From the August 1998 issue of Startups

Macintosh or PC? That is the question: whether 'tis better to stick with Apple Computer or to suffer the slings and arrows of Microsoft Windows and contribute even more to Bill Gates' outrageous fortune.

Our apologies to Shakespeare, but many thousands of homebased business owners now face a serious decision: Should they switch to IBM-compatible PCs? Is the Macintosh an overpriced, dead-end technology, soon to be relegated to the dustbin of history? What reasons are there for staying with the Mac--and perhaps even buying more, if you need them--to help manage a growing business?

In fact, the Mac is not dead--not by a long shot--and it won't be anytime soon. And despite the PC's very real dominance, there are many sound reasons, both financial and technical, for sticking with Apple's machine as your primary business computer. There are even some good reasons for choosing the Mac as your first computer, if that's the decision you're faced with making. There are some good reasons for switching to a PC, too. It all depends on what you need to accomplish with your computer and how integral you expect it to be, whatever its brand, to your business.

Bad Apple?

The possibility of dumping the Mac has probably crossed the mind of every Apple user by now, if only for a microsecond. It's hardly surprising, considering the warp-speed evolution of today's computer technology and the market's ominous sales pitch of "Don't get left behind!"

There's no question Apple began to stumble quite badly three years ago: Once-enviable earnings turned into heavy losses, managers left in droves, CEOs came and went, the Mac's market share tumbled, Apple's cloning strategy backfired--and all the while, the PC's grip on computing grew stronger and stronger. As has happened repeatedly during the short history of digital computing, a slight tilt in the marketplace sparked a vicious circle: As the PC attained much of the graphical windowing technology that made the Mac so successful, software makers turned away from Apple's computer. In turn, fewer Macs were sold, which meant even less interest from software makers in the hardware, and so on.

Luckily for Apple, millions of Mac users would still sooner die than even think of switching to PCs and the application they derisively call "Windoze." Right from the launch of the Mac in 1983, Apple cultivated an elite, advanced-technology image for its computers and, partly as a result, its customers have shown an astounding level of brand loyalty. What's more, many Mac fans' recent concerns over Microsoft's enormous market power and possible antitrust violations have only increased their affinity for the Apple machine.

Choose Your Weapon

For business owners, however, the choice of a computer should be more a matter of practicality than of politics or "cool" technology. The question you need to ask yourself is simply this: Does this computer help me do the tasks I need done for a reasonable amount of money, taking into account all costs, such as training, software products and hourly consulting fees?

Many Mac customers have done the math and can't seriously consider switching. "I haven't even thought about it," says Bob Nelson, who runs his homebased Phoenix retail strategy consulting business, Power Retailing Inc., on Macintosh computers. "My Macintoshes have the guts of my company in them. I would have to spend months redoing what I've already done. And I don't think the PC would be able to handle all the materials I've developed since I founded the company 15 years ago."

Like many entrepreneurs, Nelson has an accountant do his books, but he depends 100 percent on his own personal computer for all his business communications--writing letters and e-mail messages, preparing business proposals, creating promotional materials for his retailing clients, and surfing the Web. Nelson says he's more interested in better serving his clients than in becoming a computer jock. And, he says, "The possibility of saving a few hundred dollars by switching to a PC is not enough to make me do it."

It's the Mac's simplified, easy-to-use style of computing, of course, that has always been its main appeal, especially for nontechnical buyers. And, despite Apple's recent struggles, the Mac hasn't lost any of that simplicity or appeal. In fact, its software seems all the more efficient and practical in this Internet era, which is a rather messy tangle of technologies that most people can't fathom.

Configuring a Mac for connection to an ISP typically requires only about one-third the number of steps it takes to connect a Windows 95-based PC. And for all business-oriented tasks on the Net--as opposed to games, for instance--there are just as many Mac-compatible software programs available as there are PC programs.

War and PC

Whether or not the Mac is best for you depends on many factors. If yours is a business that depends heavily on graphics or producing multimedia material, you're probably well aware of the Mac's virtues and don't need persuading. Industries such as advertising, movie production, music, Web site development and computer games, for instance, have come to depend on many specialized software tools that in many cases are still available only for (or work best on) a Macintosh.

But what if your business involves retailing, professional or business services, a craft, or marketing, and it's not particularly computer-intensive? What if all you need is basic personal and business computing functions, such as word processing, accounting, an electronic spreadsheet and Internet access? In this case, you're much freer to choose between the Mac and an IBM-compatible PC because the software you need is more or less generic and available for either type of machine.

Perhaps for you it's only a matter of comfort: If you're pleased with your Mac setup, you find it's doing the job, and you don't see any need for specialized PC-only software products, there is really no reason to switch. You can continue benefiting from what you probably bought the machine for in the first place--the friendly computing style that Mac users are always raving about.

And you'll be able to avoid the often-difficult technicalities of setting up and maintaining a PC and its software. Rob Grierson, an Evanston, Illinois, computer consultant who has worked with both Macs and PCs at his company, Grierson Consulting, says, "Anything you want to do can be done on a Mac. If you already know how to use a Mac, buy a Mac. If you buy a PC, you'll have to learn how to use it from scratch. Windows 95 may [make a PC] look like a Macintosh, but underneath it all is a complexity you should avoid."

If you happen to like fiddling with computers, of course, the PC may be just the thing for you. It offers more options and internal parameters you can get your hands on and tweak. But if you're trying to run a business, you probably don't want to spend too much time working on the guts of your computer. Says retailing consultant Nelson, "With a PC, I doubt I'd be as [computer] literate as I am today."

Take new program installations. On a PC, this generally results in all sorts of oddly named components getting scattered across several different folders in the machine's directory, or listing of files. Often, there's no clue as to what each of these components does or which program it's designed to work with. Mac program components, on the other hand, tend to be fewer and install in a more predictable way, making it much easier to troubleshoot and maintain the overall system. And if you frequently need to train new employees on your machine or you have a network of machines to oversee, chances are the Mac's still a better solution because of its straightforward software.

Price Matters

Ah, but what about prices and the availability of software, you may ask. Don't PCs cost less than Macs of comparable performance, and aren't there thousands more programs available for PCs than for Macs? Yes and yes again, but think twice before you decide to switch from a Mac to a PC because of that comparison alone. What really counts in any computer evaluation is the total cost of ownership--its initial price plus the cost of running and maintaining it for a number of years.

Here, too, Macs show great merit. Over the past two years, Apple has lowered prices. Even still, if all you're comparing is raw processor speed and hard-drive capacity, Macs may still appear to cost a little more than PCs. But again, there's that inherent simplicity and completeness of the Mac's core operating system. It makes the machine as a whole much easier to operate in both stand-alone and networked setups. "If you have a friend who will come over and fix your PC for free, get a PC. Otherwise, you can probably fix most problems on a Mac yourself," says Grierson. "Set up a good [data] backup system and install Norton Utilities [for diagnosing and fixing many common problems]. That's all you need."

Application software, or the relative lack thereof, is clearly the Mac's biggest weakness compared to the PC. Many industry-specific programs just aren't available for the Mac. But if it's basic business tasks you're doing, such as communicating, budgeting and accounting, the Mac can still hold its own against any brand.

What's Up, Mac?

What about support? This is clearly a question on most Mac owners' minds. Apple is not likely to regain the strength it once had, but that hardly means the company is going to disappear anytime soon. And even if it vanished overnight, 28 million Macintosh computers in use today all but guarantee there would still be support for Mac hardware and new versions of the most important Mac software. The Mac user base remains much too big an opportunity for other companies to ignore.

Besides, Apple seems to be stabilizing after several years of trouble. The company is now shipping the most powerful personal computer available: the 300 MHz Power Macintosh G3. It's inviting customers to customize and buy machines directly from its Web site. CompUSA, a major computer retailing chain, is re-emphasizing Mac-related products in its stores. Microsoft has plowed $150 million into Apple to help boost product development. And Bill Gates himself has vowed that Microsoft will continue to create Mac versions of major programs such as the multifunctional Office 98 suite. While none of these developments will restore Apple to its previous size or luster, they certainly show that the marketplace has not given up on the company.

And as more of the world's computing takes place on the Internet, more programs are being written and made available in standardized, universal formats. The Web's HTML, for instance, is designed specifically to create pages of information that look the same on all types of computers, from PCs and Macs to the strangest gizmo you might find in the back of a research lab. Likewise, the Java programming language is designed to allow any program to run on any computer. Granted, that ideal may never be reached; various computer companies are fighting over Java's technical details, and many software makers have yet to fully switch to the language. But there's no question that the computer industry is eager to adopt standards, which will surely make the Mac more viable than ever.

Contact Sources

Grierson Consulting, grierson@mcs.Net

Power Retailing Inc., 1859 E. South Fork Dr., Phoenix, AZ 85048, bnelson@retailing.com