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The Difference Engine

Everything you know is wrong

By David MacNeill
April 2000, issue 33

When I was a kid I listened to an audio comedy group called The Firesign Theater. They had a routine called Everything You Know Is Wrong, and I can't help but hear them say it when I think about what the Internet has done to us all. Rather than try to tackle the incalculable social, political, and economic changes that are now sweeping us headlong into the 21st century, this morning I'm thinking about one very specific change: the very notion of computer brand loyalty is now essentially meaningless for me.

This is a wrenching change from the way I have thought about things for the last twenty years. In my line of work, I communicate with an endless array of brand loyalists of every imaginable stripe, from fervent end-users extolling the virtues of their chosen brand of handheld computer to PR flacks who get paid to convince me the products they represent are the clear leaders in their category and advertisers who are often incensed when they receive anything less than glowing praise for their widget of the week. I am not immune to strong, well-reasoned arguments from smart people, even if they are in the employ of companies that make the products they espouse. After all, who knows better about the products' strengths and weaknesses compared to others than the people who make these things? You want to really know about a product? Ask the product manager. They live with these things, from cocktail napkin sketch to shrink-wrapped product.

In addition to these professional influences, there are family and friends as well. My wife Leslie is a die-hard Mac user who has made a good living as a Mac consultant for many years. I met her when I came to work for an Apple retail store; our first date was going to the annual Macworld show in San Francisco back in 1987. In the not too distant past, my wife and I have actually severed friendships with other couples over their choice of computer operating system. I have been a believer that such loyalty really mattered to the world. Today, such unpleasant personal schisms simply would not happen.

Computer irrelevance
The Internet renders irrelevant one's choice of computer hardware or software. Even one's choice of handheld computer or PDA doesn't mean as much as it used to. We all use them for essentially the same thing: to keep a datebook and a tasklist, to get and send email, and to read news briefs. Sure, some machines let you record voice notes and listen to MP3 audio, and some have snappy color displays that are great for viewing digital images. But these functions are icing on an already satisfying cake made of core functions everyone can use. Some have little keyboards and some use handwriting recognition, but they all use bitmapped text, icons, and menus to accept and display information. These days, I don't really care what computer or OS someone uses. I bought a beautiful tangerine Apple iBook and liked it just fine, but one trip to Comdex Las Vegas with this boat anchor and I had to sell it to a friend who rarely travels. The iBook is impossible to use on a plane, it weighs a ton, and it looks out of place on a boardroom table surrounded by sleek Sony 505s and other compact, similarly styled machines. I now carry a wonderful little ultralight Acer TravelMate 342T running Windows 2000, a rock-solid combination of style and substance. This is a computer that is appropriate anywhere I choose to go, like a medium-dark gray sports jacket. I would love to support Apple and continue to buy their products, but they simply do not make what I need. So I use Windows and adapt so I can get on with my life. If Apple ever makes a notebook as good as my Acer, then I'll take another look, but the point is that it is not a religious attachment to a particular interface that is driving my choices. It is pragmatism. Email is email, web pages are web pages, Word documents are Word documents, and so on.

Validation and momentum
Soon we will have many more devices from which to choose that run your chosen OS. They will have compelling communications, gorgeous color screens, and more. We will be comfortable upgrading to these new machines since they offer familiarity and a sense of connection to our past choices, validating them. We may even be able to upgrade our current software and save a little money over buying replacements on some competing platform. These are the reasons we all tend to stick with one brand until we are forced to change. It is simply easier to continue riding the momentum you have built up, and that is the way it should be.

But the woman next to you with the Psion Series 5mx, Compaq Pocket PC, or Palm VII is probably reading the same HTML headlines you are, from the same wireless service provider, at the same time. Internet and wireless standards have made it possible for you to have something to talk about besides your choice of computer.

David MacNeill can be reached via e-mail at

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