Macintosh: the ultimate open system

©1994 Lawrence I. Charters

Computer Digest, Vol. 9, No. 8, November 1994, pp. 11, 14

When I purchased my first computer, there were hundreds of computer manufacturers in the U.S., each offering incompatible hardware and software. “Popular” programs sold in the thousands, not millions, and were offered in dozens of diskette formats. Every year since then has seen a ferocious battle for the marketplace, resulting in “consolidation,” which apparently means vanishing computer companies. Instead of “innovation,” the current battle cry seems to be “open systems,” with some arguing that “open systems” should be determined using the “majority rules” principle.

I have a different point of view: an “open system” should not be an engineering specification, nor should it be a census count. An “open system” should be a system open to the user. If a computer owner or user can’t use their equipment, it isn’t relevant that the equipment is a big seller or uses standardized parts; dust collecting on “industry standard parts” is still dust.

Macintosh’s Ultimate Openness

From the user point of view, Macintosh is the ultimate open system. Installing a program is as simple as dragging it to a hard drive, or double-clicking on an installation program. Mac diskettes auto-mount, and have distinct names, so there is never any confusion over figuring out which diskette does what, or what path name (path name?) and subdirectory (subdirectory?) is required. More to the point, because Mac programs are easy to install, the owners actually install and use them. Mac owners have closets full of unread manuals, not uninstalled software.

Macintosh hardware follows a similar “open system” design. Wanna add a hard drive? Plug it in; nothing else is required. Wanna add a scanner? This is slightly more complex; not only do you have to plug it in, you also have to spend about a minute installing the driver software. Wanna install a CD-ROM drive? Plug it in, and spend another 60 seconds installing the software; when you’re done, you’ll be able to read Mac, MS-DOS, and UNIX CD-ROMs. Wanna install a sound card? This is real easy – Macs come with built-in sound, so you don’t have to install anything. (You were probably wondering why most UNIX and MS-DOS bulletin boards were filled with sound files converted from Macs. Now you know.)

Happy Users

A recent study claimed that multimedia systems were a failure: 40% of all MS-DOS multimedia kits are returned because the buyers can’t figure out how to install them, and probably another 40% were not returned – but weren’t installed, either. No such phenomenon exists in the Mac world.

But what if you need to do something more macho? “Macho,” on a computer, probably means “difficult and nit-picky,” and Macs can do that, too. You can run SoftWindows, a fully functional version of MS-DOS 6.2 and Windows 3.1, if you absolutely insist on playing with CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT. One nice feature: since the entire “MS-DOS computer” is a software emulation, it is easy to just grab the entire folder (a visual subdirectory) and drag it to the trash if you’ve had enough. And, since the Mac believes in redemption, you can drag it out of the trash if you have second thoughts; being able to “Undo” something is an article of faith in the Mac world.

UNIX is, of course, more difficult. While my MS-DOS/Windows system occupies one folder and consumes 22MB of disk space (including a 20MB simulated drive C:), Tenon Systems’ MachTen, a full BSD UNIX 4.3 (complete with X Window) manages to clutter roughly 100MB scattered over 5,000 files. If you want to be macho and still own a Mac, by all means, dabble in UNIX. You can do thousands of silly and painful things that are impossible in Windows or MS-DOS.

But most Mac owners will never run MS-DOS, Windows or UNIX because they don’t need to. Macintosh graphics programs can usually read several flavors of MS-DOS, Windows and UNIX graphics. I don’t recall any Mac word processor, spreadsheet or database that can’t read MS-DOS and Windows word processing, database and spreadsheet files. There are even some public domain utilities to convert Windows and UNIX sound files to Mac format, though this is rarely done since, as noted, most of these sounds were created on Macs.

System 7.5

System 7.5, the current Macintosh operating system, is a case study in “open system” design. Included as standard features are: software to transparently (no action by the user required) read, write and format MS-DOS and OS/2 diskettes; dozens of translators that allow the user to read a huge variety of file formats used by MS-DOS, Windows, UNIX, and Macintosh applications; multimedia drivers for speech synthesis, CDROM drives, full-motion video, and stereo MIDI music; network software, including software to allow any Mac to serve as either a server or a client, or both at the same time; plus lots of unique Mac goodies that have nothing to do with open systems but are lots of fun.

System 7.5 also includes all the software required to give a Macintosh full host status on the Internet. True story: in just one day earlier this year, I configured over 60 Macs on the Internet. If you have the proper cabling, it takes, literally, about three minutes per machine. In contrast, during the past two weeks I’ve struggled to accomplish the same task with one Sun SPARCstation running Solaris 2.3, and I know people who’ve spent months trying to properly configure a Windows system for the Internet.

Total Connectivity

For the ultimate in “connectivity,” you can set up a Mac to talk to a Banyan, Novell, AppleShare and Internet file server – at the same time – and never use a memory manager, debug a network device conflict, or edit a configuration file. But you may have to restrain the Mac users from using such Mac-legal but DOS-hostile file names as “Quarterly Report/With Photos” or the deliberately evil “Del *. *”

What is an “open system?” An open system is a computer that invites the user to manipulate virtually any type of information, regardless of how that information was produced. Not just “offers the potential, after great trials and endless hours of configuration,” but actually invites the user to use their computer.
Anything less strikes me as tightly, needlessly closed.

Lawrence Charters is Vice President, Macintosh, for Washington Apple Pi, the world’s oldest and largest Apple user group. He regularly uses MS-DOS, Windows and UNIX – on his Mac.

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