Robert Hampton

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1st September 2009

Fruit and Nut

I’ve been pondering Macs again. The Mac Mini is available starting at £499, which is affordable enough, even when I consider the additional cost of some software (I would probably need to splash out 70 quid or so for the Mac version of MS Office, for example).

I’ve considered switching to Macs before. The first time I seriously thought about it was around the time Windows Vista was released. I was looking to replace my creaking PC and MacOS X looked preferable to Vista, which was getting a slating in the press. After careful consideration I eventually chickened out and went for a Dell PC, like a spineless corporate sheep.

So why did I reject the Mac? For the explanation, we have to go back to early 1993, when your humble webmaster was 10 years old. Having finally convinced my parents that my creaking Commodore 64 was not going to cut it, we set out to acquire a new computer. The one I settled on was the Acorn, because “that’s the one they use in schools”.

And so, I came home from the shop clutching an A3010 (the cheapest and nastiest of all Acorn’s models, fact fans), complete with 1 megabyte of RAM, floppy disc drive and a bundled copy of Zool (never got past level 2).

I liked my A3010. I loved RISC OS with its drag and drop desktop interface and Draw‘s Bezier curves. Excellently, it had BBC BASIC built in, for endless hours of programming fun. This was a time when PCs were still mired in the dark ages of DOS or, if you were lucky(?), Windows 3.1. The A3010, even in the minimal configuration I had (no hard drive!), was a dream to use.

Here’s the problem: the Acorn platform, even in the early 90s, was a minority affair. The PC was beginning to dominate the market, with other computers such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST already on their way out. A brief abortive experiment to get A3010s in the high street shops ended in failure, leaving Acorn computers and software to be sold only by specialist dealers.

There was one such dealer in West Kirby – a mail order outfit known as ICS. Their adverts in Acorn Computing were testament to the range they carried, with thousands of items of software listed over a double page spread in tiny print. Over the years, a significant number of cheques passed between my house and their office, as I availed myself of ports of classics like Lemmings, and the excellent Acorn original game, Fervour.

This was all well and good, but this lack of availability was frustrating. Anyone else could walk into Woolworths and buy a game. I, on the other hand, had to send off an order form and cheque and wait 7-10 days for delivery, which lacked the instant gratification my teenage self needed.

Then of course there was the tiresome matter of compatibility: having to check whether the printer or scanner I wanted would work with the Acorn machine, and then usually having to buy the Acorn drivers separately, adding to the cost.

Was it worth it? Yes, at first. At the time, RISC OS was better than any of the alternatives, and I would bore anyone who would listen with a long explanation of the reasons for that. I happily traded up to a better RiscPC model in 1996. However, when Windows 3.1 gave way to the vastly improved Windows 95, the usability issues surrounding PCs began to evaporate. Then, the Internet exploded onto the scene, which would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Acorn.

Browsing the web on an Acorn machine could be a tiresome affair. Web sites proudly declared “best viewed with Netscape”, and those using ArcWeb were sadly left out.

As the decade wore on, the web evolved to support multimedia, which made things a thousand times worse for Acorn users. RealPlayer, a free download for PC and Mac, was out of reach for me, despite many tantalising articles in Acorn User promising that support was being worked on. The final straw was Flash, which was employed frequently on web sites, regardless of whether it enhanced the user experience or not. Some considerate webmasters provided a text-only alternative, but more often than not I ended up looking at a screen which said “upgrade to Flash” — an option which was not available to me.

Acorn itself realised in 1998 that it would never hope to take on the big boys in the home computing arena, and bailed out to concentrate on other markets. I struggled on for a further four years, before bowing to the inevitable and joining the Windows-using masses in 2002. It was very refreshing to access web sites without being deluged with “your browser is not supported” messages.

The point I’m trying to make with this excessively long and rambling post is that I was once a user of a minority platform and it caused me difficulty. Of course, Acorn was tiny compared to Apple and Mac users have never had it that bad. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that I will ever be unable to download a Flash plugin for Mac OS.

Do I really want to go back to the days when I was left out in the cold because of the computer I use? Having to double-check when I buy a printer that it has a Mac driver? Look at the amount of jumping up and down that Mac and Linux users had to do to convince the BBC to make iPlayer available to them. Just the other day I was looking at routers in a shop and saw several that proudly declared “software not Mac-compatible”.

On the other hand, at least most people have heard of Macs and are unlikely to say “do they still make computers?” which I heard at least once about Acorn.

The one thing I really do like about Macs is the one design point they share with Acorn (and, indeed, Amiga, Atari ST and all the other forgotten names of the past). That is that the computer, its hardware and operating system are all designed as a whole by one organisation. Therefore, in theory, all the parts of the system should work together from the start, thus avoiding the Windows world of different hardware from different manufacturers, and all the problems with incompatible drivers and DLLs and whatnot.

So, will I be getting a Mac soon? Well, I’m looking at the software I use to make sure there’s nothing I would be without on MacOS. Most of the programs I use are either available for Mac or have an equivalent available. There’s a few games I would miss, but not that much. I’m not 100% sure, but it looks more likely than ever that I will become a Mac head.

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2 Responses
  1. Comment by Rob F
    1st September 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Great post! I loved our family A4000 in fact it’s still in the loft somewher, a nice trip down memory lane. The games you wrote in BASIC were cool too, many a lunchtime was spent playing those.
    Have you considered linux though?
    After the Acorn days I went to the dark side of being a Windows user, then spent the better part of 5-6 years dabbling with various linux distributions before being career/corporately drawn back into the Windows world. Linux is a viable option, especially if you’re just after something “new”, unless you’re just being drawn by the pretty, over-priced hardware by their inescapable, behemoth marketing campaign of Apple?

  2. Comment by Robert Hampton
    2nd September 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Cannot get on with Linux at all, have tried Live CDs, even had a short-lived attempt last year to dual boot Windows and Ubuntu. Hated it, just didn’t work the way I wanted it to and needed far too much hacking and messing around with configuration files.