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Mars Report:

Don’t All Computers Need A Help Desk Guy?

Published April 13th, 2005

My third reason for sticking with Windows at home (and, for me, this has been the most significant consideration): It is in the job description of my organization’s 2 IT staff guys that they will do all desired maintenance/troubleshooting/upgrading of our home computers if we bring them into the office. They have installed memory for me, new drives and cards, a wireless network, and remote access software. … Our IT staff doesn’t maintain Macs.

Despairing Help Desk Customer

I had to laugh when I read this one… It just goes to show you how absolutely brainwashed PC users are about their computers. Since most (if not all) PC users started interacting with a computer at work, where you come to rely on a Help Desk for support, they naturally assume that unless you’re a technical wizard you’ll need such support for your PC at home, too.

Now, my friend has it extra bad, since his Help Desk support guys come for free with his home PC–a situation that I don’t think is all that common. If those tech support guys come for free–I mean, if my company thinks it’s worth the trouble to pay for this service so I can be productive at home, why it must be because it’s necessary… right? And as long as he has a Windows PC, he’s probably right! I mean, in addition to Windows’ long-standing usability problems, there’s this whole world of hackers and viruses that have turned from a bad nightmare into an even nastier reality over the last 5 years. If I were in charge of IT for a company these days, I’d lock those Windows systems down so tight the user couldn’t install any of their own software or anything else. All it takes is one little virus getting loose, and you’ve lost another day of productivity in corporate America. But that, of course, will be the subject of another little essay. The point here is that a company can justify giving free tech support to its employees’ PC’s nowadays–and not because they’re being nice. This isn’t an employee benefit… it’s a PC desktop management necessity.

Of course, this is only true if we’re talking about Windows systems. My friend’s default assumption is that when it comes to technical support requirements, a Macintosh would need the same level of specialized hand-holding that his Windows computer does. And that’s the crux of the problem… It’s not the same. In the Mac world, things have always been a little different. (And that’s not just a marketing slogan… honestly!)

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Intelligent consumers have for many years relied on Consumer Reports for advice on purchasing appliances, cars, services, and other household items (Note: Subscription required to view reports.). Why not take a look at what they have to say? Why, look here! In their current assessment of personal computers, available on their website and continuously updated, Apple systems are Consumer Reports‘ “Top Picks for Reliability and Support” in both the desktop and the laptop categories:

  • Desktops (iMac G5): “Apple provides top-notch reliability and support. Its computers are currently less vulnerable to viruses and spyware than Windows-based models.”
  • Laptops (Powerbook): ” Apple has been a reliable brand and has the best record for tech support. “
  • So… isn’t this the same reason you buy a Toyota or Honda rather than a Chevrolet or Ford? Because you want a car that isn’t going to need to be in the shop constantly–to require the constant attention of an automobile “Help Desk”. Why would my friend, after reading this (which I’m sure he has), still think an Apple computer would need Help Desk Guys like his Windows system does? Obviously, there’s something else going on here, because an objective, intelligent consumer–let’s say, a Man from Mars–entering the marketplace for a personal computer in 2005 with the primary consideration that the computer isn’t going to be a technical support headache, would surely pick an Apple computer over a Windows one. Not that “reliability and support” is the only variable in picking a computer today, but if it’s your “primary consideration,” you have a pretty clear, standout choice. (Note: Despite its nice words about Apple, Consumer Reports gets a few things wrong in rating the other variables behind a choice in computers–particularly the questions of “expandability” and “price”–and I’ll be addressing those in a future article, since they reflect a continued, common misunderstanding.)

    If you think about it, the rise of the Help Desk coincided with the launch of the PC-on-every-desktop movement of the 1980’s. And it was absolutely necessary in an office environment that relied on the IBM-PC and Microsoft’s DOS operating system. The architecture of that system was (is) such that you can screw it up completely just by installing a new piece of software or a new hardware driver. This is because there’s no guaranteed compatibility between the things you can buy for your PC and the operating system itself. Nor is there a rational approach for building sandboxes in which each software package can play without throwing sand on its neighbors. These basic flaws have been viewed as a positive for the PC platform…”openness”, they call it… but to a man from mars, this has always looked like a recipe for disaster.

    Things are light years better today than they were in the 1980’s and 1990’s, through early versions of Windows and even up to Windows 95. Each version of Windows did get better than the last, but they still haven’t solved these fundamental flaws in the system’s design.

    With employees buying their own software or trying to attach their own printers or scanners, etc, to their company-supplied PC’s willy nilly throughout PC history, they were always getting their machines into one kind of problem after another. In response, IT departments began putting together “Help Desks” to try to supply good customer support within the organization. But it didn’t get better. Help Desks continued to expand, so that today you have a huge contingent of computer geeks who are bored silly dealing with desktop support. But at least they have a job! It’s easy to understand that any attempt to bring Macs into such organizations will be met with opposition from the Help Desk staff. After all, it’s a lose-lose proposition for them:

    1. They don’t know anything about Macs, so they won’t be able to support them.
    2. If what they’ve heard is at all true, about half of them will be out of a job, since employees will stop needing so much support.

    Help Desk people have become part of the whole Microsoft ecosystem. They’re like the mayor and sheriff in a small town that owes its peace and prosperity to the powerful Mafioso who lives just outside of town. Even though the town bosses are in on the dirty secret that their mafia overseers are crooks and killers, they won’t make any moves to prosecute them when folks keep turning up dead, because the town depends on their money to survive.

    (Side note to Microsoft lawyers: Just so there’s no misunderstanding here: I’m not saying Microsoft has been killing people to achieve their ends. Unless you think metaphorically, of course, where companies are like people. They’ve certainly killed a lot of companies. But I don’t think there’s any law against that… is there? Oh, maybe you’ve broken the law if you’re a monopolist. But you can still get away with it the sheriff is unwilling to prosecute, or the judge to enforce the sentence… Oh forget it, Microsoft lawyers, you get the point.)

    Now, contrast that with the Macintosh world. Literally, things just work. If you buy any kind of hardware that’s Macintosh compatible, you can be sure it will be. And that the drivers for your spanking new scanner aren’t going to screw up the operation of your label printer. You’ll never be asked whether you want to delete some obscure file in the System directory, even though the software you’re installing thinks you may not need it anymore. What crap! Who can tell if that file is needed or not? Nobody! So everyone’s probably like me, and you say “Heavens No! Leave that DLL right where it is!”

    That doesn’t mean software conflicts will never occur on a Mac, but they’re pretty damn rare. And very easily solved.

    When I started shopping for my first home PC in 1996, I had been using Windows at the office for years–ever since version 2.0 in fact. I’m a pretty sophisticated programmer and am good with software issues, but believe me I was sick to death of dealing with my Windows system. Some days, I must have spent half my time going through my win.ini file trying to figure out what was going wrong. I learned that I couldn’t rely on the Help Desk for support, since they didn’t know anything about the “non-standard” software I was using (Adobe PageMaker, XyWrite, and other publishing stuff). I had heard about this magical world of the Mac from one of the lone Mac freaks at work, and even though it was a few hundred dollars more than a comparable Windows system at the time, I took the plunge and got my first Mac… a Performa 6200CD.

    At home, I wanted a PC that wouldn’t require a Help Desk and that wouldn’t keep me running around trying to get things to work all the time. And lo and behold, that’s precisely what I found. To reiterate a point I made in an earlier blog, the Macintosh was built from the beginning to be easy for non-technical people to use. The whole concept was to be a computing appliance that the average Joe could use, without needing constant hand-holding and without ever having to open a program file or worry about what files they might need or not need to make a given software package work.

    And when a Mac user needs support, it’s easy to find. The online Mac support community is incredibly deep and responsive. Now that Apple has put retail outlets within reach of most potential Mac users, they also have the equivalent of my friend’s free Help Desk people at a moment’s notice. I have found Apple’s “geniuses” to be consistently knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. The only problem nowadays is you might have to make an appointment to see one (you can do it over the web, of course) because they’ve become so popular. The Apple stores also host dozens of free seminars so customers can learn more about their software and hardware.

    Now, I understand how frightening it must be to my friend to think about severing the umbilical cord with his Help Desk guys. But honestly, owning a PC at home doesn’t have to be like owning an automobile, where you either need to be mechanical and like to tinker with tools and steel, or pay through the nose for periodic checkups and fixups. It’s more like owning a stereo system or a TV and VCR. Yes, there will be a little maintenance involved, on the same level as replacing your turntable’s stylus. And if you really tremble at the thought of putting extra RAM in your computer, you can always take your computer to the Apple store, where they’ll do it for you for free.

    That said, virtually everything I’ve tried to add to my many Macs over the years has worked without a hitch–including setting up a wireless network. Get this… on a Mac, all this requires is:

    1. Buy a base station (or use one of your computers as a base station). I like Apple’s airport, which works with PC’s and Macs, by the way. Apple’s new Airport Express is a real bargain.
    2. Put a wireless card in your computer (if it didn’t come with one). On a Mac, this just involves sliding the doohicky in that little sleeve. and connecting the antenna.
    3. Install the Airport software (if it’s not already installed), and run the Airport setup assistant.
    4. Start connecting to the other computers on your network, or printing to their printers, or to the Internet if one of them has Internet access, etc.

    On a Mac, you just click on “Network” in the Finder (equivalent to–but much better than–Windows Explorer), and you’ll see the names of the other computers on your network. To connect to one, just click on it and enter your username and password. The files you have access to on that other system will show up in the Finder as if they’re part of your hard drive.

    Magical moments like this–doing something all by yourself that seems like it should be very hard, and having it actually be easy and work the first time–have happened over and over again since I got that pathetic little Performa back in ‘96. That Windows users think they’ll need a Help Desk at home if they get a Mac is understandable, but just wrong. And when they use this as their primary reason for not buying a Mac, it’s just very sad.

    Even the brightest of them have been thoroughly brainwashed on this point, and they don’t even know it.

    At least, that’s how it appears to a Man from Mars.

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