Not long ago, users of IBM-compatibles and Apple Macintosh computers lived in different worlds -- physically and culturally.
Mac users, who liked their computer's friendly, graphical interface and interesting software, tagged IBM users as a bunch of corporate stuffed shirts.
IBM users figured Mac lovers were either school kids or hippies who didn't understand that computers were meant for real work. After all, who would buy a computer named after a fruit?
Over the years, the Cold War has thawed. Corporate computer users began to realize there was something to the Mac's ease of use and graphics wizardry. Mac users, putting their machines to work in business, found it was to their advantage to be able to communicate with the other 90 percent of the world.
But the real psychological breakthrough occurred early in July, when the superpowers held a historic summit meeting. After years of battle, IBM and Apple agreed to join forces on a new operating system based on Apple technology that will run on hardware based on an IBM design.
The new computing environment is still years away from the market, and nobody knows if the marriage will wind up in divorce court. But for home and small-business users who are thinking of buying computers now, choosing an IBM-compatible or Macintosh isn't a matter of picking North or South. Neither side wants to freeze the other out. It's a matter of picking the computer that works best for you.
This doesn't mean that there isn't any difference between Macintoshes and PC's. There are.
The two machines use different microprocessors. Apple uses Motorola 68000 series chips, while IBM-compatibles use Intel 80X86 processors. They use totally different operating systems.
Software written for IBM compatibles won't run on Macintoshes and vice versa. IBM-compatibles can't read Macintosh disks directly, although new Macintoshes can read disks and write to disks created by either type of machine.
But major software houses are now writing versions of their programs for both machines. For example, the two leading word processors, Microsoft Word (the longtime Mac leader) and WordPerfect (the IBM champ), are available for both platforms. So is PageMaker, the leading desktop publishing program.
Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet is available on both computers, and it can import files created by Lotus 1-2-3, the longtime king of IBM spreadsheets.
For businesses that want to integrate Macs and IBM-compatibles, it's much easier these days to set up networks so that users of both machines can share files, printers and electronic mail.
For novices, Mac's main advantage is that it's a lot easier to use out of the box. Apple was the first company to successfully market the graphical user interface, which replaced the arcane commands used by most PC's with a picture of a desktop.
Programs and data files appear as pictures on the desktop. Using a mouse, you can point an arrow at a program and click the button to run it, or click on a picture of a document to load both the program and the document at the same time.
More important, all Macintosh programs use the same basic pull-down menus and commands for loading and saving files, editing text and moving things around. When you've mastered one program, you've learned 50 percent of what you need to know for any Mac program.
IBM-compatibles are still character-based at heart, which means the computer presents you with a blank screen and cryptic prompt inviting you to type commands. You have to learn a bit about computers to make one work for you.
But it isn't all that hard. In fact, there are 50 million IBM-compatibles on desktops around the world, which means it doesn't take a rocket scientist to learn how to use one.
If you want to produce graphics, or want the user friendliness of the Mac, you can get a pretty good approximation with Microsoft VTC Windows, a graphical operating environment for PC's whose phenomenal success (4 million copies sold in 14 months) attests to the advantage of pointing and clicking.
There are also advantages to IBM-compatible machines in their native state. For some applications, such as basic word processing, database maintenance or accounting, the Mac's graphical interface offers no real advantage and may even be a distraction.
Another advantage is IBM's dominance of the marketplace. Macintoshes still account for only 13 percent of the market, and much of that is concentrated at the low end, in schools, and at the high end, in graphic workstations.
If you need to train a secretary to do word processing, you'll find dozens of IBM WordPerfect courses at local colleges, and only a handful for the Mac. Likewise, it's much easier to find IBM-trained temporary help. This alone could make an IBM-compatible a better choice.
Since IBM has dominated the business market for so long, it's also hard to beat the variety of software available. Most serious accounting and database work is still done on IBM-compatible platforms.
Likewise, you're much more likely to find specialized software programs -- such as packages for law offices, dental practices or retail point-of-sale systems -- for IBM-compatibles.
PC's are also much easier to program than Macintoshes. If you need special Mac software, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone outside California's Silicon Valley who can write it for you. But PC programming consultants are available almost everywhere.
So there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems. If ease of use is paramount, the Mac may well be a better choice. If compatibility with the business world is more important, an IBM-compatible may be the answer.