The Mac Switcher Report: Trials and Tribulations

November 12th, 2005

First let’s look at the good news: According to present estimates, some one million Windows users have switched to Macs this year alone. Some might have been enticed to buy a Mac because of the famous iPod “halo” effect. Others are simply disgusted with Windows malware, and are in sore need of a change. Regardless of the reason, it’s the best news for dedicated Mac users in quite some time, and you have to feel optimistic that the trend will continue into 2006 and beyond.

At the same time, there are a few pitfalls that newly minted Mac users will confront, and existing ones too. One of the big issues was encountered by a client a few weeks ago. He isn’t a Mac switcher; in fact, he’s used a Mac for years, recently retired and wouldn’t want to consider any other computer platform. But his wife continues to work at her busy real estate business, and she needs to keep track of her online listings. Alas, the folks who run the site that provides the information she requires recently made a fatal change, or at least one that seemed fatal.

Now as most of you know, the Windows version of Internet Explorer has been losing market share, particularly since Firefox appeared on the scene. Although the estimates vary from survey to survey and from country to country, Internet Explorer’s share is in the range of 85% or somewhat higher. This is still a dominant position, but it also means that as many as 15% of the visitors to a Web site are using a different browser. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was in a business that depended on the maximum amount of Internet traffic, I wouldn’t want to turn away 15% of my potential customers. Now maybe the folks who build some of those sites do not understand this simple truth. Whatever the reason, a number of them require Internet Explorer. Not even the Mac version will suffice.

You visit those sites, they either don’t work, or deliver that message that you’re not going to be admitted.

That takes us back to my client’s wife, who, one day, found out that the multiple listing site she depended on had made the decision to restrict its users to Internet Explorer for Windows. She tried Firefox and Safari, and I added Opera to the mix (having it report as Internet Explorer), but no luck.

The client thought for a moment about whether it made sense to buy a cheap PC box at the nearest consumer electronics outlet, but reason took hold and he tried Microsoft Virtual PC instead. You’d think that would be sufficient, and it should be, but his difficulties were just starting.

First, his Power Mac, circa 2002, required a memory upgrade to afford maximum resources to Virtual PC. That was a fairly simple task. The next proved far more difficult. At first the result seemed promising. While performance seemed tepid, it was good enough to provide reliable access to the real estate site. Ah success! But not so fast, because the client then tried to print a document and nothing happened.

Now Virtual PC is supposed to provide seamless access to your printer, but there are some notable shortcomings. In the case of this particular client, he had three USB printers. One, a cheap laser, the second a multifunction device from HP and the Canon inkjet he relied on fast output of color photos. Try as he might, the Canon refused to run.

I checked Virtual PC’s settings for USB devices, and discovered that he hadn’t selected a default USB printer or any USB printer in the application’s settings panel. I also discovered that Virtual PC’s handling of USB devices was, as John Rizzo of the popular MacWindows site said on The Tech Night Owl LIVE the other night, “funky.” That, my friends, is a huge understatement. You see, if you use the Restore feature to provide fast launching of your PC operating system, it loses the setting for a USB device. This is a “feature” and not a bug apparently, because the way the process of “capturing” a USB device is designed.

Now if the client had a printer connected via Ethernet, he would not encounter such difficulties, for Virtual PC has no such difficulties with network devices. Sure enough, when I selected my own Canon inkjet, which comes with a network adapter, as the application’s default printer, it performed nearly as well as it does with my regular Mac software.

I suppose I could suggest the client spend additional money on a network adapter, assuming one is available for his printer, or just buy a new printer altogether. But the costs are mounting, and the copy of Virtual PC plus that memory upgrade and my services have pushed his expenses beyond that of a cheap PC box.

Where does the blame lie? Well, I suppose you could hope that Microsoft will find a better way to manage USB printers with future versions of Virtual PC, or that the migration of Macs to Intel and the potential of dual booting will make this a moot question. But in the end, the real blame lies with the ill-advised programmers of that Web site who made a move contrary to the best interests of their customers. And that is something that will be particularly irritating to folks who have abandoned the trials and tribulations of Windows and moved to the Mac.

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