical layer of metaphor bothers them. I'd be sympathetic to their discomfort if it weren't for one thing.

They've become PC evangelists. And guess who their first target for conversion is?

Senior Editor LISA SCHMEISER ( lisa_schmeiser@macworld.com ) has worked for Web design firms, taught in Web design classes, and written for Suck, Salon, TeeVee, and other sites. You can also see an archive of her Web View columns.
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