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COMPUTER APPLICATIONS IN THE DESIGN OFFICE

GETTING STARTED - Part 2

by George T. Manos, AIA

Selecting a Type of System - Mac or DOS?


Those who attempt to advise on this question rush in where angels fear to tread. A "Mac" system is a computer developed by Apple Computer under the name "MacIntosh" featuring the now-famous graphical "interface" and its companion (and I insist, adolescent) icons (DOS icons are possibly even more adolescent than those of a Mac). "Interface" is the rather careless term given by computer experts to the process by which people give commands to and extract information from computers. In the case of a Mac, the interface consists of the monitor (the screen), that which is displayed on the screen, the mouse, and the keyboard. Until recently, "DOS" or "PC" ("Personal Computer") systems used the monitor and the keyboard, but not the mouse or the icons. "Icons" are tiny, postage-stamp-size images scattered around the screen which start various operations. You use the mouse in conjunction with the icons to get things going. Previously, all computer operations had to be started by entering cryptic commands into the computer by using the keyboard. Whatever you typed on the keyboard also showed up on the screen. The Mac idea represented a breakthrough, a departure from the arcane art of command-line syntax so familiar to hard core computer programmers and so frustrating to the rest of us (computer users) up to that point. Many users preferred the mouse-and-icon idea over the keyboard-and-command-line idea, although more IBM-PC-based computers were sold than Mac's by far. Not being satisfied with this situation, i.e. that any computers were being sold at all by anyone other than themselves, IBM set out to eradicate the reason why users would by Mac's instead of PC's - namely the icon-and-mouse idea.

With the development of the IBM PC-based "Windows" interface, which uses a mouse and icons much as the Mac interface does, the apparent difference between the two computers became less pronounced from an appearance standpoint and also less pronounced from an operational standpoint. However, this difference in the way the systems appear to work is purely superficial. The real difference between the systems is the way computer memory is used by each, and in that context the Mac is the runaway winner.

Unfortunately, this advantage which the Mac systems had over PC-based systems early in their development stages also seems to have been turned by Mac programmers into somewhat of a weakness, due to profligate use of extensive computer code solely to maintain the graphical aspects of the Mac's operation. Because of the constraints on memory imposed on programmers by DOS systems, DOS programs had to be efficient. Programmers had to concentrate on getting programs to perform deep and complex operations quickly and successfully, at the expense of the way the screen looked while the operations were being performed. This approach, combined with the non-proprietary PC/AT computer platform architecture, resulted in DOS programs which could do the same work as Mac programs but in less space and often in less time. No doubt, the Mac is cool, but the user pays a heavy price in memory and hard drive usage to enjoy it. Thus the Mac tends to cost more per unit task than does a DOS system, which may be one of the reasons for the PC's greater market share. To prove the point, now that IBM PC/AT computers are being shipped with Windows already installed, they are also shipped with huge-capacity hard drives because graphically-based systems need so much more program space. WordPerfect 6 for DOS used to ship on 9, 5-1/4" (!.2 Mb) diskettes and used 8.6 Mb of hard drive space. WordPerfect 6 for Windows comes on 21, 3-1/2" (1.44 Mb) diskettes and consumes 22.3 Mb of disk space. There are other reasons for the cost differences of course (for one, Mac platforms are completely proprietary whereas the IBM PC/AT platform has been cloned extensively) but they are less relevant to choosing a system.

There are some tasks at which both types of computers are equally good. Word processing and accounting are two. In some cases, drawing programs written for PC/AT systems are superior to those written for Mac, and in other cases the opposite is true. It depends almost entirely on the program. Until the development of Windows-based programs, Mac programs had a large advantage over DOS programs in that information in various kinds of documents could be interchanged easily. Figures from spreadsheets could be incorporated into documents written with a word processing package. Change the figures in the spread sheet, and the figures in the written document changed accordingly. Windows programs are now beginning to offer similarly good cross-program compatibility, although the integration by Mac's of this capability into the way the programs work is in many cases still superior to that of Windows programs. If Microsoft's "Windows '95" lives up to expectations, which accomplishment is far from being demonstrated as of this writing, the gap in memory-handling capability will be reduced considerably, also.

Market gurus currently tend to favor the future of the PC/AT over that of the Mac, but Mac users vigorously oppose any such talk, citing the Mac's ease-of-use as the main reason. Since the decision you make on which type of computer to buy depends so heavily on the kind of software you wish to use, you should ask equal numbers of owners and users of both types of systems to help you form an opinion about which may serve your purposes better. One of the purposes of the Computer Committee is to serve as a link between users of various platforms and programs, so do not hesitate to ask us for user references. The Committee maintains a list of "computer-literate" individuals who are glad to share their experience with soon-to-be computer owners.


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Next: Part 3 - What You Will Need