Why I Won’t Likely Ever Become A Heavy Mac User

Recently, I received the first Apple Mac computer that I’ve ever owned, an old Power Mac G5 with dual 2.0GHz processors. Obviously, it wasn’t the first Mac that I’ve used; I’ve used systems using Mac OS 8 and Mac OS 9, along with several Mac OS X machines, and emulated System 6 on my main desktop. However, the price of entry into the Macintosh world has always seemed rather steep, especially as the tasks which I usually want to get done seem smoother on Windows (such as computer gaming) or on Linux (such as pretty much everything else right now). So, receiving this machine was my first proper entry point into a world which I’ve always seen from afar.

I’m not exactly short of computers already; I have three desktops and two laptops, running a mixture of Windows and Linux versions, along with a hacked Wii console running Debian Linux and two mobile smart devices: a Nokia E71 phone running Symbian S60 and an old, battered Palm T|X PDA with a faulty screen and the Palm OS 5 operating system. I didn’t exactly need Yet Another Development Box like any of my x86 systems. So, my mind turned to things I could do with the native Mac OS X operating system on it – the version being Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.

The first idea I had was to conduct iOS development on it, an idea scuppered by the fact that you need an Intel Mac in order to run the iOS SDK. Then, my mind turned to Mac OS X development, which is apparently possible, to some extent, but it’s difficult. Obviously, I knew that the PowerPC processor had been abandoned by Apple several years previous, so it’s not a surprise to see that my Power Mac G5 is largely unsupported by most new pieces of software, it has made me think somewhat about why I’ve never taken the plunge into the world of Apple by myself.

It’s not at all a revelation to state that Apple has always been first and foremost a hardware company which has set itself apart from other computer companies throughout its existence. They have managed to survive, and at various times during their history – including now – thrive in this guise. As such, software has been a means to an end for them, a way of setting themselves apart from hordes of computers running Microsoft Windows. If Apple can figure out ways of making the software in such a way as to keep you buying more Apple hardware, they’ll do it – and have done it several times recently. The iPhone, which I once ridiculed for its limitations, seems like a sensible business decision for Apple not only from the sense of its runaway success, but from the control that Apple can have over the operating system. Of course, they are far from the only computing company who would aim to do this. You can be sure that Microsoft would do the same thing if they could, but they can’t stop companies still developing for Windows XP.

This leaves the case of my unsupported PowerPC-based Power Mac G5. From the perspective of Apple, of course it doesn’t make sense to keep supporting a hardware architecture that they abandoned seven years ago. Apple probably aren’t going to get many new customers for their flashy new desktop and laptop models out of the people who use old PowerPC Macs. Short of supporting iTunes for those few people who are going to use a PowerPC Mac in conjunction with an iOS device, there isn’t much that Apple are really going to want to do with their obsolete hardware.

Clearly, then, I understand Apple’s case in all of this. However, this leads me onto the reason why I’m unlikely to become a major Apple customer in the future. One might suspect with the number of computers that I possess that I’m rather wealthy. This isn’t the case. I’m a student with the typical student income, and with the exception of my dual-core Athlon 64 X2 desktop – which is itself getting long in the tooth – and my dual-core Atom-based netbook, most of my hardware would be strictly considered obsolete. The reason I still keep my older computers is because I can still find a use for them, and with the amount of money that went into them to begin with, I’m not inclined to throw them out.

The extraordinary lifespan of Windows 98 and XP goes some way into explaining why I have been able to keep various systems for so long – as long as my older desktops could play various subsets of my games, I am usually fairly content with their performance. However, the Windows platform only really works for me as a gaming platform a lot of the time. Linux, on the other hand, really gives my older hardware a continued lease of life.

The eclectic collection of people who maintain various versions of Linux, from big companies looking for the best profit margins, to free-software campaigners, to hobbyists who test the flexibility of the software to its limits, have made the operating system many things to many people. The slowest of my computers is an old Pentium III made before the turn of the millennium, with a 450MHz processor and 192MB of RAM, upgraded from its original 64MB of RAM. This is a computer which could still adequately run Linux complete with an appropriate X Window System environment. This, therefore, could still be a very useful machine, still useful for word processing, spreadsheets, basic programming tasks and a limited subset of internet browsing. What’s more, whatever software that I chose to use would still be the most recent version, without the limitations experienced with either Windows or Mac OS X.

If I merely used the most recent version of Windows, I would have had to content myself with the fact that my Pentium III would have been consigned to the scrap heap years ago. My single-core Athlon 64 can just about manage Windows 7, but not particularly quickly. Anything older than that – including my Pentium III and my old Pentium M laptop – would be dead.

In an alternate universe where Mac OS X ran on Intel and AMD computers from the very start, my Pentium III would be a museum piece by now, the equivalent of the Power Mac G3 systems which are more like collector’s items than practical computers for most people. My Pentium M laptop and Athlon 64 desktop would have survived to the Mac OS X 10.5 days, and only my dual-core Athlon 64 X2 system would be capable of running the latest version. This is a complete upgrade cycle on the order of six years, which I can only just about afford right now, and not when I have to consign my older computers to strict obsolescence during that period.

I imagine that for the Apple cognoscenti, this isn’t much of a sacrifice. For me, a student lacking wealth, it is. I am aware of the existence of communities which make a home for older Apple computers and use them, so at least some people can keep their Mac systems going for long periods of time. Unfortunately, there are certain pieces of software – mostly programming tools – which I prefer to keep on the bleeding edge, and you can’t get that with unsupported machines. I can’t blame Apple for their policies regarding their older computers, but I can choose not to participate in them – and for the time being, that’s probably going to be my policy.

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