A Eulogy For The Macintosh (a.k.a. Why Macs Are Bad)

The Macintosh, sadly, refuses to die. While once promising as a toy computer, it has evolved to a state where it is no longer even fit for this purpose. Years after it became clear that this so-called computer had lost all of its soul and any usefulness it might have once had, people still continue to champion it as an epitome of smart computer design. This sorry state of affairs clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding on the simple subject of what a computer is for: If a computer can't do what you need it to do, it's not a very good computer. While computers are often hampered in terms of technical limitations, what makes the Macintosh so egregiously bad is the fact that its most significant lackings stem from deliberate design choices.

The Macintosh has never been an especially useful computer, but at least the early Macintoshes had the benefit of being simple. They had a certain charm that made them cute and appealing, even if they weren't particularly useful. At their best, they perfectly embodied the ideal of the "toy computer", a box with functionality approximately equivalent to those cardboard laptop toys for toddlers which have a set of spring-loaded flaps that pop up on the screen when you press certain keys on the keyboard.

Since those days, however, the Macintosh has progressed through various states of trying to imitate the PC, never quite managing to be as good as the PC, but ever persistent in its eternal game of catch-up. Allow me to trace the evolution of the Macintosh and touch on a few of the most important ways in which it thought it could reinvent itself.

Let's start with the first Macintosh. A monochrome machine with a point-and-click interface stolen wholesale from the Xerox Alto. Right from the start, the Mac establishes itself as a copycat rather than an innovator.

The Macintosh first attained color capability with the Macintosh II, released in 1987, literally 10 years after the Atari 2600 and 5 years after the Commodore 64, both of which had been capable of color right from the start. The Macintosh II was actually a pretty decent machine in some respects; notably, it included the first instance of Apple's excellent PDS (Processor Direct Slot), an expansion slot which allowed plug-in cards to connect directly to the CPU bus, similar to the PC's ISA slots. However, whereas the PC could have several ISA slots, Apple never included more than one PDS slot, apparently because they were scared that having too many cards using the CPU bus could create problems. (Thanks, Apple, for deliberately placing restrictions on expansion card designers in your ongoing effort to save them from themselves.)

Apple had the right idea with the PDS slot, even if it was a rather inferior cousin to the slots that had been available on the IBM PC for years. But rather than trying to improve this interface, Apple went ahead and took a step backwards by discontinuing PDS slots on Macintoshes after they moved to their new so-called "Power Macintosh" computers. These machines were an unmitigated disaster right from the beginning. When they were released, Apple promoted them with a series of ads touting their PC compatibility: in essence, the Power Mac was designed to be able to run MS-DOS programs. This not only formed the latest in the now-long-standing Macintosh tradition of trying to be like other computers, it also was laughable because DOS programs ran at an almost unusably slow speed on these machines. Most users wisely chose to run DOS programs much faster on the machines they were actually designed for, rather than suffering through Apple's broken DOS emulation.

After the Power Mac debacle, it was clear that the Mac was already dead. But rather than allowing the dead to sleep in peace, Apple insisted on grave-robbing, trying to squeeze more money out of a dead horse. After the Power Mac, Apple seemed to forget about trying to run PC-compatible software on the Macs for a while. Instead, they began to focus on creating Macs whose main feature was a horribly gaudy chassis that came in a variety of colors. (To future generations: I'm not joking. Apple really, honest-to-goodness ran a marketing campaign that focused solely on the fact that you could get their computer in various colors.) Truly, when Apple began a series of TV ads about the iMac's colors which used the Rolling Stones' "She's A Rainbow" (once again copycatting Microsoft, who had famously used the Stones' song "Start Me Up" to launch Windows 95), it became apparent that Apple could stoop no lower.

Apple's floundering campaign to publicly embarrass itself came full-circle in 2006, when they announced they would start using Intel 80x86 CPUs in the Macintosh, the same architecture that the IBM PC had used since its introduction more than 20 years ago. After decades of desperately pretending to be as cool as other computers, the Macintosh had given up the ghost and finally resigned itself to being an overpriced PC clone, not differentiable from any other clone on the market.

It's apparent that the Mac has always tried to be a trend-follower rather than a trend-setter. Yet even this wouldn't be so bad if the Mac were at least good. It just isn't. Throughout its development, the Mac seems to have been plagued by a user-last design that prevents people from doing anything with the computer.

But saying all of this is just hot air without concrete examples. I've had enough of senselessly bashing the Mac; it's time to give some solid cases of what you really can't do with a Macintosh, or can't do very well.

Perhaps first and foremost: You can't change the BIOS. If you don't like what your Macintosh does when it powers on, sorry, but you can't change it, because Apple doesn't provide any schematics on the ROM chip pinout, nor does it give you any BIOS source code. This automatically makes the computer useless, since you can't change its fundamental first-instruction behavior. People trumpet how wonderful different operating systems are, but long before the computer gets to the OS, it's already run much of the BIOS. On a PC, you can pull out the BIOS chip, put in your own BIOS program, and plug the chip back in for a customized computing experience. Try doing this with a Mac. Right off the top, the Mac is crippled and unusable.

The same goes for the Macintosh hardware. Where are the schematics for this machine? Obviously forgetting that everyone is a developer and an engineer, Apple provided none. This is particularly appalling given that the Macintosh came after the Apple II, one of whose greatest strengths was that its schematics were freely provided by Apple in the Apple II Reference Manual. Although schematics have since been created by some enthusiasts who went to the trouble of actually tracking down every trace on the Mac's motherboard, people shouldn't have to go to that kind of trouble when Apple coule have made the schematics publicly available. It is exactly this kind of closed-architecture mentality that has made the Macintosh an inferior descendant of the Apple II, a relentlessly antisocial machine whose incompatibility has never ceased to damage its viability.

This extends to components besides the motherboard. The parts of an IBM PC-compatible are made to be just that: Compatible. It's this compatibility that allows you to take a hard drive made by one manufacturer and a drive controller made by a completely different manufacturer, and have them work together. Wanna make a drive controller for a Mac? Sorry, Apple won't tell you how to interface it with the motherboard. A video controller? No can do. Now, people will often point out that there are video cards which are made to plug into the more recent Macs, because the latest Macs now have fancy PCI and AGP slots, just like today's PCs. So, you really can made an add-on card for a Mac, right? In a sense, yes; however, it has to be done through high-level hardware interfaces like PCI. This is sort of like making a car which has no steering wheel and no pedals; instead, you control it by telling a little robot under the hood to speed up, slow down, and steer: It provides no direct control over the machine, but rather requires you to interface through a clunky and proprietary intermediary mechanism. Forget this PCI and AGP trash, where's a real ISA slot for the Mac, a slot that allows the hardware to directly tap into the address, data, and control buses of the machine? There never was one; Apple never made a Mac with such an interface (although the PDS slot was a step in the right direction that was, unfortunately, quickly axed from the Mac after it was introduced). The same goes for USB: You can make devices that connect to the computer through USB, but those devices don't actually interface with the computer; they interface with the USB controller. What you need is something that will allow you to tap straight into the CPU pins.

This same principle extends to the software. Where is the interface that allows you to key hexadecimal or binary values directly into memory bytes? There isn't one in MacOS, and there aren't any other "official" operating systems for the Mac. To be fair, it is possible to put another OS on your Macintosh (there are several interesting Linux ports available for it), but for people who want to go that route, it should be possible to buy a "clean" Macintosh, without MacOS installed, just as one should never buy a PC with Windows pre-installed (because nobody should use Windows). However, while it *is* possible to buy a PC with no OS installed on it (thus allowing you to save hundreds of dollars in money that would otherwise be wasted on an OS you won't use), try doing the same thing with a Mac. Sorry, Apple doesn't sell Macs without MacOS.

If nothing else, all of this backward-thinking design that's embedded deep into the Macintosh provides a pretty giant puzzle. Hackers love puzzles. They love trying to figure things out. So a computer like the Macintosh is sort of like ancient hieroglyphics, a large system that's vexingly inscrutable but obviously possessing some structure. Recognizing the challenge in figuring out such a piece of garbage, many hackers have taken up the gauntlet and gone ahead with reverse engineering the Macintosh, building the aforementioned public-domain schematics and creating disassemblies of the ROM code. This is yet another case of the hacker community doing for the world what the corporations would not.

Some might say that the whole spirit of modifying the Macintosh to do things it was never made to do is right in line with the spirit of hacking. After all, from the early days of the PDP-1, it has been one of the signature marks of the hacker to apply computers in ways the computer's designers never anticipated or intended. While it is true that hackers, by their very nature, find new and creative ways to extend technology, and "hacks" of the Macintosh are often clever or useful, the problem is that hacking the Mac is not so much a matter of overcoming technical problems as deliberate snares. Real hackers overcome technical limitations that exist in hardware because human technology has not yet advanced to a certain point. Macintoshes, however, are not crippled because of a lack of technological advance; they are crippled by deliberately-placed design limitations. It has never made sense for people to waste time hacking such a foolishly-designed platform when you can take an open-architecture machine and start from a much more stable foundation. When the PDP-1 came out, computers were still in their infancy, and there was much hacking to be done with such a machine before people could find out what could be done with a computer. Back then, trying to get more from your machine was an act of development. Today, most of the limitations of the Macintosh stem not from humanity's technology being in a primitive state, but rather from Apple's deliberate implementation of them. In an age when you can get computers that are well documented and highly usable right out of the box, this makes hacking the Macintosh redundant; essentially a waste of time.

It would be unfair to deny that there are several cool things you can do with a Macintosh. However, it would also be unfair to deny that there is nothing a Macintosh can do that you can't do better on another computer.

If the Macintosh were even financially less expensive than its competitors, it could at least potentially have a place in the world as an ultra-low-end home computer for the financially disadvantaged. (Although this argument would also go out the window in light of the fact that many perfectly good computers are now thrown away for free due to age, and you can get a very good used PC-compatible machine for about the cost of a meal.) However, the fact that the Macintosh is actually one of the most expensive home computers on the market makes it both impractical and absurd.

I've got to give Apple credit: They did produce the Apple II, a remarkable machine that will forever be one of the best computers ever. I even have to give the Macintosh credit where it's due: At least it's always had a keyboard, unlike the Xbox. And the Macintosh has always been hugely entertaining to watch, as it helplessly passed from one reinvention to the next, trying to find some way to convince the world that a closed-architecture machine was the way to go. But although the promising little Macs of the 1980s provided the world with an adorable toy, there has never been a reason to use a Mac since about 1990, and there probably never will be again.

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