It’s fair to say that the divides caused by our choices of computing platforms has been around since the beginning.
When the first apeman lifted a sabre-tooth tiger’s jawbone aloft and declared it, through the language of Ug, to be the pinnacle of design, you can guarantee that another hairy proto-chap nearby raised a mammoth’s tooth and said, again in Ug, that this was superior due to its cutting edge functionality and open source architecture.
Ok, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, after all we know that the do-it-yourself flint supporters would have had their say, but the apeman analogy is one that seems strangely fitting even today. Visit an internet tech forum of any kind and it won’t take long for a massive argument to break out, eventually reaching its inevitable climax in accordance with Godwin’s Law (The law, first proposed back in 1990, states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”). The root of these disagreements usually boils down to the opposing tech camps to which the combatants belong. Android Vs iOS, Windows Vs Mac, Linux Vs everyone.
So it is, and thus it ever was.
My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a magisterial symphony of plastic and rubber. The tiny, British device became an obsession with me and I’d spend hours playing games, trying to write music, and failing to learn how to program on it. This period in the early eighties was when the home computer industry was in its infancy (I actually wrote a potted history of the period for PC Advisor recently – which you can view here) and many competing platforms vied for dominance. Most fell by the wayside (Oric, Dragon, Amstrad, etc) but the Spectrum held firm and ended up slugging it out with its big American rival the Commodore 64.
These two machines prompted passionate responses from their owners and gave me my first taste of tribal colours. If you had a Spectrum you would somehow fail to notice the appalling graphical shortcomings of the machine, not to mention the useless sounds it generated, and instead focus on the wealth of games available, the friendly feel to the machine, and the fact that it was British. Commodore owners would strike back with a completely oblivious view of the washed out screen colours, corporate looking body, and lack of spectral stripe on the front, while positing its powerful internals and ability to render sprites without turning two conflicting images into some kind of rainbow hallucination.
Of course now, with three decades of distance between myself and those days, it’s clear to me that both were excellent machines. Although the Spectrum was obviously better…because I had one.
So, we like to fight a cause? Surely there’s nothing wrong with that? Of course not, until people find ways to control our causes, then direct us towards their ends rather than our own. Then it becomes something more sinister.
Mac and Windows have fought the OS battleground for as long as I can remember, and for most of that time Windows has been victorious. Their percentage of the computer market is estimated to be around 90%, with Mac holding a rather lowly 6% (although in laptops they are thought to be slightly higher). This meant that for years certain software wasn’t available on Macs due to incompatibility issues. In recent years this has improved, as Apple has grown in popularity, and now the Mac boasts some enviable software of its own – the iLife suite being a fine example. But with a few notable exceptions users could choose which programs they wanted to run, and even dual boot their machines to run both operating systems on the same machine if there were programs they couldn’t live without. But times are changing.
With the advent of tablets we’re seeing a lessening in the options open to users. The eco-system is beginning to define how we behave. Now our tribal allegiance is no longer necessarily a voluntary one, but something subtly forcing us to remain in place. The major manufacturers don’t want us moving freely from device to device, unless they are all ones they make. So we’re seeing something happening called lock-in, and as the convergence of tablets, phones, and computers continues this could be a problem in the future.
Say you buy an iPad. It’s maybe your first Apple device. It doesn’t take long to realise that you need apps to make it do interesting things. Before you know it you’ve spent a fair bit of money on games, calendars, photo apps, and maybe some magazines. Then a year later you want to try out an Android tablet, you check to see if the same apps exist (which mostly they will), only you discover that even though you bought the apps on iOS, the same company wants you to pay again for basically the same app on this opposing platform. This is enough to make you pause before clicking on the buy button for that Nexus 10 tablet.
Of course this has always been the case with Macs and PCs, but most of us didn’t buy that much software. In the 8 year of using Macs I think I’ve bought possibly one or two programs. In two years of using my iPad I’ve bought a few hundred – admittedly at a much cheaper cost per program, but it soon adds up. This investment makes it harder to switch away from your hardware, and as companies like Apple are seemingly increasing the rate at which they want you to upgrade it can become difficult to remain happy with your purchase before you feel the need to change. Another factor is that new features are added which only work on the latest version of the operating system, meaning you need to keep your different pieces of hardware current if you want to have this smooth experience. But as most of us don’t want to upgrade our computer, phone, and tablet every two years we end up with hardware on different versions. This means some features work across the board, while others – usually the most useful ones – don’t, and once again the pressure to upgrade increases, further deepening our financial commitment to the company and reducing our motivation to move to another platform.
Then, as we saw recently with the Google Maps debacle, inter-company disputes are beginning to reach down to consumers as we are are denied superior services just to satisfy the egos of the manufacturers involved. Another example is that Apple doesn’t have the Amazon MP3 store on iOS, presumably because they don’t want you buying music from stores other than iTunes. This isn’t the optimum experience for the user, rather the best financial opportunity for Apple. Amazon’s Kindle books can be read on tablets, phones, and computers, but not on other ebook readers. So if you buy into their eco-system then you’re unlikely to come out again without losing your investment. Now with Windows switching to the app store model for Windows 8 it can only be a matter of time before the systems finally close off our ability to install software from external sources – citing security as a major factor in the change.
It’s a troubling thought that the technology we buy today, may well define the ones we’ll be buying ten years from now, and to protect ourselves from the feeling of being coerced we may well develop a heightened sense of allegiance to our tribe rather than taking up arms against them.