Now that the Macintosh and MS-DOS PCs are looking more and more alike, there's less fire in the famous running controversy over which system is better. The endless argument between IBM devotees and MacFanatics that provided so much entertainment during the 1980s is fading away.
But a recent salvo in that familiar war has sparked major new controversy between the Mac and MS-DOS camps.
The unlikely spark came from an article in the scholarly publication Academic Computing. In the pages of that august journal, Marcia Peoples Halio, an English professor at the University of Delaware, reported on a five-year study in which she compared the written quality of student papers produced on Macintosh and on MS-DOS machines.
You can see what's coming, can't you? Can't you just guess why this dry academic survey swept through the PC community like a tidal wave?
Here's why: Halio concluded that students writing their papers on IBM and similar MS-DOS computers made fewer spelling and grammatical errors and earned higher grades, on the average, than students who used the Macintosh.
Halio, who helps run the college's writing program, had a perfect laboratory for such a study. Since 1985, the university has given a standard freshman writing course in which students can use either a Macintosh or a DOS machine. Generally, the Mac users write with WordWrite and the DOS people use WordPerfect.
The professor started noticing an interesting pattern. Then she worked through a big pile of back papers to draw her conclusion.
The Halio study says DOS users in the freshman writing class turned in papers with an average "readability scale" of grade 12.1 -- that is, they wrote college-level papers. Applying the same measure -- the "Kincaid Scale" -- to Mac-written papers, the average grade level was a little below eighth grade. The report also says DOS users were more apt to write about "serious" issues, such as war, pollution and teenage pregnancy, than the Mac cohort, who wrote about such weighty topics as fast food.
If that doesn't get your blood running, Mac users, how about this? Students who wrote on IBMs and clones made about four spelling errors per paper, while the Mac users rang up an average of not 4, not 8, not 12, but 15 spelling errors on each assignment.
The professor, serious scholar that she is, didn't rush to any conclusions about these findings, but we'll dive right into the analysis.
One possible explanation could be that the Macintosh is a less efficient word-processing tool than the IBM-PC. If so, that might mean that Mac users have to concentrate so much on the machine that they can't give sufficient time to the message.
But that conclusion is ridiculous on its face. The Macintosh is a wonderful computer for word processing. Almost any Mac word-processing software is easier to use than the uninviting WordPerfect, the most commonly used DOS word-processing program.
No, if there's any validity to the Delaware findings, the explanation probably lies not with the computers but with the people using them. What the professors have found may be just one more manifestation of a truth universally acknowledged among PC buffs: Mac people are different from DOS people.
Mac users, by and large, are free spirits -- artistic types, rebels, the kind of folks who don't want to be bound by stodgy old rules or plain-Jane mechanisms. It's hardly surprising that such people would eschew spelling rules or take some liberties with conventional grammar. Heck, they already broke with conventional, button-down ways of doing things when they opted for the friendly little "computer for the rest of us."
IBM people, in contrast, are no-nonsense types. They're the three-piece-suit crowd, willing and eager to conform to the established ways of the world. Of course they spell the words right in their essays. Doing things right is important: That's why they bought the "right" kind of computer in the first place.
To which the only appropriate response is, "Vive la difference!" It's differences like these that make the world go round. How dull things would be if we had only one type of personal computer for a country made up of many different types of people.
But that brings us back to our opening observation. With Mac producing IBM-like modular color PCs, and IBM moving rapidly toward a Mac-like user-friendly interface, we may be losing the satisfying differences among PC families.
And that raises the key question. When every DOS-PC runs just like a Macintosh, and every Mac looks like an IBM-PC, what will happen to those freshman papers? Will the Macintosh users bring their grades up, or will the DOS types sink to the error-prone level of their Mac-owning classmates?