Students Switch to Macs

In increasing numbers, undergraduates turn to Macintosh computers

It had a 60 Gigabyte hard drive, a 1.5 Gigahertz power-PC G4 processor, and 256 megabytes of Random Access Memory (RAM).

An excited Claire S. Le Goues ’06 purchased the 12-inch, aluminum Macintosh (Mac) Powerbook computer using funds from her summer job.

But Le Goues, a computer science major, didn’t earn the money for her new machine by slaving away at an investment banking firm or scooping ice cream for whiney children.

Last summer, Le Goues made the 25-minute drive each day from her home in Cortlandt Manor, NY to a research lab in Hawthorne, NY, where she worked from nine to five as a programmer for International Business Machines (IBM). IBM is one of several producers of personal computers (PCs) that use the Microsoft Windows operating system. These Windows PCs are the main competition for Macs.

Not only was Le Goues a summer employee of IBM, but she was born and raised in a family of IBM insiders.

While her step-father, a chemist by training, works in IBM’s research department, her mother is IBM’s vice president and chief technology officer (CTO) of supply and distribution in the retail sector.

“I’ve had [Windows] PCs since like the age of four…because my parents always have company-issued computers at home,” she says. “My mother and I actually have heated discussions about the whole computer thing...she has a lot of company pride.”

Le Goues describes her conversion from a lifetime of Windows use to her current, self-diagnosed “Mac obsession” as a “recent, drastic switch.” She says her boyfriend, who has used a Mac throughout his college career, played a large role in persuading her to make the change.

However, it was the actions of a fellow IBM employee that finally convinced Le Goues to make the shift last summer.

One of her co-workers brought a Powerbook with him to work each day, insisting on using it for his work despite the fact that he was employed by the maker of a competing product.

“I saw that level of devotion, and I was like, ‘Okay—that’s really convincing to me.’”

DAMN RIGHT, IT’S BETTER THAN YOURS

Le Goues and most other Mac fanatics will gladly rattle off a host of reasons why Macs are superior to their Windows-based counterparts.

Rachel K. Popkin ’08, who is one of the over 80 members of the Harvard group “Hot ‘n Sexy Mac Users” on thefacebook.com, says there are many areas in which Macs are the preferable brand.

“They have a lot fewer problems, they’re less susceptible to viruses, they’re prettier, and at this point they integrate fully with all the PC applications,” she says.

Popkin says she has been a Mac user since the fourth grade. But she says her intermittent use of Windows PCs throughout her life allows her to make valid comparison between the two types of computers.

Popkin says one of the major issues that used to give Windows users an air of superiority has now been eliminated.

“Before Apple came out with OS X, people were more concerned with compatibility issues” between Windows and Macintosh Software, Popkin says.

She says OS X—the Macintosh operating system released in 2001—“represents a leap forward for Apple.”

Le Goues echoes Popkin’s sentiments. “The [Mac] operating system is just better [than Windows] on so many levels, which means that there’s so much shenanigans that goes on with using a [Windows] PC,” she says.

Corroborating Popkin’s claim that Macs are less susceptible to attacks from vicious software, Le Goues also says that Macs do not require the type of intense security measures that are necessary to protect a Windows PC.

On a Windows PC, “You have to have all these spyware detectors and run an antivirus program every three days,” she says. “It’s a lot of nonsense.”

She describes these measures as “voodoo” and asserts that “there are no viruses for Macs.”

Evoking the image of a full-screen error message familiar to many PC users, she says, “There’s no blue screen of death on the Mac…It doesn’t freeze—nothing, it just works.”

IT’S ALL IN THE NUMBERS

Despite the fanaticism of many current Mac users, their beloved machines still constitute only a minority of the computers used by students in the College. But the numbers suggest that may be changing.

According to statistics obtained from Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS), only 32 percent of computers purchased by the Harvard community through the university’s discount computer purchase program this year were Macs—less than half of the number of Windows system purchases.

However, Mac usage has been on the rise in recent years. Total purchases of Apple systems increased by 1 percent in Fiscal Year (FY) 2003, 11.9 percent in FY 2004, and 14 percent in FY 2005.

A longitudinal examination of the current senior class further elucidates the rise in popularity of Macs among Harvard students. In the fall of their freshman year, only 9 percent of the class of 2005 owned Macs. But by this fall, that number had more than doubled, to 21 percent.

Le Goues says that Macs are also increasing in popularity among the people who actually have some relevant expertise—the students and staff of the computer science department.

The fact that such a greater percentage of the class of 2005 currently uses Macs than did when they were freshman lends credibility to Popkin’s claim that life at Harvard is not disadvantaged by reliance on a Mac.

“Macs are completely compatible with Harvard’s wireless network and with pine, with Harvard FTP, with everything you’d need to use here,” she says.

—Staff writer Matthew S. Lebowitz can be reached at mslebow@fas.harvard.edu.