Tuesday 4 August 2009

The Debate between Adequacy and Excellence

I was clicking through my various feeds hooked into NetNewsWire, in this case The Apple Core column on ZDNet, when I came across this item, where the writer nicely summed up the perfectly understandable strategy Microsoft have always chosen and compared that with Apple and the Mac. Go read the original article (on Better Living without MS Office and then read the comment.

As I've commented on numerous times in this blog and elsewhere (notably here), I'm both very partial to open standards (meaning open data formats, but usually expressed in open source implementations) and to the Apple Mac. As I've said before, and as the experience of many, many users I've supported on all three platforms bears out, the Mac lets you get more done, with less effort and irritation along the way, than either Windows or Linux as both are presently constructed.

But the first two paragraphs of this guy's comment (and I'm sorry that the antispam measures on ZDNet apparently don't permit me to credit the author properly) made me sit up and take notice, because they are a great summation of how I currently feel about the competing systems:

The Macs vs. PC debate has been going on for about 25 years or so, but the underlying debate is much older. What we are really discussing is the difference between adequacy and excellence. While I doubt I would want to be friends with Frank Lloyd Wright or Steve Jobs, both represent the exciting belief in what is possible. While Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer rake in billions, their relative impact on the world of ideas is miniscule.

Bill Gates understands that business managers are on the whole are a practical, albeit uninspired and short-sighted bunch. By positioning Microsoft early on to ride into the enterprise with the implicit endorsement of one of the biggest, longest-lived, and influential suppliers of business equipment, Gates was able to secure Microsoft's future. Microsoft's goal has never seemed to me to be to change the world, only to provide a service that adequately meets business needs. Microsoft has also shown from early on a keen awareness that once you get people to use your product, your primary goal is not to innovate to keep your customers, but, rather to make leaving seem painful and even scary. Many companies do this, but Microsoft has refined this practice into an art.

He then expands on this theme for four more paragraphs, closing with

Practically speaking Microsoft is here to stay. But I am glad that Apple is still around to keep the computer from becoming dreary, to inspire people to take creative risks, to express themselves, and to embrace the idea that every day objects, even appliances like the computer, can be more than just the sum of their functions.

Aux barricades! it may or may not be, depending on your existing preferences and prejudices. But it does nicely sum up, more effectively and efficiently than I have been able to of late, the reasons why Apple is important as a force in the technology business. Not that Microsoft is under imminent threat of losing their lifeblood to Apple; their different ways of looking at the world and at the marketplace work against that more effectively than any regulator could. But the idea that excellence is and should be a goal in and of itself, that humanity has a moral obligation to "continually [reach] well past our grasp", should stir passion in anyone with a functioning imagination. Sure, Microsoft have a commanding lead in businesses, especially larger ones — though Apple's value proposition has become much better there in the last ten years or so; it's hard to fight the installed base, especially with an entrenched herd mentality among managers. But, we would argue, that does not argue that Apple have failed, any more than the small number of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his direct professional disciples argue for his irrelevance in architecture. If nobody pushes the envelope, if nobody makes a habit of reaching beyond his grasp, how will the human condition ever improve? For as Shaw wrote,

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress, therefore, depends upon the unreasonable man.

And that has been one of my favourite quotes for many years now.

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