Mac and Windows compatibility through the decades

A trip down memory lane: Macs and PCs haven't always gotten along, but the problem has largely gone away.

Mac turns 30

I’ve always been an agnostic in the religious wars between Mac and PC. Reaching across the aisle separating Steve Jobs from Bill Gates hasn't always been easy. But unlike trying to be bi-partisan in Congress, mixing Macs and PCs has actually gotten less complicated and less annoying over the decades.

While primarily a PC user, I’ve almost always had Macs in my equipment mix, and have spent many years with a Mac as my primary computer. In the 1980s, there was a Fat Mac in my life. In the 1990s I had a PowerBook, and most recently I’ve used a MacBook Pro, and then a MacBook Air.

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Fat Macs in the 1980s

To be honest, I don’t remember the ‘80s all that well. But I seem to recall that not only were the Apple and Microsoft worlds completely separate, but it didn’t seem like much of a problem. This was long before most folks were thinking about the Internet or email, and our idea of sharing files was mostly handing over a printout. After all, Macs used those plastic-encased 3.5-inch floppy discs while PCs still pretty much relied on the truly floppy 5.25-inch variety. I believe it was possible to share pure text files (PCs still didn’t have graphical interfaces and couldn’t deal with any kind of formatting) but I don’t recall ever actually doing so.

Ugly Powerbooks in the 1990s

Luckily, things got a little better in the mid-1990s. At the time I was editor in chief of an IDG magazine called Electronic Entertainment that chronicled how CD-ROMs were going to change the world (I know, I know). Most of the games we covered ran only on PCs (not always even using Windows!), while the infotainment CD-ROMs were often Mac-only or hybrid versions – which sometimes meant stuffing two separate disks in the same box.

The PowerBook 165 I used was no beauty queen or speed demon, but because we laid out the magazine using Macs, all the writers had to use Macs as well. At least the PowerBook ran Microsoft Word (the widely reviled Version 6, I believe) and thus could read the many documents freelancers sent in from their PCs.

I spent a lot of time moving files back and forth and fixing formatting glitches so our designers could lay out stories properly.

Fortunately, all the machines used the same kind of floppy discs, though PCs couldn’t read discs formatted for the Mac. (Macs could sometimes read PC discs.)

It was a major hassle, and our solution finally came down to brute force. We made sure that everyone had both a Mac and a PC on their desk, and they used whichever one was more compatible with the task at hand. It was hardly elegant, but it worked.

Sleek Macbooks from 2010

I was pretty much PC-only during the oughts, but in 2010 I took a new job that came with a spiffy new 15-inch Macbook Pro, even though most of my colleagues there used desktop Windows machines. The timing was fortuitous, though, as Microsoft had just released a new version of Office for the Mac. Although buggy, it was pretty much compatible with the versions of Office running on the Windows machines, but I had to use the Parallels Windows virtualization program to operate our proprietary content management system. Seriously, in 2010!

My next machine – at my next job -- was a MacBook Air that may be the single best laptop I’ve ever carried, when you combine the power, form factor, weight, battery life, and construction. With no removable media at all and software increasingly in the cloud, the compatibility issue simply faded away. With just about everything running in the browser, it simply doesn’t matter much what hardware and OS you’re using. That is, unless there’s some legacy program somewhere that still requires a specific version of Internet Explorer.

But let’s not go there.

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