The Apple Macintosh has bred as many fanatics as Elvis Presley. But today the king of user-friendliness is clinging desperately to its throne.
A few years ago it would have been virtually impossible to find anyone to argue that IBM-compatible computers were as easy to use as the Mac, but now the PC has its share of fans.
Long considered the workhorse of businesses -- with more than 80 percent of the installed base of personal computers -- the PC has gone far on its typed-command system. But the arrival of a greatly improved Mac-like graphic user interface, prepackaged computer systems, and a wide selection of application software, PC fans will tell you, now makes it an attractive option even for first-time computer buyers looking for an easy way to get started.
With the arrival of the Windows 3 graphical user interface two years ago, the competition has become tougher than Apple would like. As a result of this narrowing gap -- and in hopes of grabbing a larger share of the market from PCs -- Apple has lowered prices and introduced entry-level models.
Today, both the Macintosh and the PC let users operate software by pointing to graphical icons on screen using a mouse. While the PC may not smile at you and say "Welcome to Windows" the way the original Mac presented a smiling face and said "Welcome to Macintosh," Windows provides users a relief from the cold, command-driven world of DOS. In the short time the beefed-up program has been on the market, Microsoft has sold more than 10 million copies, and Windows applications sell at a rate several times that of Mac software.
But according to Mac aficionados, the likeness is only skin deep. The Mac has one big thing that money just can't buy: It still "feels" better. "The issue still has to do with the look and feel," said Tony Bove, editor of the Bove & Rhodes Insider Report, an industry newsletter published in Gualala, Calif.
"Windows feels like a rattling claptrap machine," Mr. Bove said.
For Mr. Bove, the Mac's advantage lies in what he calls its "hardware cursor," whereby the cursor on screen responds faster and more smoothly to mouse-activated commands.
While the Mac and Windows interfaces look alike in many ways, there are some significant differences, such as the way they handle menus and icons, their use of color and their support for launching an application from within a file. To the uninitiated, though, the two interfaces are likely to look much the same.
And it's no myth that having to run Windows on top of DOS -- rather than as part of the operating system -- can complicate matters. Not all DOS applications are available for Windows yet, meaning that virtually all PC users end up confronted with the command interface of DOS from time to time. Some PC owners see this as an advantage, however, because it allows them to use a graphical user interface or command-line interface for different tasks.
When you buy a Mac, you get standard equipment, produced by only one manufacturer, but PCs come from a wide range of suppliers. And if you already own a PC, you may have to upgrade your system, perhaps buying more memory, a larger hard disk, and a new video card and monitor, in order to run Windows 3.
"[PC makers] design machines that can be 'component-ized,' " Mr. Bove said. Every Mac addresses basic functions, such as video, in the same way, but in the PC world there are fewer standards. This can cause problems when the user wants to upgrade or add software, he said.
But all this complaining hasn't fallen on deaf ears. PC manufacturers have finally realized that in addition to offering software that is easy to use, the key to reeling in new customers is offering prepackaged, ready-to-run systems, complete with Windows built in and application software already installed. All the consumer has to do is plug in the machine. Compaq Computer Corp. took advantage of this strategy last week when it announced its new line of PCs, and other PC manufacturers have indicated they will follow suit. Plus, many manufacturers already offer Windows-specific upgrade kits, giving consumers a straightforward, one-stop way to get their systems ready for Windows.
Both Apple and Microsoft are addressing the shortcomings of their systems. For its part, Microsoft has indicated its new version of Windows, dubbed Windows NT, will further marry the software to the hardware -- perhaps in ways even a Mac user can appreciate. And as for Apple, Mac prices continue to come down. The gap gets even narrower.
"Finally, [Windows and Macs] are pretty comparable," said Spencer Leyton, senior vice president of business development at Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Borland International. "In the 10 years that my kid has learned to play the violin and speak fluent English, Microsoft has gotten pretty close."