by Rob Callahan
Just as an entire generation of adults (and to be fair, a good chunk of the other generations) are clueless as to just what a Shadow or Vorlon is, so is that same generation blissfully unaware of a not so distant time when Macs were the butt of all jokes and Windows users were the smug ones. Times have changed. The smug computer user demographic now belongs to Apple. As anyone trying to figure out why will see, there’s no good reason for this. There was also no good reason for the Windows guys to be smug back in the day. It’s simply because the two companies took very different paths over a decade ago. Both kept doing their respective things as the years went by and, despite all my-computer-can-beat-up-your-computer arguments to the contrary, they’re both still pretty good at what they do. They just do things very differently.
So let’s not clog the Internet with yet another apples-are-better-than-oranges comparison. Instead, let’s look at each company as what they really are: Ancient warring factions in a world now defined by the young upstarts who’ve crawled out of the primordial ooze, hoping to evolve into game changers and players in their own rights. Apple and Microsoft are J. Michael Straczynski’s “First Ones“, more commonly known as the Vorlons and the Shadows.
Ancient Alien Overlord Overview
To be clear, neither side was better than the other. They were both ancient alien overlords who were such dicks that they finally resorted to blowing up whole planets full of third parties just to show each other they could. It’s hard to consider either of them good guys in that context. Both of them were guided more by ruthless ambivalence than any moral high ground. Still, we’ll look at what differences there are.
The Vorlons were an ancient race of all-powerful aliens who mostly kept quiet and interacted with only a small, elite cross section of the rest of the galaxy. When the time was right (i.e. when it was time to wage all out war and drive their enemies from the galaxy forever) they expanded their horizons and recruited greater and greater numbers to their side, doling out little measured bits of technology and praise as was necessary to keep their underlings loyal.
The Shadows were an ancient race of all-powerful aliens who were pretty much the same, except that the Shadows weren’t so stingy with their tech and praise. Their means of winning more followers was to show up and dump every last bit of tech and knowledge they had onto the younger races. It was via this process that they hoped to pinpoint and satisfy those races’ exact needs with shotgun-like accuracy. When it worked, it worked well. When it didn’t, the younger races turned around and nuked them.
Image is Everything
The Shadows didn’t care much about their looks. In fact, they spent most of their time invisible. They just couldn’t be bothered with appearances. Likewise, Microsoft have never placed high value on the looks of the hardware that serves as their operating system delivery device. Shiny or dull, rough or smooth, it’s not important. Microsoft makes operating systems. It isn’t their fault if your Dell is ugly.
But, when it comes to the look and feel of the OS itself, Microsoft still care little for aesthetics. The Start button has been garish since its inception and the desktop itself is blocky and bulky compared to the smooth animated interface of a low-end Mac. Even the new Windows 8, for all its innovation, looks like it was prototyped in Lego. Compare Sad Mac to the Blue Screen of Death to see that, even when it’s all falling apart, Apple still want you to look at something cute and comforting while Microsoft prefer to burn your retina and possibly kill you from shock.
Like Apple, the Vorlons have always been concerned with image. So much so that they visited the younger races thousands of years ago and manipulated them at the genetic level to see Vorlons as comforting, angelic figures.
Literally. The Vorlons appeared to each race as that race’s equivalent to angels. The shadows, in contrast, were pretty scary-looking.
The Cult of Mac
As stated, Microsoft had a firm hold on the computer snob market until the early part of the last decade. They did so by appealing, intentionally or not, to users’ sense of superiority over all the dummies who owned Macs. Apple never tried very hard to shake that dummy image. Instead, they embraced it. Why buy some ugly, clunky machine with drivers, DIP switches and other stuff you have to learn when you can have one of our machines? We do the thinking for you. And having someone else do the thinking for you? That’s what smart people do. Windows users scoffed while the rest of the world clamored to buy Apples, who had finally produced a computer that the average person could operate out of the box.
Over time, the smugness associated with letting others do the hard thinking for you grew into a bit of a cult mentality, if not a full-blown religion, and Apple realized they were no longer selling computers. They were selling a lifestyle, and consumers love lifestyles. In this respect, the Vorlons were Apple. The Vorlons didn’t just hand over their technology all willy-nilly. They gave you what they felt you needed and they made it work for you right out of the box.
The Shadows didn’t like doing things for you. They were never, as they say, especially user-friendly. Instead, they relied on a few well-informed middlemen to disseminate their orders to the masses. If you asked one of these middlemen about Shadow technology, you wouldn’t understand their answer. (You literally wouldn’t understand. Simple words in their language were several million characters long in human alphabets.) So a small number of Shadow-savvy individuals smugly helped the rest of the Shadow Servants uninstall AoL seven times while the Vorlons didn’t bother with AoL, and just declared it dead.
In terms the modern tech might understand, the Vorlons would say something like, “Let me Google that for you.”
The Shadows would say, “Here’s everything we’ve got. We know it’s more than you asked for. It may not do exactly what you want, but it does more than the Vorlon stuff does. Also, it does exactly what we want. Oh, and you may end up getting wired in as the unit’s CPU. That’s one of our many features…”
The Case for Comforting Omissions
The Vorlons never gave you the full story. They told you what you needed to know, even if what you needed to know was not necessarily true. They weren’t malicious about it, they just didn’t think you needed to know about their millennia-long cold war in order to know that you shouldn’t be a bad guy. In contrast, the Shadows told you everything, from their perspective, and really sold you on the fact that they were upfront and honest from the start. Nothing at all like those nasty Vorlons. So what if they enslaved your species a little. At least they weren’t liars.
An Apple Genius and a Vorlon ambassador are practically indistinguishable. They have standing orders not to call a crash a crash, for instance. If there is a virus on your Macbook, they’re under orders not to acknowledge it. It is important that your faith in the Macs-Don’t-Get-Viruses mantra remains intact. Whereas the Shadows will not only tell you there’s a virus, they’ll genetically modify you to be a better host to it.
Absolute Power Corrupts Registries Absolutely
Putting absolute power in the hands of just any old yokel off the street is usually a pretty bad idea, unless you’re a Shadow. They figured they were far enough advanced that it wouldn’t matter what those little guys did with their tech. Microsoft have often gone the same route (in fact, they use Linux to stay ahead of the mere Windows users they’ve empowered) so they just dumped everything on you, then let you figure out which doomsday device not to use. The results were often hilarious.
Apple gives you email, web browsing and the ability to watch movies. If you want something else, you’ll probably have to earn it. If you demonstrate a desire to record music, you can have Garage Band. If you want to go beyond that, sacrifice some cash and you can have a bigger, better audio suite. Graphic designer? Photoshop. Want to watch flash animations? No. No you don’t. No one does that. Seriously, just stop asking. You can ask a Vorlon for help, but the Vorlon will ultimately decide if you really want that help.
Microsoft will just hand you their operating system, which is already paid for by the company that built your computer, much like the Shadows will gladly wire you into a ship at no cost to you. So there’s that, but as far as having to pay money, make a personal sacrifice or prove your worthiness, their standards are pretty lax.
The various PC manufacturers who distribute Windows fall all over the spectrum, from cheap and flimsy to costly and nigh invulnerable. Apple stay closer to the costly end. Chances are, if you spend the same amount of money on a PC and an Apple, the PC will have vastly superior hardware. Dollar for dollar, that’s where the Shadows win.
Sure the iPad is every bit as impressive as a White Star ship, but the Surface is a Shadow fighter. Shadow fighters can take down battleships and space stations single-handedly. The White Star might take down a standard Earth ship (say, a Nexus 7) but if it goes toe-to-toe with a Surface it’s going to have to do a lot of trick flying to take that sucker down. Fortunately, it probably has an app for that.