A Windows expert opts for a Mac life

Scot Finnie is moving from Windows to Mac OS X -- for now

Windows Vista is in most ways an excellent operating system. But I've found myself increasingly disturbed by the many ways Microsoft is willing to erode the overall user experience, in most cases in the name of boosting its bottom line.

I'm talking about aspects like the new upgrade to Microsoft's antipiracy measures, known as Software Protection Platform (which includes a "reduced functionality mode"); the little-detailed digital rights management features -- if any -- that some people believe will surface in Vista; and the repetitious frustration of User Account Control, a security feature that takes an extreme approach to protecting you from potential threats that probably 98.44 percent of the time aren't actually there.

My assessment of UAC is that it's a good idea that is badly implemented, even after recent refinements. I think it will have the opposite of its intended effect on many Vista desktops, where it will deaden users to security risks by asking them too frequently whether they're sure an activity is something they really want to do or allow. UAC will protect Microsoft's image as a purveyor of secure software (or at least it might do so). But if it adds any real protection, it will do so at the expense of the user experience.

My sentiments about Software Protection Platform, which might also be called Windows Genuine Advantage on steroids, is that it serves just one entity: Microsoft. For users, it has no advantages, and for a small percentage of individuals and enterprises, it could be a ticking time bomb waiting to unleash frustration.

Let's not forget that the dramatic IT breakthrough that drove Wall Street in the last decade was a significant return on investment in the form of increased user productivity. Moreover, the last time I looked, Microsoft rose to power two and a half decades ago precisely because it helped free users from onerous restrictions on access to computer power. The rise of the PC eventually killed off the minicomputer dominance of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The software giant should be reading the history of the mistakes its competitors made back then, because it could be heading down the same path.

Microsoft invests incredible R&D resources into the products it builds. The company has not only a right but an ethical requirement to get a good return on its investment for its stockholders. But it's not paying attention to the grass-roots welling up of frustration over many of its business practices.

Scratch the millions of forums and blogs on the Internet, even slightly, and you'll find them oozing with angst and disgust about Microsoft's approach to creating, selling and protecting its products. There is pent-up demand for a change, for a real alternative, especially among more experienced computer users. Moreover, this is not isolated to "consumers" at all. Despite the Windows-oriented policies of many IT shops and the fact that many companies have Microsoft DNA deeply embedded in their IT infrastructures, a good portion of the people who manage, run and toil in IT organizations have become openly contemptuous of Microsoft's products and policies.

If I could strip out aspects of Vista -- like Microsoft's aggressive antipiracy measures and some of its onerous protective mechanisms, the high cost of Vista Ultimate, and other unpleasant aspects of the new operating system -- I might continue as a more-or-less content Windows user. But the emergence of Vista has sparked something new inside me, a serious need to explore my alternatives.

Macintosh trial run

So, about a month ago I decided it was high time to do my homework on other systems in the only way I know that works: total immersion.

Beginning this week, for at least one month -- maybe three -- I'm making an Apple MacBook Pro my main work and personal computer. I've been slowly building up the software and systems I need to do this, including Lotus Notes for Macintosh and the migration of my 13-year-old Eudora for Windows installation. I may rely to some extent on Parallels for the Mac to run some things in an XP virtual machine, especially in the beginning. But the goal, as I said, is to find Macintosh tools for everything I do in Windows.

To those of you who've been reading me for years because of my Windows expertise and insights, I'm not letting go of Windows! I will be echoing my experience on my current Windows production machine -- a dual-core ThinkPad T60 -- by upgrading to Windows Vista. I have access to four Macs, three of which are Intel-based. There are more than 15 Windows machines that I use and test with. It's a Windows world, and I'm not dropping out.

But I'm committed to giving the Mac a fair chance.

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The first two weeks

I had initially planned to change over to the Mac a couple of weeks ago, but problems with the 15-in. MacBook Pro that I received from my company caused a severe delay. The machine, a 2-GHz Intel dual-core, is only six months old but had just returned from Apple repair because of issues with spontaneous restarts that were occurring two or three times a day. It's a problem that has plagued a small percentage of Apple's Intel line of MacBooks. It's not a universal experience, however. I own another MacBook Pro 15 that has suffered no spontaneous restarts.

During the first 24 hours with the machine, I came to the conclusion that the most likely culprit was a 1GB RAM SIMM that was added at the time of purchase. I pulled the SIMM on the second day. Wanting to do the legwork myself, I contacted the makers of the SIMM, a company called Edge, and initiated a trouble ticket. Two days later, running on the original 1GB of Apple RAM only, the MBP 15 was free of unwanted restarts. Edge confirmed that we had purchased the correct SIMM module for this machine and that the SIMM must be faulty. It promptly issued an RMA and offered a free replacement.

The next hurdle -- and it has proved to be a much bigger hurdle -- is Lotus Notes. IBM is promising better support for the Mac in the Notes 7.x time frame. We're using Notes 6.5.x and other than the pathetic Mac support, it's working just fine. (I may test the Notes 7.02 client in the near future though.) These are the problems that Mac users face the most -- integrating with IT systems in the corporate world. Sometimes there is no support at all for certain applications. Microsoft, for example, withdrew support for Internet Explorer on the Mac several years ago -- not that it really offered compatibility with enterprise Web-based applications anyway. There's hope, though, with the growing popularity of Firefox, which is platform-independent and works more or less the same way on the Mac and Linux as it does on the PC. (This is especially true of Firefox 2.0.)

For reasons I'm still figuring out, Notes has been troublesome on my Mac. During the first several days, I experienced frequent crashes of the Notes client. Working with my IT department, we weren't sure whether the problem was the result of issues with the MacBook Pro itself or whether it was my Notes installation. We reinstalled the Mac OS X 10.4 operating system from the ground up and then reinstalled Notes and my other corporate applications. The frequency of the Notes crashes diminished, but any crashing isn't acceptable. So we installed the Notes client on a second MacBook Pro 15 and found the problems were evident there, too. More than likely, there's something amiss in my Notes mail database or the client configuration. I figured out a work-around that keeps the client from crashing, and I suspect that it will lead us to the proper solution. But there's no joy yet.

Once the Notes problem is fixed, I will go through the wild and crazy steps required to migrate Windows Eudora to Mac Eudora, and move into the Mac. I've also ordered a 17-in. Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, which is due in a week or so.

I'm far more comfortable with the higher resolution on the larger MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro 15 is great as a commuter notebook, since I use a large-screen LCD at work. But when I'm stretched out for serious weekend work away from an external display, the 17-in. MBP is the machine I need. I'll be duplicating the software on that machine and remote-accessing the MacBook Pro 15 for Eudora e-mail as needed. One of the few things I truly admire about Notes is its ability to run on multiple machines and be accessed from any of them. It's the power of a true client/server application. Notes doesn't have a lock on that ability, of course. I might use IMAP with Eudora, for example. But most of my mail hosts don't offer it.

About other aspects of the Mac: I'm having little trouble adapting to the differences between Windows and the Mac. I was a Mac user from 1987 to 1990 and a Windows and Mac user from 1994 to 1995. Mac OS X is a different operating system from the old Mac OS software. But my Linux experience, though not considerable, has helped me log in and out of root to change system settings on the Mac with relative ease (once I knew where to initiate the authentication). Exploring the way the Mac works is actually fun. I wouldn't call the more esoteric settings intuitive, but they're not difficult to find if you keep at it.

If learning Linux esoterica is comparable to doing The New York Times crossword puzzle, the Mac is tantamount to whipping through the crossword puzzle in your local-yokel newspaper. And Windows is somewhere in between.

Progress on the temporary-Mac front will be reported in future updates. And I expect to wrap up with a final assessment of whether the Mac is a viable alternative for real people with real jobs. You can also expect a long-term wrap-up on Windows Vista once it's officially out.