Mac mini

I struggled with the title of this post as I just did not know what to say. Last week, I purchased my first Apple Mac computer. This post is the first to be written on my new Mac mini.

This is a big thing for me. I am devoted to Microsoft. I have made a living knowing more about Microsoft PCs than most. I was the guy who plugged in the first mouse at work in 1989 and played Reversi on Windows/286  through the wee small hours of the operator’s night-shift. The mouse was fun, but without any “real” applications was rather pointless. During the day, the same machines were busy running Wordperfect or Lotus 123 or doing other serious stuff.

At around the same time some rebel office workers had purchased an Apple Macintosh to use for drawing building plans. To me, they were just plain weird.  (The Macs that is not the staff who worked there, but come to think of it…) Sure they had a cool graphical UI and a one button mouse (that granted could do more than play Reversi) but they cost a hell of a lot and had special cables, special printers and just a lot of special stuff that cost a lot of money. And they had no autoexec.bat or config.sys or literally any way for a tech guy like me to “fix” them. Little did I understand back then that there was a good reason for that. Anyway as they could not run real applications like Word or Lotus 123 – who cared – what was a computer if it could not replace a typewriter or calculator?

I literally earned my first PC (sorry PC-AT, for those who remember) moonlighting writing database software. I took my payment in kind and a semi-new PC-AT was perfect payment for my first contract coding assignment – it even had a “Hercules” graphic card so it could run Windows/286 if I felt the need to play Reversi at home. I have been a Microsoft fan-boy ever since and those Apple Mac things were considered mere nuisance toys for those who had more money than sense.

Twenty-two years on that changed this week – I actually purchased one of those nuisance toys and in the process became an Apple Mac convert.

Like many of my techo cohorts, I simply grew tired of CPU hogging virus protection, bloatware, crap-ware, pauses, freezes, reboots, blue screens, registry settings and ever-increasing boot times. Personal computing was never meant to be that way. Both Steve and Bill knew that and actually had similar visions but worked at the problem in different ways.

Steve – being a hardware guy – wanted to control the whole ecosystem, not because he was arrogant but he knew that it’s much easier to control a few models of one computer than having to support lots of different devices, controllers and chipsets – conveniently they could even charge a premium for the computer and all the accessories.

Bill – being a software guy – figured the opposite and saw that leaving the hardware to others and having quasi-open, flexible standards, third-party vendors and active developer community would allow the industry to blossom and lead to innovation and lower prices. Over the last 20 years apparently 95% of us agreed with Bill and so his vision largely came true and we can credit him with bringing PCs to the mainstream.

Microsoft may have won that war but now the battleground has changed. No longer do people want the fastest, biggest, gruntiest hardware sitting on their desktop. It only takes so much grunt to run Excel and Word or a Web browser. What they want is something that works – and works ALL the time, every time – with no fuss. The Windows ecosystem no longer provides this experience. Buy a mid-range Dell laptop today and it will boot slow and run slow from the outset. Not because Windows 7 is inherently slow, but as a result of the necessary virus protection and crap-ware that is forced on the consumer, whether they want it or not.

My work supplied computer is an expensive 2011 model Dell laptop running Windows XP SP3. It is not full of crapware, just necessary business apps and still it takes 15 minutes to boot every morning. The corporation I work for employs over 45,000 people. Do the sums: 15 minutes/day * 45,000 – don’t bother – it’s a big number and an indictment of where the IT industry has gone awry.  Seriously, 30 years of personal computing and we have to wait 15 minutes for our best-of-breed-leading-edge computers to boot!

Forget jetpacks – I just want my computer to work when I need it to.

Ever turned on an Apple iPad or an iPhone? Notice something different? They just turn on immediately and are ready to work. Before you all jump down my throat and say they are not really “booting”,  they are just waking from sleep – I know – but that is my point. Apple have built devices and computers that don’t need to be shutdown or booted – ever.

On the rare occasion I need to cold-boot my Mac Mini, it is truly a fast and pleasant experience. No POST screen,1980s beep (wtf do we need that in 2011?), no logo screen, windows boot screen, black screen, windows boot screen, login prompt, pause, desktop loading…  just a nice grey-on-grey animated icon and a muted sound when it’s ready. Ten seconds and it’s done! Login and instantaneously I am ready to go.

Flexibility breeds complexity. It’s a rule everyone in IT knows but many consumers are only just coming to grips with. The Windows environment is the ultimate in flexibility but that flexibility comes at a cost and that is complexity in terms of boot times, virus protection, registry settings, drivers, UAC, installation processes. Given there are only 5 or so Mac models and each with strictly controlled hardware, there is almost no flexibility in the Apple Mac domain but that means things are so much simpler – and faster. I could not believe how simple it is to download and install software on a Mac. In most instances you download the disk image, automount it and then literally drag the app into your applications folder. Less than a second – I am dead serious – no installation programs, no registries that need tweaking –  it just works!

Overall the Mac experience is impressively productive – just the way things should be. Within ten minutes of my first boot I had a perfect working environment. Within a day, all the pending updates had been applied automatically. By lunch on day two I had downloaded and installed Mac OSX equivalents of all my favourite apps – Chrome, Decibel, Max, Handbrake. By the end of the weekend, I had configured Time machine to work with my NAS and downloaded and installed Xcode and am ready to teach myself yet another programming language – ObjectiveC.

I know many of you will think this is bit like being told by an ex-smoker not to smoke but all I can say is, like me, it may be time to get over it. The real war is over and Apple won and there is no turning back. Microsoft peaked in 2001 with the release of Windows XP and the Windows 2000 server. Ever since, it’s been a steady slow decline – and for good reason. Corporations will take a long time to catch on but in the end, they will change. Perhaps not to Mac minis but maybe to iPads or Android tabs. Either way, the dominance of Microsoft is truly over.

For those who don’t know, the Mac Mini is the much underrated model of the Apple Mac family. It’s just a really, really small and really quiet grey box with lots of ports that you can use to plug in your existing screen, mouse or keyboard. Under the hood though it’s a full Mac OS X Lion machine and once you plug in your existing peripherals you get the full iMac experience – but for less than 1/2 the price.

I suspect the Mac mini will be my last true “Personal Computer” purchase. It seems apt.

EDIT: Well so much for being my last Personal Computer purchase, Father Christmas left one under the tree. You see Mac Minis play Minecraft in full screen with huge framerates and no lag and once my son saw that he just had to have one…. So now there are two.

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