Growing up Mac: Windows to Another Dimension

mossy_11 on Wednesday, 05 May 2010. Posted in Opinion

When Windows 95 came out, I didn’t care. Sure, I was just a kid, but I could clearly see that it was inferior to System 7.5.5. Years later I learned this isn’t strictly true -- although the feature gap was almost non-existent (despite what Windows’ marketing suggested), they each possessed different strengths and weaknesses. But all I saw was an ugly interface, a continued reliance on the dated DOS back-end, and the infamous blue screen of death. And games still looked better on the Mac, even with the aging hardware.

It was like a window to another dimension, where somehow everything bad reigned supreme over all that is good. I didn’t like it. I wanted to close the shutters and pretend there was no other dimension. But there was no escaping Windows, and I soon came to terms with my aversion for the OS, thanks in large part to a game called Civilization II and a little thing called the Internet.


I had used Windows before. My brother had Windows 3.1 on his black & white Toshiba laptop, which I regularly borrowed to play Premier Manager 2JezzballSki FreeGlider 4, and Police Quest. I never took much notice of the OS or its functionality, though. I was much too focused on playing those games with the little time I was afforded. There was no magic feeling beyond that which came directly from the games, even though the very concept of a laptop astounded me. That was because I had seen the PowerBook. And it was great.


My cousin and his family were also Mac users. He introduced me to the joys of crashing cars and causing mayhem in Papyrus’ brilliant NASCAR Racing, and later to real-time strategy gem Age of Empires. My uncle loves gadgets. One day at a family gathering I witnessed the PowerBook for the very first time. I don’t remember which model it was, but it was black, sleek, and captivating. I had no idea a computer could look so cool. Seeing it in action did nothing to dispel the magic.


Were it not for Civilization II, I would have likely become a complete and utter Apple fanboy. But one summer my brother went on exchange to Germany, and let me have his laptop for the duration. As I sunk hours upon hours into the game I grew to appreciate Windows. I saw features that were lacking on the Mac, like switching applications with alt+tab or by clicking at the bottom of the screen (instead of using a menu in the top-right corner), or using the Start menu to speed up various tasks. And yes, I also developed great fondness for the right mouse button, which gained limited official Macintosh support in Mac OS 8.6, followed by full support in Mac OS 10.0.4, and finally became standard in 2005, when Apple introduced the Mighty Mouse.


Still it felt like the Mac was your friend whereas Windows was the enemy, going out of its way to make your life miserable. Even when it crashed the Mac threw me a bone. Instead of dropping into some mysterious blank blue screen, it gave me a message about some obscure error in a prompt that included a cute bomb icon and a restart button. When it did start up, the Mac didn’t display an ugly DOS prompt, but rather showed me a smily-faced computer icon before displaying a simple message -- “Welcome to Macintosh.”


The World Wide Web

My family got the Internet in 1997. We had a 56k modem and 100 hours of dial-up access a month. Our primary machine was a Macintosh Performa 6400 running System 7.5.5, with a CD-ROM drive, sub-woofer, and a whopping 1.6 GB hard drive. I was ten years old, and my mind was blown. So began an amazing journey of discovery and conquest, as I explored the many avenues of the World Wide Web, and developed a fascination with an off-shoot of the dying bulletin board systems and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) of the late 80’s and early 90’s, Hotline. Through Hotline I discovered there is much more to the Internet than first meets the eye, and the most interesting people and things tend to overlap with the seedier side.


It was around this time that I first experienced the platform wars directly. Previously, I had understood that Apple and Microsoft were competing companies with incompatible products. It seemed like the one to own depended on your needs from a computer. I soon learned that this viewpoint was very much at odds with an extremely vocal minority, which insists that Macs are overpriced toys that should only be used by people with learning difficulties or who want a computer that looks nice but doesn’t do anything. I’ve never quite been able to grasp this mindset. And it hurt to hear people say that a computing platform I’d learned so much from is stupid and useless.

descentIt couldn’t have helped that major publisher MacPlay closed its doors in April 1998, an unfortunate consequence of shrinking shelf-space at retail. The news coincided with my brief infatuation with Descent, a great game that was once described as “an action 3D first-person flight simulator set indoors.” I knew what this news meant -- Mac gaming was at breaking point. But I soon drowned my sorrows in Tomb Raider 2, ported to the Mac by Aspyr later that year, and SNES9x -- my first foray into the world of emulation -- which allowed me to play great games not released in Australia at that time, like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. The trickle of ports combined with increasing support from Blizzard lured me into a false sense of security. I thought Mac gaming would be fine afterall. I was wrong.

I was never a big fan of first-person shooters, having spent only a little time with Quake and Marathon, but the triple-whammy at the turn of the millennium devastated me as much as the next Mac gamer. Apple were promising to rejuvenate the Mac gaming landscape with OpenGL support and developer assistance. They persuaded id Software to release Quake 3 simultaneously for PC and Mac. Half Life was being ported to the Mac. And Bungie were working on the game that would prove the platform’s worth (Halo). It didn’t happen. Quake 3 did come out, but with little assistance from Apple. Half Life for Mac was cancelled late in development. Microsoft bought Bungie; Halo became the flagship title for the Xbox console. The rest, as they say, is history. And so began my gradual disillusionment with Apple and the Macintosh platform.

Disillusionment sets in

HAPPYMACAt some point in high school, the Mac lost its magic for me. Perhaps it was the final letting go of “Classic” (Mac OS 9), or Apple’s apparent disdain for games. Maybe it was just me growing up. Regardless, recent Macs feel just like all other computers (except they’re prettier and shinier). The new icons seem bland. Happy Mac is gone, replaced by a solid Apple logo. The user interface has lost much of its consistency/uniformity (case in point: iTunes) and some of its intuitiveness. The Finder, which always had its problems, is still broken. The clean, fun, and inviting approach of old seems to now be clean, shiny, and overbearing.

Sad_macThere is no doubt that Mac OS X is vastly superior to its predecessors, and the Intel-Mac-era hardware is suitably powerful. But I can’t help feeling like the Mac sold its soul to get here. Was it the return of Jobs, a long-term consequence of 1990s mismanagement, or Apple spreading its wings into other electronic devices? Perhaps it is the consequence of reaching out for a mass audience, resulting in compromises for long-term users. I honestly don’t know. But the fact is I no longer consider the Mac to be my ideal machine; it is simply the one most appropriate for my needs. I still like it, but I used to love it. And I hold my growing indifference toward Apple Inc. responsible for that feeling.

At 23 years old, I have scarcely gone a day in my life without using a Mac. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are tied to that so-called “computer for the rest of us.” In many ways it has grown apart from me in recent years, but, wherever our paths lead in the future, the Mac will always be a part of me. I feel deeply indebted to my 20-or-so years learning, playing, and creating with the Mac. I can only wonder whether it -- or some other Apple product -- will have a meaningful impact on the next 20 years of my life.

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