• Another Apple Secret: Fewer Steps

    January 22nd, 2005

    A few weeks back, when I was busy rescuing a client’s Windows box from malware invasions and other ills, I asked him to watch over me as I worked. He had used a Mac for years, but inherited an entry-level Gateway from a relative, and wanted to somehow get it running. It was important that he understand what I had to go through in setting it up.

    Now there are some who claim that Windows XP has reached near parity with the Mac OS. How do they come to this conclusion? Well, not by observing the operating system itself and how it works. Sure, there are Control Panels in Windows, which you’d imagine to be the equivalent of Mac OS X’s System Preferences. But not all settings are performed there. You are sometimes forced to click the right mouse button to find additional setup options. If this doesn’t help, there’s always a Wizard, a setup assistant that is supposedly designed to get you up and running. But even the basic process of configuring a network printer may intimidate all but the most experienced users, because you have to make choices as to how your printer is connected, whether via a network or to the computer itself, and you may even have to create a custom port for it to run. And that applies even to a simple Ethernet connection.

    If things go awry along the way, as they often do, the help information can be equally obtuse. It’s no wonder PC support people often have a thriving business. If you want to get a closer picture at the situation, listen to any radio show that offers a PC help segment. If you don’t have a local program, check to see whether Kim Komando’s syndicated show is received in your area. The most simple questions about why things don’t work will often result in complex responses that take you through hoops and around obstacles until you are brought to some sort of conclusion. I just wonder whether listeners sit back with note-books in hand, or just tape the shows to sort things out later on.

    In short, doing something under Windows, while sometimes no more complicated than a Mac, will often involve many additional steps. The best way to get a handle on this is to look at the Mac and Windows versions of the same product and see how many steps are involved to get it running. While a software installation may not seem a big deal, hardware is quite another story. From network printers to scanners, unless the drivers are preinstalled on your PC, dependability can go down the tubes. There is supposed to be a plug and play system, but I wouldn’t take bets that it’ll always work.

    Now to return to that visit to the client’s home, before checking out his PC, I set up a Wi-Fi access point for him. He really wanted AirPort, but couldn’t get past the price difference, and besides the third party product had more Ethernet ports. As soon as it was connected and switched on, the Power Mac almost immediately recognized his cable modem hookup on the wired network. Turning on Wi-Fi only required a few clearly labeled steps in the access point’s Web-based settings screen. I used WPA security for maximum protection, and he wrote down the password and locked it in a cabinet.

    Now his iBook immediately found the network and the encryption scheme. I entered the password and he made his Wi-Fi connection. He was amazed how easy it was. “I guess I could have done this myself,” he smiled.

    Things turned from bad to worse on that Gateway box, which was installed in a child’s bedroom at the other end of his house. Yes, he could have lined the walls with cable, but he didn’t want to go through the bother of putting the wires at doorways beneath the carpet. He hoped Wi-Fi would be a quick and easy solution, but things aren’t always that easy under Windows. Once the PC was cured of spyware and virus infections, I shut it down and installed a PCI-based Wi-Fi card. On powering up the PC, the system did detect the new hardware, but there were no compatible native drivers.

    I tried to install the software provided with the card, but the Wi-Fi connection wasn’t recognized. So we had to revert to dial-up to download new drivers from the manufacturer’s Web site. It took a couple of uninstalls and several repeated installations for things to settle down. I did get a solid wireless connection, but had to use a less secure encryption method unless I also updated Windows. I tried retrieving all the necessary updates from Microsoft’s Web site, including the critical SP2 upgrade, but the download was frequently interrupted. It took a dozen attempts and a few restarts to get past the download screen and on to the installation screen.

    And you thought Mac OS X’s Software Update procedure was troublesome, right? Understand that SP2 is supposed to offer Windows XP users a higher level of security. But if they are forced to undergo this level of torture to get it downloaded, it’s no wonder many simply don’t bother. Now maybe Microsoft can tout high adoption rates among businesses, where IT people are around to shield ordinary mortals from the agony. But the average home user would simply give up and try to cope with what they have.

    But don’t think that the complexities and uncertainties of Windows don’t spread to its Mac products. Another client wanted to print about 100 address labels on his Power Mac, using Microsoft Word 2004. Now printing a single label is simple enough, but a complete mailing list requires a mail merge, and that can prove a daunting process for the uninitiated. But what about Entourage? Wouldn’t it make sense for an application that stores contact lists to provide an easy method for printing labels? Maybe to you and me, but not to Microsoft. Sure it can print a phone book in one of several styles, but not mailing labels.

    As the client pondered whether he should bother or just use a ball point pen, I took him through a fast tour of Apple’s Address Book. Here printing labels involving nothing more than selecting the individual names or an entire group, choosing the Print command and selecting the style of labels you want. Just make sure the proper media is inserted into your printer’s input tray, and you’re good to go. It was so simple, the client felt embarrassed asking me in the first place.

    Of course Microsoft could make just a simple. But that’s not in their DNA.

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