Why Mac users shouldn't fear Microsoft

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The Mac has always lived in a place of opposition to Microsoft products, from the days when PCs running MS-DOS to today, when most of the world’s computers run Microsoft Windows. It’s easy to forget fact that Microsoft was one of the first major Mac software developers, given everything that’s happened since those days.

Every time I write about Microsoft, in print and online, the feedback I receive runs the gamut from outraged to accepting. What all Mac users have in common is that we’ve decided that the Mac is the best computer around; but there are as many reasons behind that decision as there are Mac users. Sometimes it’s about sheer dislike for Microsoft — I’ll get letters from users who refuse to use any Microsoft products on principle. On the other extreme are people who never really minded using Windows, but discovered that the Mac was friendlier and easier to use.

I got plenty of that sort of feedback when I wrote my recent “Parallels Universe” column about using Parallels Desktop to run Windows XP. And here we are again, because the cover of the forthcoming issue of Macworld includes an actual Microsoft Windows Vista retail box. I think I can feel those angry letters being composed even now.

The reason we write so much about that other operating system isn’t that we don’t love our Macs. It’s that Apple’s switch to Intel processors has some profound implications for the Mac, ones that threaten to eradicate the Mac persecution complex once and for all, transmute feelings toward Microsoft from outright hostility into a shoulder-shrug indifference, and transform the Mac into a much more popular computer than it’s been over the last decade.

Trapped in a tiny box

Most people would probably say Mac users have a superiority complex, not an inferiority complex. Yes, most of us are convinced that the Mac is better than Windows. But for most longtime Mac users, that feeling is combined with a sense of vulnerability, of fear that some company’s lack of Mac support will keep cool new products out of their reach forever.

I used to get this feeling all the time. A new Web site would launch, but only run in the Windows version of Internet Explorer. A new or upgraded software program would be announced, but Mac support would be conspicuously absent. An innovative piece of hardware would be released, but you couldn’t plug it into a Mac and have it work properly, if at all.

That was all frustrating — infuriating, even. But the incompatibility issue was part and parcel of being a Mac user. You just had to deal with it. That’s one of the great things about living in a world of Intel-based Macs: that fear has largely dried up. Almost every day I play a session of Diamond Mind, a baseball simulation that runs only on Windows. I’ve watched a few hours worth of streaming video that I get for free as part of my Netflix account, even though Netflix’s Watch Now feature is current incompatible with non-Windows systems.

Is having to switch into Windows an inconvenience? You bet it is. Should Web and software developers support the Mac natively, without just snidely telling Mac users to buy a copy of Windows and a copy of Parallels? Of course they should. But a lot of them never will, and from now on being a Mac user never has to mean you can’t visit that Web site or run that obscure program if you really, desperately need to.

Fear of abandonment

When the Intel Macs were first announced, many commentators said that it would bring on the death of the Mac, because once Macs could run Windows, developers would simply cease development of the Mac versions of their software.

That hasn’t happened yet, and while there may be a few instances of it in the future, I don’t see any huge Mac exodus coming down the pike that would turn the Mac into an empty shell with a handful of Apple programs and a copy of Windows inside.

Take the recent documented case of an unearthed Microsoft memo from 1997 that shows Microsoft considered threatening the cancellation of Office for Mac as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations with Apple. That thread has grabbed all the headlines, but if you read the original memo by Ben Waldman, then the head of Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit, you’ll see something else: a portrait of a group of people who are committed to listening to Mac users and making the best possible Mac product they can.

The end result of that development was Office 98, which was an impressive release that managed to right a lot of the wrongs of the legendarily bad Word 6. Not only was Office 98 vastly more Mac-like, but it was faster than previous versions and even included a collection of Mac-first innovations, including drag-and-drop installation. The failure of Word 6 taught Microsoft a valuable lesson: Mac users wanted to use software that worked like the Mac, not software that worked like Windows.

That lesson still holds true today. The ability to run Windows software might give Mac users freedom, but if we liked the way Windows worked we’d have chosen it. Most Mac developers, including Microsoft, understand that. The ones who didn’t get that have departed from the Mac market, and good riddance.

Where does Microsoft go tomorrow?

Then there’s the larger issue of Microsoft’s future relevance altogether. Already, Macs are the only computers in existence that can switch between Mac and Windows programs at will. Even if Microsoft killed Office for Mac off altogether (and there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon), it wouldn’t mean now what it would have meant in 1997.

Back then a lack of Office compatibility meant doom. Today, not only could Mac users run Office for Windows, but there are a score of Office competitors that provide file compatibility. Apple’s TextEdit, a program comes with every Mac, can open and save Word-compatible files. Numerous Mac programs offer compatibility with Microsoft Office. And of greatest concern to Microsoft is the rise of Web-based software such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets, which provides many of Word and Excel’s most common features (including opening and saving Word and Excel documents) online.

So far, Microsoft’s response to the rise of Web-based programs has been to reaffirm that it has no plans to move Office to the Web. I suspect that in a few years those statements will be as quaint as the horse and buggy, but Microsoft has reinvented itself before and it’s got enough money to do so again. Repeatedly.

In any event, the future of Microsoft and its disposition toward the Mac is not among my major list of concerns these days. I still use Microsoft Office on a regular basis, and when I talk to the people at the Microsoft Mac Business Unit, I find that they still have a strong commitment to releasing the best Mac software they can. The next version of Office will be Intel native and compiled using Apple’s Xcode development environment, a sign that Microsoft has made a serious investment in the future of the Mac version of Office.

And in the meantime? Hey, we all get to run all the Mac programs we love and the Windows software we must. Who else but Mac users gets to do that? Nobody else, that’s who.

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