V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

The digital divide

Photo: Vivian Song

Nicole Nelson has been trying to convert friend Lino Vieira to MacBooks since getting hers last year, but he's a PC loyal and has dug in his heels.

Published in The Toronto Star, February, 2010.

For five years, I was the doughy, middle-aged bespectacled guy of sub-average looks, who sported a sad combover and cheap, polyester-blend suits. The guy with the fierce inferiority complex in the company of my smug, hipster friends who made everything look easy and effortless.

But recently, a near-death experience forced me to cross the line.

I have joined the ranks of trendy, premium-coffee drinkers who spend hours gently tapping away at their loved ones, dressed down in jeans and a hoodie and, on occasion, a bit of stubble.

Hi. My name is Vivian and I'm a Mac user.

The Apple commercial has personified PC users as technological dinosaurs and Macintosh users as young, creative trendsetters but people's unflappable allegiances to their computers continue to spur debate and fuel thoughts of contempt.

Lino Vieira, for instance, has dug in his heels against his friend Nicole Nelson's Mac proselytizing.

I instantly recognize Nelson's starry-eyed look as she waxes poetic about the capabilities of her MacBook. As a new Mac convert, I haven't stopped stroking the keys or whiling away hours playing with new programs. I engage in shameless public displays of affection.

But Vieira, 27, is having none of it.

"I will always be PC," he says defiantly at Linux Caffe on Harbord St., where the two master's students are working alongside each other, PC laptop facing off against MacBook.

"The interface is so different. I don't find it as easy to navigate as Windows," Vieira says.

Vieira is part of a resistance movement that objects not only to Macintosh computers' alien navigational system, but also to Apple's smug air of self-importance.

The ongoing feud between PC and Mac users can be downright vitriolic. Macs have been described as amped-up Fisher-Price toys for the computer illiterate and insufferable snobs.

PC users meanwhile, are mocked for being neanderthals who like reading computer manuals in their spare time and fear change.

At hunch.com, a website that helps consumers make purchasing decisions based on their answers to multiple-choice questions, analysts examined the profiles of 76,000 Hunch users who identified themselves as a Mac or PC user and came up with a few predictable caricatures.

The 2009 report found that Mac users want to be perceived as "different" and "unique," and trend toward independent films, specialized comedians and design-centric magazines. They describe themselves as verbal, conceptual and risk-takers, and have a distinct esthetic, be it in bold colours, retro-design or highly stylized art.

PC people, meanwhile, think of themselves as team players and favour the practical over the theoretical. They enjoy sports, want to be entertained and fall in line with mainstream opinion. PC people describe themselves as numbers-oriented, factual, steady, and hard workers.

Mac users find humour in TV shows like The Office, while PC users are more likely to watch Everybody Loves Raymond. Mac users would opt for the Mini Cooper while PC users are more likely to choose a truck or Dodge Charger. Mac users trend to magazines like Wallpaper and Harper's, while PC users read Sports Illustrated and Reader's Digest.

It's a divide that clearly manifests itself in coffee shops across the city, where hipsters use the space as their daytime office.

"I do cringe when I open up my MacBook and everyone else has a Mac," Nelson acknowledges. "It is a status symbol even though we try to pretend we're not part of that."

After all, ComputerWorld Canada's editor Dave Webb points out, who wants to be the PC guy in the Apple commercial?

"Apple has been brilliant about their marketing and just out-marketed Windows," he says.

Take the coffee-computer relationship a little further, and a clear parallel emerges. If the MacBook were a cup of java, for instance, it would perhaps best be represented by Starbucks – comes at a premium price, looks down its nose at weaker, diluted counterparts and is a trendy status symbol.

Personal computers, meanwhile, could be compared to Tim Hortons as a brand: economical, ubiquitous and prosaic in look.

"It's really about esthetics," Webb said. "If you're going to look at this thing all day, you want something that's easy on the eyes, easy to work with and comfortable.

"PCs are getting better looking, but they have a history of being bland, black and grey. Macs are sexier."

Back at Linux Caffe, co-owner David Patrick says most of his patrons are Mac users. While Webb shies away from perpetuating the Apple and PC stereotypes, Patrick has formed his own conclusions after five years as a coffee purveyor in a neighbourhood that straddles Little Italy and Korea Town.

"The stereotypes are dead on," he said.

"We've had people write full screenplays, novels and dissertations here on Macs."

Mac users are more often creative, "artsy types," Patrick says, while PC users are trying to get something done.

"Mac users order organically grown health snacks, while Windows users just want their coffee."

PCs dominate market share at about 90 per cent. They also dominate the workplace: Most people use PCs by day, which are generally associated with work-specific tasks.

But come nightfall, a more relaxed, enjoyable form of computing is attractive, says John Strikwerda, the Kitchener-based founder of an online community for Mac users, ehMac.ca, that has attracted 30,000 members across Canada.

"Generic home use is skyrocketing because of the creative bundles that every computer comes with," Strikwerda says.

As for me, I'd like to insert a full disclaimer here. Like Nelson, I chose the MacBook for its user-friendliness and value, not for any status symbol nonsense.

After trying to resuscitate my five-year-old PC laptop from its third virus attack, I cried "uncle" and plonked down a wad of money from my line of credit to pay for my new computer.

I may use a Mac, but I am a dinosaur in other ways. For example, I get my news the old-fashioned way, through a newspaper subscription, and I'm proud of it. And while I hope to write my Pulitzer Prize-winning, wildly successful debut novel on my Mac, I do, above all, love my Tim's.

This story was typed entirely on a MacBook at a local library, coffee-free. Vivian can be reached at vivsong@gmail.com.

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