Cognitive differences at the core of PCwars

February 17, 1995

There are two kinds of people: those who think that the MSDOS PC is the best desktop computer, and those who love their Mac PCs. The review by Ewan Sutherland of the book Insanely Great: the life and times of Macintosh in last week's Multimedia supplement repeats well-worn points about the original ideas for the Mac operating system being appropriated from Xerox, Bill Gates making more money from MSDOS, and that it was only a matter of time before graphical interfaces came to market anyhow. This misses some important points relating to users' perceptions and corporate culture.

Several independent reports have shown the Mac to be a good choice for ease of use, for processing power and for lower life-cycle costs. When this topic is aired on the Internet, there are scores of comments from colleges and schools (particularly in the United States) stating that the Mac places less demand on naive users and on teaching staff, and creates much less demand for technical support. Reasons for superior usability are not hard to find. First, Apple's ability to start with a clean screen and to develop something quite new (in 1984, remember) and second, the publication of a robust set of human-computer interface guidelines. These have ensured that the Mac still has the most consistent and coherent OS across all applications. Windows has had to cope with much historical baggage, and it shows.

Why is it then that Windows machines still heavily outsell the Apple product? One answer is that different folks require interfaces which match their individual cognitive styles. Certain psychometric measures show that, for example, business/engineering types are markedly different from artists/designers. One often finds the former group believing that Macs are not "real" computers, and the latter group feeling that PCs are harder to use and more "technical". Choice may be driven more by these perceptions than by other considerations. In both the teaching of art and design and in its professional practice, Macs have a market penetration of 85 per cent.

However, there is one other aspect to the colourful image of the upstart Steve Jobs as Luke Skywalker battling against IBM's Darth Vader. In Sculley's book Odyssey he articulates the battle between east coast corporate America (IBM and the suits) and west coast culture (Apple and T-shirts). The mindset is quite different. Sculley should know, he made the transition from PepsiCo to Apple and was himself changed in the process.

David Durling.

email address: D.Durling@open.ac.uk

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