Hi there Apple Insider. I have a grad degree in computer science. I've worked for almost a decade in both hardware and software, from corporate networks to web design. I have studied computers from binary up, from writing machine code to studying user experience design. I also have an undergrad degree in design, so I can appreciate the valuable effect that aesthetics can have on a user experience. I want to say up front that I'm not going to be dismissive of Apple computers and devices. I think that Apple makes incredible products, both hardware and software.
However, I must admit that I would never buy an Apple computer. All but one out of the hundreds of computer professionals that I have befriended over my nearly 20 years of academic and professional experience would ever purchase an Apple computer (the one guy that owns a Mac designs Apple networks for a living, gets a significant discount, and also owns and regularly uses an XP/Linux machine at home).
When computer professionals (at least the ones I've known) are asked by their friends and relatives for advice on purchasing their own computers, they usually suggest an Apple computer as an option only to those with a low level of computer knowledge and necessity, and a very comfortable budget (i.e. older, upper-middle class people with very little previous computer experience), or to a person for whom design and a cohesive aesthetic are of disproportionately more importance (i.e. non-computer-reliant fine arts students, like fashion design, or higher income design-based marketing professionals).
To most others, for the moment at least, I suggest a Dell as the least horrible option. I strongly dislike Dell, I have absolutely no affiliation with them whatsoever. But they seem to have a nice balance between customizability and price. Not only is Dell offering computers at a discount with Ubuntu pre-installed in place of Vista, but you can buy any Dell with some flavor of Windows OS and get a refund from Dell for refusing to agree to the EULA when you first turn on the laptop (just call them and ask for the refund be persistent). They are required by the EULA terms to do this, as are any other 3rd party distributors (HP, Toshiba, Sony, etc.). This knocks around $200 off the price (or whatever the cost to Dell for the license from Microsoft). Dell offers at-home service for the life of the warranty through a 3rd party company, usually Qualicom. While there are of course some complaints about the service, the feedback is significantly more positive than the service experience at a local Apple store, especially the ones in New York City.
If you want my ivory tower prediction, open-source is going to completely devour the software market within the next 10ish years, and Apple is about as far from open source as you can get they pride themselves on it. If Moore's law holds roughly true (so far it has been dead-on for 40 years), the time intervals between releases of software will become shorter and shorter to utilize and adapt to the increasing acceleration of hardware advancements (and therefore the need to adapt to those advancements).
This brings me to the point of this post. You can thank my mac-owning girlfriend for the fact that I am even aware of this thread (she too was irritated by the ridiculous Microsoft ads). I've read through the posts here, and while most of the arguments surrounding mac vs. windows vs. linux have been trotted out, there is one criticism of Apple, and to a much lesser extent, Microsoft, that is, in my opinion, EXTREMELY IMPORTANT:
Apple's hardware and software are unnecessarily proprietary. This is known as vendor lock-in. These practices are harmful to the consumer, the company (in the long term), the software industry, and can hinder the spread of technological advancement throughout society. And especially in Apple's case, it's hypocritical.
OSX is UNIX, which was most recently developed by The Open Group in the 90s. Their goal was to create a standardized operating system independent of proprietary hardware. This was extremely valuable, because whenever software was designed for one architecture, it had to be redesigned, often and significant cost and effort, to run on another architecture (this is one reason why DirectX is so valuable to game designers). UNIX allowed developers to create software for one platform, but sell to a much larger market. UNIX was designed to OPEN UP THE SOFTWARE MARKET! It is extremely hypocritical for Apple to take an operating system that was developed for the purpose openness and compatibility and artificially restrict it to "approved" hardware and software. While it is true that OSX is a stable, reliable operating system free from many of the flaws of its competitors, OSX is little more than a flavor of Linux that excluding all but the most rudimentary functionality, repackaged and sold back to the consumer as if these artificially-imposed limitations were its most attractive feature.
What Apple has done is analogous to downloading Firefox, installing a theme and some popular extensions, making their own flavors and variations of the most useful websites on the internet (admittedly with improvements), and selling this specialized version of Firefox to you at a premium under a different name. THERE IS NOTHING NECESSARILY WRONG WITH THIS. This is great, if Apple stopped there. But what Apple does that makes absolutely no sense - they restrict you from downloading themes and extensions made by other people, they don't allow you to go to any of the unapproved websites on the internet, and the worst part - they close off what was once open source so that no one can learn from, improve-upon, modify, experiment, debug it. This drives away many of the brightest minds in software development, their time is better spent developing for a community that nurtures rather than discourages and exploits it. This stifles healthy competition, significantly restricts the universe of possibilities both functional and aesthetic, and results in products that cost more than their value BY DEFINITION.
And this is the worst part - the scariest part for me as a computer professional - Apple markets its product to consumers with the promise that it will be easy - they will take care of everything. You won't have to fix strange problems, compare different types of software and hardware, learn about how to keep your computer secure, etc. You can sit back, relax, and use your computer while they do all the annoying, nerdy stuff for you.
This is true, and its a great selling point. It's why I recommend Macs to those who have the smallest desire and/or ability to learn about and adapt to the challenges of using technology. However, and this is the point of this whole wall of text:
it is the ability to learn and adapt to new technology and the challenges it will bring that will be THE ABSOLUTELY MOST CRUCIAL SKILL to possess in our lifetimes.
If the pace of hardware development truly does continue to progress exponentially, and if software continues to keep up, you cannot afford to rely on a company like Apple to do the hard stuff for you. You are doing yourself a disservice if you view a cursory understanding of technology as a virtue, and the modest time and effort required to be prepared to confidently adapt to an uncertain future as an unnecessary inconvenience. Within barely a decade if not sooner, companies like Apple and Microsoft will not be able to keep up with the speed of the development cycle necessary to turn out a product that will be useful for long enough to justify the cycle. Perhaps something new will arise, but currently, only open-source communities will be able to handle this breakneck pace of development, simply because they dont release software in the traditional sense they offer an older, stable version and a work-in-progress. If you discover a new and you cannot wait for the developers to fix it, YOU can learn to fix it yourself, and your solution becomes part of the latest work-in-progress.
But most importantly, if Apple continues to attempt in vain to grab market share, rather than share the market, Apple users will be left in the dust while the majority of the technological world embraces the future of computing as a collaborative, open, living process, a future that will need what Apple does best creating an appealing and inspiring user experience, using design to drive hardware development, not the other way around. Unfortunately, the future has no room for what Apple also does well clinging to its failures as stubbornly as its successes.
Id like to see Apple customers should demand that Apple open things up while continuing to innovate. Allow developers and their consumers to take their products into the future. Apple does not have to sacrifice anything - consumers can decide to use only Apple-approved products and maintain the level of quality and the cohesive aesthetic they have come to expect. Or not.