Mac vs. Windows for newcomer usability

A colleague recently asked me if I recommended a Mac or a Windows-based PC for a coworker. He asked at an interesting time. With all the speculation of what the loss of Apple’s Steve Jobs might bring, and the advanced hype about Windows 7’s premiere, it got me thinking: “Which is easier to use these days?” Further, which is easier to use for a newcomer? And has that switched back and forth over the years?

While I’ve not laid my hands on Windows 7 yet, I can tell you from what I read, I don’t expect the world to get easier for newcomers. But I do hope things turn out much like they did after the introduction of Vista — more complex, but core concepts unchanged. Vista was an evolutionary layer onto the older Windows concepts, but at least the core concepts didn’t change. And while the Mac OS concepts haven’t changed since the introduction of OS X, my opinion of which is more usable has since deciding to write the book.

When I started writing The Ultimate PC Primer, I genuinely believed I could craft a book to cover the basic computing concepts of all versions of Windows from 95 on, Mac OS X, and much of the Linux-based window manger environments. After all, a PC is pretty much a PC at some level. So I tried hard to focus on the similarities between Apple and Microsoft’s products, but there came a point I realized I had to chose one over the other. But which to pick? The crucial question was: which would more newcomers be learning to compute on? The answer surprised me. Here’s why…

Remember when Apple computers were considered the “computer for schools” because they were supposed to be easier to use? I recall Macintosh computers touted as the easiest way to get into computing for newcomers. As an early Apple computer user (the entire Apple II line, including the GS, and eventually the Macintosh line) I remember how odd it was to use a MSDOS-based PC at first. Sure, early versions of Windows did help make the experience somewhat like the Mac, but it wasn’t quite as “native” as the Macintosh operating system. “IBM PCs” and “DOS” were for the computing elitists to conquer.

But then in 1995, something seemingly changed all that… Windows 95. It seemed like overnight, PCs were flying off the shelves, and for a few years, there was a proper brawl over which was actually easier to use. Eventually, Windows-powered PCs emerged the majority in the new user market (for many reasons… some obvious and some debatable, but most of which I am not interested in addressing or debating right now. Read on.). For the first time, Windows PCs pretty much became synonymous with new computer usage. I saw it in ads and heard it when talking to store clerks. There was a swift dismissal of Macintosh. “Windows is easy… it’s for new users. Mac? Nah. That’s old school. Any electronics store has what you need these days! You don’t need to go to a ‘computer store!'”

And something interesting happened not too long afterward: Apple changed the Macintosh operating system completely. It was still easy to use, but it was different from their old system… and more importantly, different enough from Windows. And soon after that the hardware changed, too. But did new users buy Apple PCs once again? Nope. Suddenly, the knowledgeable, existing users — the ones who wanted an unordinary computer and had grand expectations for their computing experience — became Mac fans. And it wasn’t too long before Mac became touted for being the computer that was “better” than Windows for those that really wanted a robust, sophisticated, and even somewhat “advanced” computing experience. It was like the two “switched.” Windows for newbies, Macintosh for the elite.

Similarly, think for a moment about what has happened with television and telephones. Historically, which received signals wirelessly and which were connected to wires? What happened over the years? The phones became wireless and the TVs became wired (with cable rather than antennas). Nicholas Negroponte actually predicted that this sort of thing would happen, and it became known as the Negroponte switch. So what would we call Apple and Microsoft’s PC user markets switching? The OS Switch? The Macintosh-Windows Reversal? A simple case of two companies exchanging their target markets (or better targeting consumers who were a match for their product?)

Whatever you want to call it, in the midst of watching it happen, I began writing The Ultimate PC Primer, and about half way through I found I had to make the choice. I really didn’t like having to make it, and I didn’t necessarily like why I found I had to make the choice. I personally like both operating systems for different reasons, but when faced with helping my target audience, I finally had to admit the following: the newer Macintosh operating system isn’t as conceptually understandable for brand new users. And if you put on the “I know nothing of computers or any digital, software-powered machine” hat, I think you’ll find you have to admit the same thing.* That’s why Don Reisinger’s article What Scares Me About Windows 7 scares me, too. Are we seeing both platforms evolve to a point they assume a higher entry level of computing savvy?

I know both Apple and Microsoft want the market to believe that their systems are simple to learn to use, but is that true for those who have never used a computer? Or is it only true for those of us who already know what the existing personal computer experience is like? As always, I leave you with some questions ponder: has there indeed been a Mac-Windows usability switch of sorts? Is Windows now considered the “easy” system to learn to use and is Macintosh now for the “advanced computing” space and PC elitists? Will it stay that way, will it switch again, or will both leave new users behind?

* Note that I am intentionally excluding stability and security from this picture. When first teaching the most basic concepts, once has to at least start with the assumption the system works, is stable, and secure. No newcomer would willingly learn on something known to be “broken.”

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4 Responses to Mac vs. Windows for newcomer usability

  1. A.Y. Siu says:

    I think people need to abandon this idea that everything on a computer should be easy for newcomers or immediately obvious. After all, you are a newcomer for only a few days or a few weeks. The focus of usability should be on long-term usability—what’s most effective for users after they’ve gotten used to things.

    In the end, familiarity trumps any lofty notions of “intuitiveness” or “new-userfriendliness.” If you’re used to a setup wizard, you won’t think to drag an mounted application to a folder to install it. If you’re used to Cmd-Q quitting an application, you won’t think closing the last window of an application will quit it.

  2. Ben K says:

    A.Y. Siu, indeed, I definitely think many have already abandoned the idea. I don’t necessarily think it’s possible to have a single system that can immediately serve both the newcomer and the power user. (I have some ideas on how both might be better served, though.)

    You rightly point out that no user should (ideally) stay a newcomer for long. What I find interesting is that there seems to be a growing assumption that modern PCs don’t require any significant initial learning. It could be that the majority of existing users have moved on and are ready for more sophisticated systems (e.g.: OSX and Windows 7). If that be the case, one can see why training for true newcomers would be a lower (or non) priority. My concern is that there are still a tremendous number of true newcomers and beginners that haven’t mastered the core PC concepts…. and the systems go on evolving without them. The evolution won’t slow or stop, and I certainly don’t argue that it should. My focus is on attempting to bring those needing help up to speed, but that challenge is difficult without the awareness that such an audience (still) exists.

  3. Abbey says:

    Hey Ben! I know this is an older post, but if you haven’t had a chance to see Windows 7 yet, give me a call. We have a beta copy in the lab for a short time. You’re welcome to come up and check it out 🙂

    • Ben K says:

      Thanks, Abbey. I’ll take you up on that offer. It’s been interesting to follow the Vista to Win7 saga. I find most interesting the PR from Microsoft saying that Windows 7 will be “less annoying” than Vista. I’m curious to see what “less annoying” looks like and determine who it is “less annoying” for…. the experienced or the newcomer. Speaking of newcomers to a “new” OS, I had a family member just replace his XP machine with a new Vista machine, and I’ll be publishing a post based around those observations soon, too. Stay tuned!

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