From the November 2006 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

Mac or PC?

In Apple's current TV ads, a hapless but affable businessman plays the role of a PC. His nemesis is a Mac, played by a scruffy but cool hipster. While not as dramatic as the 1984 spot that featured an Olympian-like athlete throwing a sledgehammer at a big-screen image of Big Brother--a.k.a. IBM--the 2006 campaign pits Apple against another long-time foe: Microsoft.

It's the first national blitz for the Mac since 2002, which also took the Mac head-to-head with the PC. In that campaign, Apple introduced us to so-called real life people who switched from the PC to the Mac. In the current commercials, the PC is sometimes in a wheelchair, victim to someone's tripping over his power cord, and sometimes in a trench coat, hiding out from spyware. While the PC guy complains about his misfortunes, the Mac guy gloats about his resistance to viruses and other maladies. The message Apple hopes viewers get is that Macs are easier to use and less vulnerable than PCs. Plus, Macs are cooler. The campaign invites us to re-examine the classic question: Which is better, a Mac or a PC? For me, the question is quite timely. A long-time Windows user--and before that a DOS user--I've recently begun using a Mac for the first time at work.

After years of listening to Apple aficionados brag about ease of use and stability, I find myself surprisingly underwhelmed by the Mac. On the ease-of-use issue, except for having to re-train my fingers for some key combinations, I notice little difference between the Apple desktop I use at the office and the Windows laptop I use at home. As far as stability goes, I still manage to crash my Mac a couple of times a week--just as I do my Windows system. Apparently, I take multi-tasking to an extreme. However, the programs I use--word processors, publishing systems, email programs and Web browsers--don't strike me as particularly ambitious compared to the sophisticated things one can do with photos and video clips these days.

One area in which Apple has always shined is in the fine arts. Designers, photographers, graphic artists and musicians still swear by the Mac. Not only are programs written for the Mac that are especially suited for the arts, but Apple products do look chic. The iPod and iTunes products also underscore the notion that Apple is the choice of creative people.

Another area in which Apple may provide an arguable advantage--at least for now--is in security. "114,000 viruses? Not on a Mac," boasts the Apple campaign. But will the company be able to maintain that edge? While it is true that fewer viruses target the Mac operating system than Windows today, just by pointing it out, Apple may be asking for trouble from hackers in the future.

Despite its ardent fan base, the Mac operating system accounts for less than 4 percent of the market compared with more than 84 percent for Windows XP alone, according to researcher Net Applications. Price is a factor that has always hampered wider adoption of Apple's computers, which have typically cost 10 percent more than their Windows-based competitors. Now Apple is taking some heat for the pricing of its recent iPod products. Analysts at Gartner Inc.--another research firm--suggest the second-generation iPod Shuffle could have been priced closer to $49 instead of $79. And they say the new 8GB product should have been lower than $249 since the materials only cost $130.

The question of Mac versus PC doesn't matter as much today as it did in the past because it is easier than ever to share files and applications between the two platforms. And despite the debate, over the years the differences between the two systems have eroded. Today, the Mac seems more like a PC than ever. Consider Apple's list of reasons to switch from a PC to a Mac: A Mac runs Microsoft Office, uses an Intel Core Duo processor, and "Yes, you can even run Windows." Will you love a Mac because it's like the familiar PC?

Ironically, in the Apple TV ads, it's actually the PC character that comes across as more likeable than the Mac character. Perhaps that's because the actor playing the PC hails from Comedy Central's counter-culture hit, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Or perhaps it's because many of us don't use a computer to be cool. We use a computer to work. For me, picturing the computer as an imperfect guy trying to do his best to do a good job, get through the day and go home to his family works. To borrow from another classic ad campaign, I'd rather byte than switch.

Mary Kathleen Flynn, a New York-based technology and business writer, is an associate editor at The Deal and Tech Confidential.

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