Virtual Consumer Jan-Feb 2010

Jumping Out of Windows

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Jan-Feb 2010

This column generally avoids use of the first person. But I want to write about a deeply personal matter, a life changing decision that I have taken, and it is difficult to avoid the word “I”. My move took months of planning. I have abandoned the habits of many years. It has changed the way I work and how others view me. It has provoked a reaction among friends and colleagues. Some have chastised me – even accused me of going over to “the other side”. Others have congratulated me on my conversion, treating me like the prodigal son.

You will have guessed no doubt by now that my decision was to abandon Microsoft Windows and buy a Mac. No small move for someone who has used Windows for over 20 years. It has cost me dearly, not just for the expensive Mac, but because of all the habits I need to unlearn. I would like to think however that I am able to keep it in some perspective. It is, after all, just an operating system.

For many though, the struggle between these two systems seems to mean much more than that, particularly for the Apple partisans. At first it was a tribal divide. Macs were for “arty” people and PC’s were for boring business types. This was alluded to in the Apple marketing campaign “I’m a Mac” and “I’m a PC” (which Microsoft then tried to play back to its advantage). But there has also been a political undertone. Apple has been portrayed as David to Microsoft’s Goliath. Microsoft is the corporate bully forcing users to struggle with difficult, ugly software. Apple is the rebel, liberating users with elegant, friendly software.

In recent years this characterization has become less and less credible.

For a start, for all its shortcomings, Windows is a more open system. You can’t use the Mac OSX operating system without paying Apple for a Mac. Microsoft may have abused its dominant market position in the past, but Apple makes the most out of the fact that its customers depend on it for both hardware and software – a situation that has been replicated on the iPhone and iPod.

Apple claims its laptops are more environmentally friendly than other manufacturers. But its Ethiscore of 8.5 in the Ethical Consumer report on laptops was lower than mainstream PC manufacturers like Dell.

Perhaps most damaging to the notion of Apple as some sort of “ethical” choice is the momentum gathering behind Ubuntu – a version of the Linux operating system that is easy to install and use. Ubuntu takes its name from the African philosophy that emphasizes openness and harmony. The Ubuntu project was started by South African entrepreneur (and space tourist) Mark Shuttleworth who wanted a cheap – indeed free – alternative to Windows. Ubuntu is for anyone, but it has important implications in the developing world where the cost of Windows far exceeds the cost of second-hand hardware.

So if there is an ethical choice of operating system for ordinary users, you could say it is Ubuntu. As with other forms of Linux (the operating system used on most of the world’s web servers) Ubuntu is ‘open source’: the software is developed cooperatively, is free to use, and any improvements must be made available to everyone. Like the Mac, Ubuntu also has a passionate, committed fan base. Following on the heels of new releases from Apple (Snow Leopard) and Microsoft (Windows 7), there is now a new version of Ubuntu (9.10 or Karmic Koala – yes really) that could attract more users to make the leap and dump Windows.

So, you might ask, why did I choose a Mac?

Well, as Mac fanatics have been arguing for years, it really does make it feel like the computer is there as a helper rather than an enemy. Well, most of the time.