Monday, May 07, 2012

The Girlfriend on Your Desk

In the 1980s, I was working at an oil and gas software company in Denver. We programmed in Fortran (ah! beloved language!) on DEC-20s (ah! beloved mini!). We used IBM PCs, but at that time only as dumb terminals.

A coworker brought her new toy in to show us. It was the first version of Apple’s Macintosh computer — a funny, boxlike little thing with a black-and-white screen on which were displayed cute icons instead of the command line we were all used to. We gathered around and made comments ranging from skeptical to admiring. I don’t remember how much she said she had paid for it, but I do remember that we were all taken aback. I liked the idea of the GUI and considered buying one of the gadgets once the price came down.

The price of oil plummeted, my employer’s competitors moved their software to the PC faster and charged less, and one sad day, the company laid off 11 of its 13 programmers. I was one of the 11.

Years passed. PCs progressed in power and market penetration and moved from DOS to Windows (at least, in terms of what you saw). Increasingly, we programmed on the desktop. DEC20s disappeared, and eventually so did DEC itself.

From time to time, I used a Mac in the workplace. I found the GUI clunky, cumbersome, and badly thought out. The more I used the Mac, the more I disliked it and the more I preferred the relative simplicity, ease of use, and superior design of Microsoft Windows. (Given the choice, I preferred OpenWindows on a Sun workstation to both, but I had that choice only rarely.)

I also found the attitude of Mac users — smugness combined with a persecution complex — increasingly annoying.

Macs seemed to be struggling — used in certain niche environments but unable to break out of those. We Windows people were the slick, smart guys, accepted and needed everywhere, and we sneered at those silly, earnest kids with their toy that pretended to be a serious computer and their sullen resentment and their insistence that we were corrupt fools and the Mac was pure and good and divinely inspired and celestially innovative. Apparently, the Mac GUI’s design was inscribed on tablets brought down from the mountaintop by a bearded prophet in a turtleneck.

With time, that changed. Macs became more widely accepted and Windows suffered the fate of every overly big, overly confident empire. Microsoft’s market share eroded. The toy competitor moved in and took over huge chunks of its territory.

Well, relatively, anyway. Gartner predicts that just over 5% of new PC shipments in 2012 will run Mac OS, and Linux will remain under 2% for the next few years. What will the remaining 93% be? Windows, almost all of it.

Nonetheless, Apple and its fanatical, brainwashed devotees are feeling bumptious, while Windows and its rational, calm, intelligent, impartial supporters are feeling a touch edgy and defensive. Some of the latter are even losing enough of their rational, calm intelligence to consider switching.

It’s rather like girlfriends, isn’t it?

Specifically, two girlfriends: Mack and Winnie.

You sort of have to choose between the two.

They are similar in many ways. Mack is a couple of years older than Winnie, although she acts younger. They’re both nearing 30 and perhaps starting to worry a bit about their appeal. They seem to be applying more makeup these days, although Winnie puts on more of it than Mack does. Indeed, Winnie seems to layer it on and wash it off and replace it a bit frantically.

Both girls have had to deal with embarrassing questions about their paternity. That talk has faded in recent years, though. I don’t know if that’s because everyone has politely agreed to ignore the matter, or if society simply no longer cares about it.

But the differences between them are more interesting than the similarities.


When she was young, Winnie was rather rough around the edges. In the morning, she just threw on whatever clothes were available. She skipped makeup, in those days. I’m not sure she showered regularly or used deodorant. She didn’t care what people thought about her appearance.

That’s because she was so self-confident. She was convinced that people would love her, anyway — or at least that they’d seek out her company. They needed her, and that was enough for her. They didn’t have to like her.

However, beneath the mismatched clothes, she was both serious and power hungry. She planned a long corporate career for herself and didn’t think she’d ever retire. So at some point she bit the bullet and learned to dress appropriately and play the game. And then she rose rapidly through the ranks, quickly achieving Total World Domination.

But everyone knew that the staid, serious image was a false front. She was still the same Winnie underneath. In reality, she was a wild child who slept around. She would let anyone in. This equipped her with a lot of exciting skills. Unfortunately, it also meant that she kept picking up scary viruses.

Nowadays, Winnie switches without warning from cooperative to headstrong. She often doesn’t seem interested in what you want to do. She’s intent on doing what she wants, instead. It’s a personality trait that frustrates you and makes you angry. But just when you think the relationship is doomed and it’s time for you to move on, she turns loving and attentive and pulls you into the bedroom and … wow! As I said, over the years she’s learned a lot of tricks.

However, she’s insecure. She probably always will be. She’s talking more lately about commitment, which makes you a bit nervous. She constantly fears that you don’t love her for herself, that you’re just using her, and that you might dump her for someone else at any moment. Perhaps that explains the makeup.


Then there’s Mack. If she’s your girlfriend, you’re devoted to her. You’d never think of dating anyone else. You feel smug when you see Winnie’s boyfriend looking at Mack when he thinks no one notices.

Mack is certainly aware of her good looks — overly aware. She’s always been very concerned about her appearance. The accusation that she cares more about appearance than substance cropped up early and still dogs her.

But, golly, she’s so pretty and squeaky clean! When you’re with her, she assures you that you don’t even need protection. She’ll take care of everything. You want to believe her, but when you come down with a case of crotch rot, it doesn’t help to be told that Winnie has given even worse to far more lovers.

In her youth, Mack was, or at least seemed to be, brash and fresh, a bit of a rebel. She thumbed her nose at the system. But she changed over the years. She grew up into a slick corporate girl with expensive clothing, every hair in place, glossily pretty, and very smug.

She dates you, but she looks down on you. She’s moving up that corporate ladder, and the higher she climbs, the less interested she is in you. You’ve heard rumors that her father is pressuring her to look for a husband in the upper corporate echelons. You’re so fanatically devoted to her, but how committed is she to you?



Choices, choices, choices. It’s so hard to be a man in the modern world.

You’ve heard some of your friends talking about a new family in the neighborhood named Linux. There seem to be a huge number of girls in the family, with intriguing names like Susie and Ubuntu and Fedora. They sound like a pretty hot bunch. Some of your friends are lining up to date them. Your own attention is wandering …


Kayanna Kirby said...

I think this is a great article. I love the analogy. so which one are you dating?

David said...

It's Winnie all the way for me, despite the frustrations.